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Last summer, Nicholas Galanin presented an exhibition of new work at Peter Blum Gallery in New York. Entitled “It Flows Through,” it spoke to the concept of persistence, as the artist described. “The persistence of our connections to land and culture through continuum and memory, flowing through us, embedded in our bodies, our languages, and our art. These connections flow like water in varied ways, from gentle imperceptible movements to sudden forces, each capable of moving, shaping, and wearing down stone,” said Galanin.
That idea of flowing through can also be applied to the wide range of work on view, reflective of his truly multimedia practice. There was White Flag (2022), made from a polar bear rug and smoothed tree branch; Break in case of emergency (Blue) (2022), a fire ax rendered in porcelain encased in a wood-and-glass box; Ascension (2022), a ladder created from an Indonesian carved curio totem and copper; or Infinite Weight (2022), an installation of a video piece below a taxidermy wolf suspended from the ceiling. The Tlingit, Alaska–based artist can seemingly master any material, landing an idea or concept with art that is so slickly and skillfully produced, they pull you in with such gravity before swiftly punching you in the gut with their theses—like Loom (2022), a sculpture crafted from school desks and carvings in graphite, a gutting allusion to the North American practice of residential schools which forced Indigenous families to send their children away to facilities where conditions were so severe as many as half never survived to return home.
Galanin spoke with Whitewall from his home in Alaska, where he was finishing a large totem carving, about his adeptness and agility in communicating powerfully across material.
WHITEWALL: How did you arrive at the title of your recent show at Peter Blum, “It Flows Through” and the metaphor of water as persistence?
NICHOLAS GALANIN: Everything is connected, much like my practice. In that show, everything transitioned to each other in conversation, connecting to history, to the future, to our present understanding of now. A lot of my work does that. The reference of “it flows through” was in that continuum, but also speaking to the persistence of strength of something that might not see immediate change. Our clocks are different. So, water cutting through stone is going to take some time. I feel like these conversations I hold and carry are generational conversations that have been ongoing.
Oftentimes we face so much as Indigenous artists—who we are, what authenticates our existence or our ideas based on medium, based on tradition. So for me, a way to fight through that was to demonstrate creative sovereignty by working with whatever I needed to work with to get these conversations and ideas into the world.
WW: You’ve trained with master jewelers and master carvers. Is there an aspect of that formal training that makes you comfortable moving between mediums?
NG: Possibly. I feel most comfortable when I don’t know what is next. The challenge is being fearless and abandoning ideas that I might maybe subconsciously be stuck on. To be able to stay open and clear, to get out of my own way, is the challenge. Everything should be challenging and exciting in the process, and if it’s not, I have to reevaluate why I’m not able to access that.
And it’s necessary. Sometimes you forget, sometimes you get busy, sometimes everything can pile up or there are deadlines. But it always feels great to break through that and come back to feeling excited and fresh about what we’re able to participate in and do as makers and artists.
WW: Something new and fresh you’ve recently started showing is a series of monoprint works. How did you arrive at that process?
NG: For me, that work is very intuitive. It’s very gestural, moving ink. I realized that I gravitate toward that because it’s almost like removal or detracting to create the imagery, which is similar to carving and that process of revealing something within the material or within the medium. There’s a memory that I feel is connected to that work—our intentions and the headspace that goes into it. When I work on a totem pole, I really have to be in a mind frame, which gets embedded into the work. Whether you know it or not, it’s in there, and these prints are the same for that with memory.
The initial series was recognizing how all of this is connected to how we exist on land. I live in my ancestral community, and we live very closely with the land. We hunt and fish and feed our families seasonally. It’s a very abundant place. Our clock is the seasons. There’s this inexplicable show of connection that I understand through doing that and through sharing that process with my family and my children. That joy I access in work. When I’m working on this totem pole, it’s a flooding feeling that you can’t capture, but it passes through you. And in those monoprints, there’s an attempt at trying to at least capture something that really can’t be captured, I suppose. It takes place in these abstract forms that almost reference some of our cultural visual languages—masks, faces or figures, or tools that we use for ceremony. It’s a reveal. It’s trusting what starts to take shape and form.
WW: In your video Listen to the Land (2020), we see you working with the land and in the studio, wearing your young child. It’s a powerful visual of parenthood, and fatherhood, which is so rare to see in art presented by the artist themselves.
NG: In that work, there are conversations about masculinity, fatherhood, connection to place, land. That was work with a larger project with other artists and makers. I do a lot of land-based work, whether it’s directly or indirectly through conversations with environment and climate or culture. And being home allows for that real connection because that truly is what grounds my process and understanding.
My children grew up in studios; they’ve grown up in the music studio. They get to do things when they want to. When I was 18, it was the last job that I held that was noncreative. It was a purposeful choice, a decision that I’m not going to do this type of work anymore. Because it was a calling for creative work—working with my hands, working with my culture, and community was where I felt belonging and joy.
WW: You’re a musician as well, releasing albums under the name Ya Tseen. Do you see your music practice as separate from your visual practice?
NG: I see it as the same, but I understand it’s not consumed the same. The culture and the way it’s shared in the world does overlap, but I don’t force it to for the audience. I’ve always been attracted to the process of music and the mystery and power of it. I’ve come to learn that, for me, music has always been really humanizing, a way of experiencing life in a world that has often dehumanized our people so continually.