September 27, 2013

"Memory is Embodied:" Tanya Lukin-Linklater Interview

In Memoriam (2012) 

Alutiiq Artist Tanya Lukin Linklater originates from the Native Villages of Port Lions and Afognak in the Kodiak archipelago. Based in northern Ontario, her practice spans experimental choreography, performance, installation, text, and video. She has performed and exhibited at Images Festival/Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto), VI Mostra Internacional de Videodanca Sao Carlos (Brasil), Museum of Contemporary Native Art (Santa Fe), Culver Center of the Arts (California), Expanse Movement Arts Festival (Edmonton), Alaska Native Arts Foundation Gallery (Anchorage), Near North Mobile Media Lab + White Water Gallery (Ontario), TRIBE (Saskatoon), Sakewewak (Regina), and elsewhere. She studied at University of Alberta (M.Ed. 2003) and Stanford University (A.B. Honours 1998), where she received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship & Louis Sudler Prize in Creative and Performing Arts. Tanya was awarded the Chalmers Professional Development Grant in 2010. She was nominated for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Dance in 2011 and received the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature in 2013. She has collaborated with Duane Linklater on two projects: grain(s) in 2013 and Up River (2012). Her work has been generously supported by Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. You can view more about her amazing work at her website:

Q: How does being an Alaska Native contribute to the production of your artwork?

I originate from two small Native villages in the Kodiak archipelago of southwestern Alaska: Native Village of Afognak and Native Village of Port Lions. I currently reside in northern Ontario, Canada, with my family.

Initially, my performances (2005 - 2011) were generally more concerned with intimacy than spectacle in terms of subject matter (the experiences of women’s work, domestic spaces, and memory), and often centered on my research and investigation of traditional forms of Alaska Native song, dance, and language through a contemporary practice that posed questions surrounding the complexities of cultural revitalization. For example, I’ve directed contemporary dancers in movement investigations that deconstructed the principles of traditional dances in order to construct new dances. I’ve also performed works that engage with Alutiiq language and song and become an embodied investigation of the language, deconstructed, from my perspective as a non-speaker.

Site Sight (2011)
In recent years, my practice, rooted in performance and the body, has expanded to include video, photography, and installation. I am integrating my writing practice into these works, exhibiting text pieces alongside video installations and in other forms. I consider my practice experimental, process-oriented, and research driven. The questions leading my practice currently centre on images of the "Eskimo,” women’s stories, how (personal) memory is embodied and activated in the present moment, and all of these in relation to being-ness.

I keep returning to the relationship between indigenous peoples and museums and/or anthropology. Alutiiq artists from Kodiak Island have engaged with museums and anthropological collections for many years. The late Helen Simeonoff, my relative from Afognak, initiated Alutiiq engagement with specific collections and others like Doug Inga have traveled to museums to view Alutiiq masks, bentwood hats, baskets and other “artifacts” held in collections in France, Russia, and elsewhere. They describe the experience as transformative; while they hold these artifacts in their gloved hands (under the direction of museum staff) they experience strong emotional responses, often brought to tears.

Maggie Roberts Portrait by Helen Simeonoff
from Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers FB page
In this context, I consider my father, Ivan Lukin, who carves masks, bentwood visors, kayaks and other objects, by referencing anthropological texts. Otherwise he is self-taught. He described to me once the emotional response he had to different visual images, and that he knew which objects to carve based on his intuitive assessment of the image’s meaning (as we no longer know the meanings of the objects).

I deeply respect the art practices of those I mention above, as well as Coral Chernoff, Susie Malutin, Lena Amason-Berns, and others, as they are connected to our home and are engaged with cultural work. The work is often labor intensive (tanning fish skin, harvesting grasses, harvesting animals and tanning hides for furs, using sinew and other traditional materials rather than contemporary materials) and I feel strongly that the process is just as significant as the resulting object. This process hopefully (among other aims) embeds an Alutiiq worldview into the object.

Yet, I’m also compelled by artists that address and perhaps interrogate the relationship between tribes and museums and/or anthropology. James Luna’s Artifact Piece, 1985-87, is of course a very significant work in this regard. There is more work to be done in this area.

Q: Who most influences you as an artist?

I will, without hesitation say my husband, Duane Linklater. He is Omaskeko Cree from Moose Cree First Nation. We have the opportunity to dialogue about art, text, films, museum culture, indigenous languages, theory, indigenous and art and film histories on a daily basis. I see his process for each project; I understand his influences; we have collaborated on two projects (Up River, 2012 at a small indigenous collective in Saskatchewan and grain(s), 2013 for Images Festival + Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art); he’s been my camera operator on two projects (In Memoriam, 2012 and Untitled, 2013). Our collaborations are not always successful - we are still developing a process for working together. He understands and pushes my work like no one else.

Duane Linklater. For more information on his work please visit his artist page here.
Do you think that Indigenous art be produced in a formalist way without referencing Native history and culture?

I think that part of our role as indigenous artists may be to engage with indigenous concepts and conceptual frameworks. We are, also, often engaging with multiple frameworks and with European and American art histories. What sets us apart is our respective (tribal) conceptual frameworks, which may necessitate a reflection on our respective histories. Elizabeth Cook Lynn put forth the idea that all indigenous literatures should be, in some way, strengthening tribal sovereignty. I think that her assertion is specific and could be broadened to include the strengthening of indigenous languages, worldview, histories, etc. through our respective practices (in a non-prescriptive way).

 Tanya Lukin-Linklater: 2013 Literature Award Winner

When I consider my practice and other artists I look to, I’m often compelled by work that references histories. I’ve engaged with specific histories of my people from a contemporary perspective. I’ve also engaged with film histories, re-enacting scenes from films (The 400 Blows, Mouchette, Ivan’s Childhood, Nanook of the North, Woman in the Dunes) in live performance and in video works. I’m also interested in meaning making, so I feel that when we engage with history, we also make meaning of the history in our current context.

Duane Linklater often begins his artist talks with a projected image of a treaty medal. Treaty-making can trace its origins to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by King George III, a document (some argue) that establishes indigenous rights to the land (including hunting rights) in North America. The Royal Proclamation established the British Crown as the sole entity to engage in land purchases in North America, and established the foundation for treaty-making with indigenous peoples in Canada. October 7, 2013 is the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation. I find this significant and will mark the day by attending local events commemorating the day where I live in northern Ontario.

The text, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan, outlines foundational spiritual beliefs within treaty-making processes through a series of interviews with elders from the four First Nation groups of Saskatchewan. It frames treaty-making as a covenant between respective First Nations, the Crown, and the Creator by examining the symbols and objects involved. This is significant because it examines a culturally specific perspective of treaty-making. I get uncomfortable with descriptions that place First Nations in Canada in positions of victimhood, citing starvation and illiteracy as the reasons that treaties were “signed” with X’s. These assumptions about treaties, while in some instances may be historically accurate, also have the possibility to undermine indigenous agency in this process.

Last winter the Idle No More Movement swept Canada (and parts of the U.S.) through teach-ins and creative forms of civil disobedience against environmental legislation that was enacted. The protests included round dances in shopping malls at Christmastime, and I remember many signs that asserted “we are all treaty people” emphasizing the significance of treaties in Canada, still today. Another favorite sign of mine was “Moose hide tanners against fascism” in Northwest Territories.

I personally like the specificity of artists engaged with their particular tribe’s histories or cultural objects and connecting those histories to the present moment. However, you can see from my own work that I also am influenced by Canada and its histories as I choose to make my home here, and I have relatives here.

Eskimo Kissing Booth (2012)
Are there any current affairs or political developments that are currently influencing your art?

In late 2012 I began writing a text, “Not like us” in response to the attempted assassination of girls’ education activist, Malala Yousafzai, in the region of Swat Valley, Pakistan. I was moved to write because of her commitment to education. I considered my girlhood struggles with the complexities of race, gender and poverty in America in the 80’s. As a child, I believed in education as an equalizer, even as I witnessed deep inequities around me. “Not Like Us” and “A girl” are poems that reference the breaking international story surrounding Malala’s attempted assassination. These works are unpublished, and I am currently developing their future forms as visual works installed in galleries.

Brief Malala Yousafzai story

Last winter I followed Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, a 44-day action that began December 11, 2012. Originating from Attawapiskat First Nation in James Bay, Ontario, Chief Spence’s hunger strike took place not far from Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River. The hunger strike was intended to bring attention to the treaty relationship in Canada amidst federal legislation that further eroded environmental laws in favor of expanding resource extraction, without adequate consultation with First Nations. Her action was a part of a larger indigenous rights movement in Canada and her continued leadership as Chief of her First Nation.

  Interview with Chief Teresa Spence
I came to see the mitts she wore in many of her press engagements as an important symbol for the people of James Bay. I began a series of interviews with my husband’s relatives, Agnes Hunter, Marlene Kapashesit, and Lillian Mishi Trapper, during January and February 2013 regarding the process for making traditional James Bay Mitts. I interviewed these extended relatives to ask them about their experiences tanning hides (caribou, moose, deer), sewing mitts and other garments, and beading.

“The harvest studies” is a long poem that came to include direct transcriptions of the interviews and in it, I create visual designs similar to beadwork. I am now preparing for a visual arts residency in northern Ontario and will engage with this text for the residency, likely to be installed in public places.

Performance by Tanya Lukin from WKP Kennedy at the Fair of Alternative Art of Sudbury 2010

I’ve been interested in Native women making “crafts,” beading intricate designs passed on from their relatives, sewing smoked moose hide into moccasins, and fur into mukluks, mits, toques, since I was very young. This functional art is practiced in the intimacy of one’s home, but also becomes a process of crafting for the public in a kind of performance of women’s work, of cultural work. Yet “craft” is de-valued in the hierarchy of art.

In 2010 I beaded an Alutiiq headdress while seated within a small installation in a train car during galerie du nouvel – ontario’s foire d’art alternatif de sudbury. My intent was to engage with the image of the Native woman as craftsperson within a hierarchy of art. Passersby stopped and conversed.

In 2014 I will perform for NM/Santiago (New Maternalisms III) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santiago at the invitation of curator, Natalie Loveless. I will sort thousands of beads in various colors on moose hide into specific designs.

In Memoriam (2012)
The transitory nature of the art object (beads that are not sewn or fixed) relates to the transitory nature of performance. Indeed, the performance problematizes craft and art as commodity (and anthropological relic) because performative actions will become the art object. The performative identities of “craftperson,” “artist,” and “mother” will also be named through action.

Trade beads conjure a past of ill-gotten land gains in the Americas, international trade routes, and Indigenous women’s appropriation of trade beads in indigenous designs. The performance reminds us of a historical global economy through the intimacy of women’s work.

Culver Center of the Arts | Indigenous Choreographers Residency Featuring the work and participation of choregraphers Jack Gray, Rulan Tangen, and Tanya Lukin Linklater. Jacqueline Shea Murphy, coordinator. UCR campus and to Culver April 9-22, 2012.

Thank you Tanya for allowing me to interview you and feature your work here.

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