Lily Weed, Walking to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum, photograph, $250 Merit Award, All Alaska Biennial 2016. Courtesy of the artist
This exhibition celebrates the contemporary work of Alaska artists. The Anchorage Museum’s juried exhibitions (All Alaska Juried Exhibition and Earth, Fire & Fibre) began more than 30 years ago to encourage the creation of new works by Alaska artists in all media. With the “All Alaska Biennial,” artists explore the authentic North, its people, materials and landscapes, through a variety of interpretations. The guest juror is Jen Budney, an independent writer and curator who has held positions with the Mendel Art Gallery, Kamloops Art Gallery, Canada Council for the Arts, Gallery 101, and Flash Art International.
All Alaska Biennial is funded in part by a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts; the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; the Anchorage Museum Association; and the Municipality of Anchorage.
My relatively brief trip from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Anchorage, Alaska, to select works for the 36th All-Alaska juried art exhibition could have been viewed by some people as a journey from the middle of nowhere to the edge of the world. But this is not the case, of course. Anchorage is, like Saskatoon, the center of the world, and the best artworks are created from this standpoint. The other perspective – Alaska as wilderness, as untamed or uncivilized land ripe for exploration – is colonial: it is the logic of terra nullius. It appeals to many tourists, but cannot move dialogue or discourse forward on any level, aesthetic or otherwise.
The selection process for the All-Alaska is interesting and imperfect. Jurors, like me, are provided with virtually no context for the artworks or artists. An initial round of elimination, from close to 600 artworks to 70, was done from my home in Saskatoon, where I viewed photographic images of the works on my laptop computer. With no artists’ names, statements or universal standards to fall back on, and a broad range of forms, styles, and subject-matter, I invented my own rather simple criteria. I gave high points to the images that surprised me, and lower points to the kinds of representations that seemed to do little to resist the obvious stereotypes of Alaska or the affectations of artiness that sometimes come in the early years of art-making. A great many works were eliminated in this process. It is entirely possible that during this first round I rejected meritorious pieces because I had no means of grasping the contexts of their creation.
Jurying the 70 short-listed works in person I had to ask, “Who was I to judge without knowing the background stories of the works or of the people who made them?” I was, furthermore, concerned with the problem of cultural appropriation. Alaska, like Saskatchewan, is “post-colonial” in theory only – in practice, relations between non-Indigenous and Indigenous citizens are shaped by the ongoing dominance of settler-colonial political and social structures. In art, this tends to result in the signifying of indigeneity through the representation of Indigenous cultural objects, craft styles, or even people, at the expense of Indigenous voices and Indigenous participation. I did not want to perpetuate this habit through the artificial ignorance that the blind jury process can present.
I was able to narrow down the 70 shortlisted works to those featured in the exhibition. Many of these works are visually stunning and simply knocked my socks off. Others I find compelling because of their inner mystery or profound exterior strangeness, and the clear belief the artists had in making them. They are, all of them, convincing to me, rooted in their own centers. To the artists, I say: Congratulations, and I look forward to learning about you.
Jen Budney, Independent Curator, Canada