Your Feast Has Ended at the Frye Art Museum is, simply put, one of the most vital shows I have seen in years—vital in its fullness of life and in the importance of its message. Its diverse media and themes invite earnest discussion of difficult subjects, and that makes it challenging to audiences, and therefore more rewarding to those who give it time.
The three artists, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin and Nep Sidhu, each tell multiple stories in distinct styles and artistic practices, which include carving, clothing design, painting, short films, taxidermy, sculpture and assemblage. The importance of storytelling to all three harmonizes them and allows the audience to access experiences of rage and peace, joy and grief, alienation and acceptance.
The full title of the show was initially Your Feast Has Ended, Oh Ye Parasites, which was frankly a little verbose and abrupt—but not unfair. Parasitism in many forms is indeed the antagonist of the many stories told in the show. The artists pull no punches in facing it, and if one is a host for some of these parasites, one’s ego may feel bruised by the end. At least one will be diagnosed if not cured, and the reward will be greater empathy, awareness, an expanded world.
What are these parasites? They include a bevy of -isms: racism, elitism, chauvinism, to name a few. To my mind, these are all species of fundamentalism, a push for aesthetic and ideological purity, which is itself a shelter for egoism. Where fundamentalism takes hold (be it economic, religious, cultural, et al), cruel divisions that limit human expression necessarily follow. When these divisions are further entrenched by ideas of race and class, they become even more dehumanizing and deadly. For all its attempts at pluralism and a melting pot, American culture is a case study in this breakdown.
Your Feast Has Ended neither merely holds a mirror to this ugliness nor lectures. It offers a glimpse of sincere, sage alternatives. It cuts to the heart of alterity, the existential crisis of Ego facing Other. If the crisis is overcome, one’s world expands manifold. If not, potential is shuttered, leading to a spiritual and intellectual death before a physical one. To confront this is one of the highest goals of art, which is why I consider this show to be so rare and vital.
Before examining the specifics of the show, it is worth considering, too, that as vital as this show is, it could not have happened at any other institution in town but the Frye, and for a number of reasons: The museum is free, which is important for an exhibition that addresses communities that face economic and social barriers; the Frye has been unafraid to challenge assumptions about revered artists, all while consistently and actively engaging local artists and the surrounding community, establishing a mutual trust as it navigates controversial subjects; in sum, the Frye Art Museum takes risks that commercial galleries cannot afford to take and that other venues simply have not, as they seem to be most concerned with entertaining visitors.
Nicholas Galanin: Juxtaposition and Dark Dualities
Upon entering the exhibit, one sees an inert barrage of 42 Delftware arrows hanging in the antechamber and an adjoining room, which are connected by a hole in the wall overhead. The dreamy image and title of this work by Sitka, Alaska-based artist Nicholas Galanin, “I Dreamt I Could Fly,” belie the frustrating gravity behind it. That is, like arrows of stoneware—assuming the form of something penetrating, but bound to shatter on their target—words are often rendered useless if one is excluded from the majority along social distinctions—distinctions that are assiduously maintained to preserve the power of that majority ipso facto. One’s hallowed freedom of speech is ornamental at best in these cases, just as what is considered legal protest remains discretionary to the powers that be.
All artists face this ineffectuality to some degree, but in more homogeneous cultures where the artist and audience exist within a unified aesthetic and vernacular, the communication is less fraught. Whether the state will censor or punish the artist for subversive content is another matter. America is a heterogeneous culture, but its default treatment of anything that isn’t WASP as “other” presents minority artists with an extra challenge to be heard accurately, if at all. Whether this default is something of which most people are consciously aware is another matter. Between two extremes—one that dismisses instantly by prejudice, and one that fetishizes difference—there remains a sensible, moderate audience. Whether they can be spurred from passive observation into action is another matter.
As a foil to the futility expressed concretely by “I Dreamt,” in the same antechamber an antique Tlingit storage box has been outfitted with an antenna, a radio transmitter, and a recording of Galanin’s brother presenting Tlingit language lessons. The broadcast over the surrounding neighborhood at 93.7 FM.
As a member of the Tlingit tribe, Galanin has experienced firsthand how the loss of a language can undermine a culture. Into the twentieth century, Tlingit language was banned in public institutions, weakening tribal ties and allowing traditions to be unobserved and stories to be untold. Instead, the history of western encroachment was dictated in English by the aggressors themselves (the US government), while those subjugated had no personal means to express that experience and its effects. An essential part of the shared identity was treated as illegitimate and ripped away. To keep the language alive now is to reassert that identity and perhaps reclaim a lost history—their own story.
While the substance of the culture was induced to atrophy, the surface of it was readily commoditized by a market hungry for novelty. The skinned pelt of the culture could then die its own death as tastes changed and it became kitsch. Galanin confronts this with a literal skin: His piece “Passé” is a section of polar bear hide with the title indelibly pressed into the fur. Despite the general dismissal of indigenous aesthetics as quaint or woowoo, in mixed company one will hear token respect paid to indigenous cultures, or whatever vague ideas people hold of them. Galanin has a cheeky response in his piece “I Looooove Your Culture! Fine Woodworking,” which is a Fleshlight (masturbatory aid, for those who don’t know) carved from yellow cedar.
Galanin is fond of sardonic titles that deliver a surprise hook to the viewer, who until reading the placard may not grasp the implications of a seemingly innocuous object. The cheery yellow earrings in one room become grimly self-explanatory when one reads their title: “Accessorize with These Timeless Beauties! Hand-carved Native Rape Whistle Earrings Featuring a Traditional Tlingit Lovebords Design.” Small, hand-engraved iron handcuffs become a heartbreaker when one reads “Indian Children’s Bracelet.”
These titles are also evident of an approach that pervades Galanin’s work: striking juxtaposition. The most literal example might be the photograph “Things Are looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter,” which is a split portrait of Princess Leia from Star Wars and a Native American woman. Both are en face, and the way the dimensions of their heads and facial features mirror each other is uncanny…but above all, Leia’s well-known sidebuns are evident on both sides. Aside from issues of appropriation, it is interesting to note that Star Wars and its simplistic moral universe and narrative remain beloved and known throughout the world, thanks to its mixture of aesthetics and mythic storytelling…but the world of the other woman (the one we’ve never seen wield a ray gun) is unknown, generates little interest, despite being attached to real pain and widespread consequences for our culture. The difference is the power of spectacle in practice, but there is more…
George Lucas and his associates drew from many sources to create the universe of Star Wars, whose moral duality is typical of western worldviews, wherein absolute evil co-exists with absolute good. Countless atrocities in the name of a greater “good” are enabled by the assumption that evil is an exterior force—rather than behavioral—and arbitrarily identified by those in power. This stands in contrast with holistic views that tend to treat evil as behavioral, not a force unto itself. I am not a scholar of any indigenous belief systems, and I won’t rely on vague, romantic notions that all First Nations are holistic. However, the art here is holistic in its approach. Your Feast Has Ended quietly demands greater empathy while rejecting empty claims to righteousness and superiority. Don’t say you are good; do good.
In facing this Good-vs-Evil and Us-vs-Them duality, one cannot avoid confronting nationalist symbols, namely the flag. The flag is most potent proof that even the most simple, emblematic things have enormous power. As much as it might signify a shelter for some, the American flag becomes a perfect symbol of noble ideals used as a cloak and bludgeon for terrible oppression. In a bit of fair turnabout, it becomes a bear skin rug, with head and mouth open in a silent roar and bullet claws. On its own, the piece might come across prankish, but in the context of the full show, this symbol of unity in plurality, innocence and righteous bloodshed is skinned from those very values and becomes a butchered emblem of the violence its empire condones.
In the adjacent room, one of the most pathetic and affecting pieces in the show is a different approach to pelts. “Inert” seamlessly combines two wolf pelts: a back half flayed and splayed out and a front half filled out and rising, as if trying to crawl forward. As the artist writes in the notes: “It is sad, and the struggle is evident.”
It is also his most ambiguous use of juxtaposition; a more optimistic reading might suggest resurrection (provided one ignores the title), while a more neutral reading simply places the creature between life and death. More plainly, the creature is hollowed and hobbled, and for Galanin this is an allegory for indigenous cultures. He remarks that the mainstream romanticism around indigenous cultures disallows “creative, sovereign growth.” A language was silenced, traditions derided, and by an official history an entire culture is cast as both vanquished and victim. The image is fixed, the culture lauded for being soooooo spiritual…but this is no comfort when spirituality is yet another commodity.
As fickle as the market and tastes may be, the culture is perennially treated as separate and subservient to a European standard: a trophy in the American cabinet of “conquest” or “diversity,” unable to rise and speak for itself. However, Galanin’s artful awareness proclaims that a fuller story is yet waiting to be written.
Nep Sidhu: Interior Infinities
The central power of storytelling is immediately evident in the text-laden sculptures of Nep Sidhu. Three massive rectangular slabs of of metal, cloth, paper and stone form the Confirmation series. Each has a distinct palette and story written in Coptic script (more or less) spiraling toward the center, creating an illusion of space and infinity. I say “more or less” of the Coptic script because in two pieces (Confirmation B” and “Confirmation C”) Sidhu allowed his exquisite penmanship to degrade and break apart, or become obscured at key points in the text.
The script’s sharp, elegant, architectural quality endows each text with a discrete structure as it spirals toward a central vanishing point. Language is the architecture of thought. The improvisation and collapse of elements of the script may suggest the inherent failure of language to convey infinitely complex feelings, or it may invest the words with additional feeling. In either case, the illusion of depth emphasizes the way that the written word creates an interior space (perhaps even an infinite one) that is indwelled with meaning and emotion that cannot be captured in words.
In the case of “Confirmation B,” the text is still mostly exquisite, a transcription of a love letter from Sidhu to his mother in her last days. The black text of his letter is punctuated with white text that are some of her final words to him. It is a personal and sincere document that simultaneously teases the brain with more intellectual concepts. To very different effect, “Confirmation C” creates something far more sinister, which is apt, as the text it contains is an excerpt from Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes’ short story “Curse Words,” wherein words have the power to physically create and destroy.
Wittgenstein’s famous statement that “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” are brought to mind; many concepts are untranslatable, unique to a language, if not in the vocabulary then in the syntax of how they are expressed. Sidhu’s treatment of these texts shows a reverence for language and communication, but opens consideration of how every instance of expression is unique to its time and place and those involved. This is because the individual is infinitely complex, a universe within, and this is most beautifully expressed in Sidhu’s massive textile painting, “An Affirmation, as It Was Told by SHE.”
The 12′ high, 6′ wide painting is embellished with metal, rope, countless pearls, all hand applied by Sidhu with care to create an image of a temple or city extending from a large, abstracted portrait of his mother’s face. To reproduce a life is impossible (is the work of a lifetime, indeed), and so we must rely on the figurative and symbolic to capture all that remains unsaid, unrepresented. To do so drives at the core, undifferentiated human while also endowing the individual represented with all the beauty of its actions and love, the passing of all it can offer into another, which may then respond with love and recognition.
In complementary fashion, Sidhu brings his complex understanding of contemporary culture, shamanism and the decoration of self together in his Paradis Sportif works. Normcore and arbitrary hipster demographics notwithstanding (both being an abdication from sincerity and critical content), most of the world still identifies with the power of clothing to portray aspects of oneself, one’s role and relation to others. (However unwitting, the abdication from this is also statement) As long as one is visible, one is telling a story, and the question is thus how authentic that story is.
Our dress is highly regulated, especially along gender lines, and in seeing forms that blend tribal designs, contemporary silhouettes and sports paraphernalia, one is reminded that “to get away with wearing” something (though usually applied to edgy or young garments) is really about earning and owning a representation of oneself. A lot of people could not “get away with wearing” Sidhu’s “Power Vest” or “Pre-Salary Cap Basketball Jersey,” but the reason has less to do with social status and position (which are changeable) and more to do with individual character—an acquired character or a more innate archetype.
Sidhu does not mince words about this and the shamanic qualities of costume when his statement he says, “In understanding the power of our past messengers and healers, their garments are as significant as their understanding of nature, rhythm, dance, and medicine.” A garment can induce a state of mind and being, whether that state is meditative or playful or war-like or penitent. The projection occurs within and without. Perhaps by dint of symbol alone, the garment in shamanic thought acquires an apotropaic quality, becoming an armor and disguise against evil spirits: “The [evil] spirit could not effectively attack a shaman wearing a powerful costume, nor could it recognize the shaman when he or she was out of costume. In both cases, the shaman was protected in the spiritual realm.”
Whether moving between realms or between mental states, the garment is a potent medium. One still sees elements of this in haute couture, and some designers are more savvy than others in a political and cultural sense, if not a more purely artistic one. Sidhu mentioned that he would like to produce more of these pieces, but they are extremely labor intensive and to create a line would mean sacrificing some of the quality. This is always the issue, as even for the most celebrated fashion designers, more creative endeavors run at a loss and ready-to-wear lines driven by constant, exhausting consumption are their bread and butter.
From an ecological standpoint, all of this is disastrous; from a human rights standpoint it is no better. But in the midst of Your Feast Has Ended, one’s perspective on the matter tends toward the philosophical. Material disposability has led to less stewardship of objects, and of intellectual matters, of culture (the rapid appropriation of forms that then just as rapidly become déclassé), and finally of life itself.
Sidhu’s work, from his inscribed monoliths to his garments, asserts the importance and the pricelessness of the personal. It is an antidote to narcissism (an empty search for affirmation at the cost of others), and it works by going back to the source of our most profound connections, without cynicism or rebellion for its own sake. Sidhu had the benefit of a tradition and a mother that modeled this for him, and now he is modeling it for others. Regardless of one’s background, I hope many visitors (including other artists) take it to heart.
Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes: Between the Universal and the Personal
Consumer culture’s surfeit of objects, both dear and disposable, ends up mostly in landfills, but also in individual hoards, consignment shops and, more rarely, in archives and private collections. A collection might be a retort against wastefulness and the treatment of all things as disposable. It may be a wistful attempt to preserve something, though in most cases it is pop culture, which is made to be ephemeral unlike the sources from which it leeches. That tendency to preserve is very human, not to be derided if genuine, but too often what one observes is a greedy desire for fetish and trophy. The collection is not an archive for the good of history, but a petty wunderkammer.
This “vapid and exhaustive penchant for trophy, and the fetish that exists around it” is a source of fascination for Seattle-based artist Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. The practice of “searching, collecting and archiving” taught to him in his youth by his mother, Royal Alley-Barnes, has been integral to his creative work, and is most evident in displays of old newspapers, sculptures made of refuse, and his Pelt series.
These Pelts comprise old jackets and blankets, patches and bags arranged into bodiless figures. They occupy the same room as many of Nep Sidhu’s garments, and the contrast is stark. Whereas Sidhu’s unique pieces are hung on mannequins to allow their craft to be appreciated, the repurposed garments of Alley-Barnes are flattened into editorial tableaux. These are uniforms, bodiless forms of a culture wherein the individual has disappeared. The artist explains that they are inspired by real world individuals, but as caricatures that muse is not visible to the viewer. The head (or heads) are patches of animal mascots, which can be perceived as totemic but in practice are yet another natural symbol appropriated to serve institutional uniformity.
And yet despite being of uniform production, the pieces have acquired through years of use their own peculiar personality, and when cobbled together they create a irreplicable form. The individual is reborn, but at the same time becomes symbolic of more universal experiences. Some are much sadder than others, especially “Wait! Wait! Don’t Shoot (An Incantation for Jazz and Trayvon).” I resist quoting artists speaking about their own work, but Alley-Barnes is quite articulate, and he explains this piece in no uncertain terms:
“A visual cogitation on “big-game hunting” and trophy, [this work is] a reflection on Florida’s stand-your-ground law and America’s relentless assault on young black men. [It is] a spell of peaceful transition for one no longer with us and it’s a simultaneous incantation of protection for one still very much in our midst.”
The unabashed investment of intention (“incantation”) is a longstanding and ecumenical craft tradition. Regardless of whether one believes this ritual has any effect on the object, there is at least power in the act for the artist himself. All human acts of creation are between the personal and the universal, an interplay between the two, and this is too often forgotten or treated flippantly.
Working with other artists (including Sidhu and Shabazz Palaces as members of the Black Constellation artist collective), Alley-Barnes is part of a movement that honors craft and tradition, but also ingenuity and innovation to carve out a world of their own, with values that have been tested by time but not confined by orthodoxy. It is not without a sense of humor, though. The materials listed for a trophy head of a stuffed Gorilla dangling boxing gloves include “taxidermied telepathic lowland gorilla” and “human mal-intent.” The title: “Teacher Seeks Student. Must Have a Genuine Interest in Saving the World. Apply in Person.”
Oh wait. That isn’t actually funny at all when you know the source. That title—switching “pupil” for “student”—comes from the opening of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael, in which the eponymous character is a telepathic lowland gorilla who presents a less than flattering picture of human civilization to the book’s narrator. The book is largely a vehicle for Quinn’s cultural criticism and elements of his New Tribalism philosophy, which proposes that smaller, more sustainable populations living in balance with nature is the future of humanity…or else.
Or else what? We’re already seeing the effects: rapid depletion of resources and destruction of habitats, first causing extinction of other species and possibly our own. And here the benevolent teacher himself, Ishmael the gorilla has been converted into a trophy. How apt.
Ecological collapse is hinted at in Alley-Barnes short film Sacred, in which the transport of a single vial of clean water becomes a dramatic journey, treated as sacred. It is projected in a room where many small, slender sculptures of human forms are also on display. These sculptures are formed by compressing and wrapping detritus with tape, sealing them with fixative, and painting them. Alley-Barnes dubs the medium Refuse Alchemy and advocates it as a means for youth to create from virtually nothing, without special tools or spaces, resulting in little waste. Naming the process is a significant act of its own; it legitimizes the practice, gives it respect as a prolepsis against elitist attitudes that might take one look at it and say, “But it’s just trash…”
In the adjoining room, several human busts and body parts are sculpted in this medium, and one might first accept them as mere figure studies and representational work. They are, in fact, the darkest reflection of “trophy and fetish” in the show. Around the time when Wunderkammer were popping up in Europe, wherein nobles and bourgeoisie assembled arts and craft, flora and fauna specimens, maps and models together…wherein they could ponder and discuss the treasures of newly “discovered” (that is, colonized) parts of the world…wherein one found an anthropocentric microcosm, a “chamber of wonders”—such rooms paved the way for modern galleries and museums, and in some cases little has changed—around this time that slavery, too, was flourishing in Africa and the Americas, it was not impossible to see among animal trophies the preserved body parts of humans as well. Some came from regions where trophy-taking from human victims was already practiced, but as matter of a colonial collection, valued much as a piece of pottery or woodwork, there is little more dehumanizing and macabre—a literal objectification and commoditization of humanity.
But have we really much advanced?
Between the personal and the universal, all creation occurs, and the political and communal realm, as well. Our sense of the political is now synonymous with bureaucracy, military, economy and infrastructure—a mob or a machine, not actual humans. And as revered as terms like “community” and “diversity” may be, they are colored by this same bureaucratic and stratified worldview. A true sense of community and belonging that recognizes and honors fellow humans (regardless of creed, class, color, sex, etc) seems possible only in the context of mutual creation—in the practice of art—and while confronting horrific systemic abuses and prejudice, Alley-Barnes suggests that there are answers, and they are neither far-fetched nor even painful provided we are willing to examine ourselves…for parasites.
Three Courses Become One
The coherence of plural voices and themes in Your Feast Has Ended is an example of real diversity in action, with each drawing on a deep heritage and tradition made individual. While so much modern art lauded in the west has been based on a nihilistic rejection of all tradition, an abdication from critical content, and a smirking cynicism that—in the wake of colonialism—seems a bitter, disingenuous way of treating one’s own culture as shoddily as it has treated others, the works of Galanin, Sidhu and Alley-Barnes are a tonic. They are distinctly modern, but rather than being stifled by tradition and the heritage behind it, they are invigorated with a sense that their own experience is worth preserving and that we all benefit when we share these experiences.
It is interesting to note that similar calls to action and tradition are an anthem in conservative circles. Notorious elitists and Eurocentrics like T.S. Eliot and Roger Scruton champion the preservation of certain traditions at the exclusion of others, despite the fact that Europe itself is a melting pot of ideas and cultures. Is it too much to ask that the rest of the world be considered, even those who don’t have an aristocracy? Apparently so. If only we could say, “It’s their loss,” and be done with it, but these elitist and Eurocentric views still hold enormous sway, and the racial difference of artists will be a stumbling block for some audiences.
The artists of Your Feast have accepted that challenge and done so with equal parts grace and grit. In one room, a video installation by Galanin shows a jumpy black and white image of a figure in ceremonial dress—face obscured—wielding a knife and approaching the camera. It’s a tad menacing, and the audio that plays over it is that taken from the dashcam of SPD Officer Ian Birk, who shot and killed John T Williams, a Native American woodcarver on August 30, 2010. By coincidence, I walked up Boren that very day, after the shooting had taken place, and had to detour. The calm, remorseless air led me to believe something utterly routine had happened. How chilling it all became in hindsight to know that a homicide committed by police seemed so routine. How pathetic it was when Birk was exonerated. How fitting it all is to hear the recording of what the police conversed on—the Mariners—while Williams lay dead, shot down in cold blood.
Williams was an artist, carrying a legal woodcarving knife, and Birk claimed that Williams had turned and acted menacingly, which condoned his use of lethal force. (His own dashcam and witness accounts would prove his claims to be utter nonsense.) But Galanin’s video depicts the deathly caricature of a warrior Indian that in Birk’s racist panic may have been what he saw in that fatal moment, the last moments of Williams’ life. For some, the forward and unflinching stories and images presented will prove scary or mean. But the artists have been dealing with this their whole lives and they are now just telling their stories. It’s up to the audience to check their own biases.
Similarly—and finally—as discourse about race has intensified and proliferated on the web and simplified version of academic principles are becoming common parlance, the more frequent response from the majority population is to dismiss the existence of institutional racism and the legitimacy of minority experiences as a means of avoiding guilt. They may even do what institutions have done in the past and dictate and explain to these minorities the REAL history, the REAL experience they were having. It would seem even epistemology is off limits to racial minorities. Others will claim to not see race at all; others will internalize their anger as a paralytic guilt. None of these positions improve the situation for anyone. All of them feed the parasites.
But the beauty of it is that the simple acts of listening to the stories being told and engaging in the visions being offered is enough to start turning things around. These are not visions of utopia; they are courses of creation and action. These are not diatribes; they are earnest expressions of pain and love.
The artists are talking. Let us listen. For when the parasite’s feast has ended, ours will truly begin.
Your Feast Has Ended is on display at the Frye Art Museum through September 14.