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Alaska comes to Soho

NEW YORK – Soho, which hosts many art galleries and trendy downtown fashion houses such as Armani Exchange and Prada, has a neighbor featuring art and fashion from Alaska.

Alaska House, 109 Mercer St. in New York City, opened in fall 2008. The nonprofit institution promotes the work of Native Alaskans through a revolving series of exhibitions; by selling the artists’ work on its virtual gallery at www.alaskahouseny.org; and through a series of cultural presentations with contemporary authors, Native elders and craftsmen.

The staff of Alaska House includes two Native Alaskans: Andrei Jacobs (Yup’ik/Inupiaq), a former councilman from Bethel, Alaska; and Alaska House fellow, Trina Landlord (Yuk-ik). Landlord, who came to Alaska House in January, worked as an intern at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I have had the opportunity to tell people about Alaska, such as, traditionally there is no word for ‘art’ in Alaska Native languages, instead, each of the objects had a function demonstrating the ingenuity of living off the animals and land.”

“Walrus Mask” by artist Lola Ferguson, Cup’ik

“There is clothing woven of grass; raincoats made of seal intestines; tools made of ivory from the walrus tusks; and animal skins for their warmth. Eventually, these objects refined to be more decorative, as a way to increase their value in trade with Europeans and Asians. Today, Alaska Native artwork characterizes and illustrates the Native ways of life, and for many, is a means of income to stimulate economic development in rural communities.”

Alaska House has made its presence known in New York City through events such as the exhibit “Identity” in November 2008 which presented Native Alaskans’ work in photography, sculpture and painting.

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The artists included Erica Lord, Inupiaq; Susie Bevins-Ericsen, Inupiaq; Larry McNeil, Tlingit/Nishga; Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Inupiaq/Athabascan; Nicholas Galania, Tlingit; and Da-ka-xeen Mehner, Tlingit.

Alaska House is currently displaying the photographs of Brian Adams, who visited many elders in Newtok, a Western Alaskan village. He spoke of their sorrows as they become resigned to moving due to global warming; 90 feet of coastline a year disappears due to melting sea ice and thawing permafrost.

Also on display are the paintings of Alvin Amason. The exhibit honors his brother, Billy Amason, who recently passed away. “Boat Rocker” recalls Billy’s trade of commercial fishing, and “You Go Out for Rabbits and Come Home With Deer” evokes one of Billy’s last hunts.

Visitors wandered through one of the Alaska House galleries.

In July, Alaska House opened another exhibit “Weaving of Life” to display basket weaving by eight Native Alaskan artists.

The weavers crafted fish skin baskets in the Koyukon Athbascan tradition with artist Audrey Armstrong; willow root and birch bark baskets by Daisy Demientieff who works in the Deg’Xinag Athabascan tradition; beach grass baskets with artists Coral Chernoff and June Pardue working in the Sugpiaq tradition; cedar bark, spruce root and grass baskets in the Haida tradition with artists Delores and Holly Churchill, Diane Douglas-Willard and Vicki LeCornu; beach grass and raffia baskets with embroidery thread of dyed seal intestine decorated in the Unangax tradition by artist Sharon Kay; baleen baskets with ivory finials by artist Sheldon Bogenrife who works in the Inupiaq tradition; and grass baskets with dyed seal intestine and carved ivory finials by artist Loulare Moore who works in the Bristol Bay Yup’ik tradition.

Alaska House’s online shop has two DVDs of Alaska Native artists. One, “Beautiful Journey: Daisy Stri da zatse Demientieff” tells how this Deg Xitan elder gathers material for her willow root and birch bark baskets; the second, “When the Season Is Good” tells the story of an ivory carver, a skin sewer, a sculptor and a painter.” Both show the Alaskan landscape and Native people who work as artists.

Many Americans know more about Europe or Cancun, than about the Native people of Alaska. Many Native Americans were not taught their own tribal culture, but they were also unaware of other tribes and Native lifestyles. Alaska House helps open doors to the rich culture of Native peoples.