A bear rug made from a U.S. flag — with claws of .50-caliber ammunition and gold-leafed plastic teeth — is splayed out on a platform at Macalester College’s Law Warschaw Gallery.
It is nothing like the “trophy” rug you might find on a rustic cabin floor. This is what Alaska-based artist Nicholas Galanin calls “The American Dream is Alie and Well.”
“We can’t separate the violence of this nation’s history and its building,” said Galanin, who is Tlingit. “If you’ve ever looked at the shrinking animation maps of indigenous land that communities have access to, it literally zaps away, and that is the American dream, this idea of Manifest Destiny, that capitalistic backbone that is built on literally indigenous graves, indigenous land.”
In his powerful solo exhibition “Everything We’ve Ever Been, Everything We Are Right Now,” on view through Dec. 8, Galanin takes a critical approach to the country’s cultural amnesia. He delivers critiques of colonialism and settler mentality, the imposition of “blood quantum” — used to determine whether a person is American Indian — and the cultural appropriation of Native cultures.
For Galanin, it is not only art but the personal that is political. He and nine other artists withdrew from the 2019 Whitney Biennial in protest against board member Warren B. Kanders, whose company Safariland manufactures tear-gas canisters and other weapons used by the military and law enforcement.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors will immediately be struck by the saddest-looking polar bear ever. It looks like it was lunging forward and slipped, and then its hind legs evaporated into a furry puddle. The bear was shot by a white sport hunter sometime in the 1960s in Shishmaref, an Alaskan village that is falling back into the ocean as the Arctic ice continues to melt.
“The bear is also a reference to how we relate to environment,” he said. “The idea of ‘trophy’ is not indigenous at all.”
The show includes more than 15 works made from 2005 to the present, ranging from monoprints and sculpture to video and installation. One of the sculptural works, which speaks out against the erasure of Native women, is a collaboration with his partner and fellow artist Merritt Johnson.
Galanin’s darkly humorous critique of white people’s fetishization of Native cultures is most evident in his performance/installation piece “White Carver.”
In this piece, which has been staged at several past exhibitions, red velvet ropes partition off a wood carving station in a corner of the gallery. There, on the exhibition’s opening night, a hired performer in white shirt and tie — playing the part of a white man who visited Alaska and became enamored of Native culture — made “native art.”
A finished version of the piece he was carving, made by Galanin, is displayed nearby: a small club-shaped fetish object the artist calls a “male masturbation tool,” with women’s genitalia carved into its tip.
“White Carver” smartly flips the script. First, the character is nameless, echoing the way that anthropologists once erased the identity of Native makers by removing their names from objects. Second, this performative scene references the voyeuristic way that Galanin himself learned to carve, as a young boy watched by visitors at the cultural center in Sitka.
On opening night last Friday, a new white carver took Galanin’s place; behind him, a series of photos of past white carvers were arranged on the wall. This was his colonial lineage, his “trophy,” his accessing of Native ideas, cultures and communities without the people, all on display for viewers to gawk at.