This Is Not a Silent Movie

Four Alaska native artists speak in “This Is Not a Silent Movie”

Working with traditional culture in a post-modern world at the Museum of Contemporary Craft

We could start with those curious Gold Idiot Strings that dangle in the sunlight in a bright corner of the Museum of Contemporary Craft. That’s going to take some explaining. I also want to talk about the walrus stomach and ivory in Susie Silook’s What Does It Take to See My Heart, but that’s a sad story, too, that winsome sculpture and how it came about. And the commentary in Nicholas Galanin’s conceptual pieces is going to unroll throughout the rest of this look at This Is Not a Silent Movie, the exhibition of work by four Native American artists from Alaska.

Susie Silook does some last minute grooming of "Aghnaghpak" in "This Is Not a Silent Movie"/Patrick Collier

Susie Silook does some last minute grooming of “Aghnaghpak” in “This Is Not a Silent Movie”/Patrick Collier

No, let’s start with a short grainy video screened by Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Just Da-ka, he says, when people try to deal with that first name) during his brief artist’s talk in a symposium that supported the exhibition.

In the video, a very young boy is moving around in a meadow, and he is beating a little drum at the end of a long handle, and it becomes apparent that, no, he’s not moving, he’s dancing, and he’s also singing. Often he misses the drum with his stick, hitting the handle instead, but the rhythm by this time is strong enough to sustain both song and dance. The words of the song? Presumably, they are Tlingit, because Mehner has told us that his interest in Tlingit songs and language started when he began to take his son to the Tlingit Celebration every two years outside Juneau. The boy moves in a tight circle, hunches forward a little bit, drums intermittently, and sings.

He made the audience smile in delight. Smiles can be complex, though. Watching the video, I thought for a second that I understood the deep magnetic pull of traditional culture, how right it seems and thus how profoundly attractive. And then, its fragility, because we don’t have to have a shaman’s foresight to imagine how contemporary culture (not to mention climate change) will fall on Mehner’s son and his relationship to old Tlingit forms and practices, the struggle he will have to stay connected to that lovely moment, those old Tlingit words and rhythms and movements.

Continues…