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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
Tlingit artists Jackson Polys and Robert Mills collaborated to create the Main Street Gallery exhibit Manifest X, which opened Nov. 2.
It is their first gallery show collaboration, although not their first project collaboration. They said they worked together to create the Seward totem pole replacement, which was raised in April, 2017 in Saxman.
A more recent collaboration was a bronze house post, created for the Juneau Sealaska Heritage Institute, installed in August.
Both artists are Tlingit, Polys originally from Ketchikan — now living in New York — and Mills, originally from Kake.
“That’s where the collaboration generates, it’s from our shared conversations,” Polys said.
Mills added, “I think it’s a general organic conversation, as we analyze what’s really happening. I would say that we’re both technically able to execute Northwest Coast objects fairly easily.”
Polys — who also is known in Ketchikan as Stephen Jackson — said that it’s the ideas that he and Mills discuss that form the core of their art. The title of their show addresses the crossing of cultures and clashing of expectations for the future that they experience as Native artists.
Polys explained, “Actually, in terms of Manifest X, we’re trying to place an X on the destiny part, so if we don’t have a future, there’s no destiny in terms of the ultimate story of assimilation and incorporation in the mainstream society.”
He added, “The X can also represent simultaneously looking back and trying to speculate toward the future at the same time.”
Mills said there are a lot of questions that modern Native artists must face. For instance, although they have the skills to “mindlessly” replicate traditional art, it’s more important to address questions about the art and the artists’ motivations, such as “What’s the position? Who are they going to? Why are we making them?”
The commercial side of Northwest Coast art can be a pressure, Mills said.
When a gallery owner recently suggested that Mills set up for maximum production of his art, Mills’ thought was, “What am I, a freaking factory worker?”
Polys agreed, adding, “You grow up with the commercial side of it, there’s certain expectations. It’s tricky to unpack how those expectations occur, how they’ve historically occurred, and then, like how they continue to be reified.” (Made more concrete, or real.)
The subtitle of Polys and Mills’ show is “new activations of ceremonial items” as “Indigenous people negotiating the complexities of settler colonialism.”
When asked to interpret those ideas, Polys said the show addresses the “entrapment” inherent in producing Native art. Mills added that it can be “getting stuck in fuzzy areas.”
“There are assumptions about the authentic Native, or that they’re conservative,” Polys said.
“If those views are operative, then how do they come into place?” Polys added. “So it takes kind of a deeper analysis to figure that out, to assess, or to even speculate how that might have occurred.
“For Manifest X, you take it from a position of settler colonialism,” he said.
Polys went on to explain that, “The difference between settler colonialism and other forms of colonialism is that the colonials stayed — they settled in that area. So, there are constant narratives being told, to kind of assuage the guilt of being in that place, and anything that kind of points that position out is kind of unsettling. If we take the certain impingements on being Native seriously, then what would it take to overcome that?”
He noted that the effect that salvage ethnography has had on Native culture was the idea that Native culture was dying. He said the American Museum of Natural History, for instance, holds more than 10,000 Native objects, 5,000 of which are Tlingit origin.
“So, people here don’t get to see those objects,” he said. “So the taking of that and the justification, it starts the justification process that continues to this day, in terms of trying to deny that there’s any kind of fundamental opposition to just being here and accepting things as they are.”
Polys, as the son of Ketchikan Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson, grew up steeped in Native art. Mills said he did not grow up with that kind of influence. That difference gives an interesting dynamic to their collaborations.
“I think that’s kind of like, what’s interesting … it’s like a dichotomy,” Mills said. We both kind of play with that, and we both provide each other with a different perspective. I didn’t grow up with an expectation; I kind of look at it from afar.”
Mills added that he always was curious about his culture’s art, but “due to that colonialism, everything that set itself here, it stopped that.”
He further explained that the repressive colonial remnants of shame and his family’s experiences of being forced into residential schools, as his grandparents were, sent repercussions into the foundations of his upbringing.
“All these objects that Stephen mentioned — those were all gone, you know, so it’s like all those little fragments that we could hang onto, they weren’t there.”
Polys said, “You have a great florescence, currently, of amazing Native artists making work, but for growing up in our communities, the effects of those objects being taken over 100 years ago persist, continually.”
He explained that the vibrancy of the art created during that collection phase in the 19th and 20th centuries affects current Native art.
“Part of the trick of this exhibition is figuring out how those don’t always mesh. How there’s like an opposition that’s met,” Polys said. “The desire, then, becomes, that people want Natives to evolve, and transform, and kind of be modern.”
This clashes with the reality that when Natives create a modern interpretation of traditional formline, for instance, people often push back against that.
“People want something that doesn’t disrupt the culture further,” he said.
The Manifest X show includes not only carved pieces, but also a video which features appropriations of the carved pieces back into the video, Polys explained.
When asked what they’d like people to bring away from the exhibition, Mills said, “I think, ultimately, all we can really do is try to uplift consciousness to some of these things that are beyond the surface of just being a Tlingit Indian, and fragment that we have — are holding onto — a huge disruption that existed. There’s something further than these social problems we see today. We didn’t impose them on ourselves.”
Polys said he doesn’t specifically want people to bring home a concrete message.
“It’s something that is complex, but that can’t be encapsulated in a single show,” he said. “It’s a start of kind of coming to awareness of what conditions which we, ourselves are in, and contribute to, daily. For example, if we don’t think about what it means to live in conditions of settler colonialism and for settlers to, kind of try to come to terms with what that means to live on Tlingit Ahni — which means Tlingit land — what does it mean for us to not accept a simplicity of expectation?”
Polys said it’s important for Natives to consider, especially in modern times with tourists flooding the region and increasingly consuming Native culture: “What does it mean to try to reverse that consumption? What does it mean to flip it?”
He said he would like visitors to the exhibition to come to some sort of empathy. In the exhibition’s video, which portrays non-Native people who are masking themselves, and in a “rogue manner” taking representations of Native objects out of a museum.
Polys said that the more that people are educated, the more consciously they can think about racial issues.
“You end up seeing that the conditions of settler colonialism have attached Native people from multiple angles,” Polys said. So, it’s not just being able to be free to do what you want, which is kind of a Western imposition, you have to look for escape routes in contradictory ways. That’s part of what that ‘X’ is in the show: looking for routes in contradictory directions.”
Mills added, “This period, this colonialism, is far more complex than we want. We want a direct answer — ‘Can you guys just get over this?’ — That’s what the Western narrative is.”
He also explained that he’s had relatives who could have been more successful artists, but that the legacy of settler colonialism and racism suppressed their efforts.
Mills also said that working in traditional forms is providing him with answers.
“You understand that these people weren’t arbitrarily doing these things, there was a balance, like everywhere you look in the culture, there was a balance.”
He added that there are subtleties and nuances that he’s been learning from the traditional artforms.
“The ancestors are teaching me, by studying,” Mills said.
Mills added that, “Every day we keep doing this, we’re winning. Every piece we create, someday some Tlingit boy will see, and feel inspired and say ‘Yes, I can do that,’ much like we see pieces that exist in museums today.”
The Manifest X exhibition will be on display in the Main Street Gallery, at 330 Main Street, through Nov. 30.