- Art Also Speaks of Transgressions

Sonya Kelliher-Combs is both an indigenous artist and a lawyer based in Anchorage, Alaska. She currently has the exhibition “Pearls on a string – Arctic storytelling” together with artists Jessie Kleeman and Nanna Anike Nikolajsen from Greenland. (Photo: Private)
The exhibition "Pearls On A String – Arctic Storytelling” looks back in time and finds inspiration from ancestors on Greenland and in Alaska. – Art also speaks of transgressions, says Sonya Kelliher-Combs.

The exhibition "Pearls On A String – Arctic Storytelling” looks back in time and finds inspiration from ancestors on Greenland and in Alaska. – Art also speaks of transgressions, says Sonya Kelliher-Combs.

Artists Jessie Kleemann and Nanna Anike Nikolajsen from Greenland and Sonya Kelliher-Combs from Alaska have brought out stories about women’s beadwork across borders. The exhibition in Copenhagen consists of images, installations and objects of different materials, with beadwork being the focus and inspiration.

- In light of globalization and through channels such as tourism, Arctic culture and culturally significant artifacts have become objects of consumption. Ever since the early days of my career as an artist I have wanted to focus on indigenous voices, voices that through history have been choked, says artist Kelliher-Combs from Nome in Alaska.

As a reaction to global capitalism, the artists have joined forces in a dialogue with both the past and the present in order to create art that weaves traditions from Greenland and Alaska together. Inspiration lies in the material, performative and also linguistic patterns of beadwork, embroidery and leather works. Traditions that bear with them stories of women’s work, cultural exchange, about continuity and change.

- I am inspired as an artist by our ancestors, by how they used materials like skins, fur and membrane. My work consist of patterns from history, about families and culture. Using synthetic, organic, traditional and modern materials and techniques, I create art in the traditions of my own people, the Iñupiaq/Athabaskan of Alaska, says Kelliher-Combs.

Dialogue becomes creations

Beads were used as currency in their time, and symbolise exchange and change. In Arctic cultures, beadwork embroideries were create while women sat together, telling each other stories. That was how new patterns and shapes were created.

- Personal and cultural dynamic forms my art. I use symbols that speak to history, culture, family and the life of my people. Art also speaks of transgressions, marginalization and the struggle of indigenous people, Kelliher-Combs says.

She tells us that much of the old culture in Alaska is under threat and points out e.g. the art of preserving sea mammals and making winter shoes of skins.

- Yet the interest in learning the practical skills of these old crafts in order to transfer such knowledge to future generations is booming. I like to believe that we keep building tradition, every day. That traditional knowledge is dynamic and keeps growing, the artist says.

The difficult conversations

To Kelliher-Combs, art is also about being a platform where the difficult themes are brought up.

- The consequences and effects of the colonialization of indigenous people in Alaska does not disappear. It is about social challenges and diseases that affect generations of the indigenous. It is about cultures forced to abandon their lifestyles in order to adapt to a dominant culture, Kelliher-Combs says.

A culture that is so very much at odds with the indigenous.

- The clash between these cultures, and at times extinction, has made many people struggle to even survive. The suicide rate among indigenous people in Alaska is nearly three times as high as the American average. In addition, abuse, mental and physical suffering is among the highest of the nation. If I can help just one person, if my art can contribute to just one healing journey, then that makes me happy, says Kelliher-Combs.

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