Trained at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, Tlingit Athabascan artist Crystal Worl is based in Juneau, Alaska. Worl and her brother Rico co-founded the Trickster Company, an online site representing contemporary Tlingit art. They also opened a shop in downtown Juneau, selling everyday objects—skateboards, hats, basketballs, t-shirts, playing cards, sunglasses—all with an innovative Tlingit design.
Worl’s dedication to her art is rooted in her culture, which she will go to great lengths to defend. Her visit to Paris in May for an exhibition of her work coincided with yet another auction of Native American Kachinas and sacred masks. This time it was even more personal: Included were Tlingit and Haida ceremonial items. So she decided to join the protesters, and raise her voice against this sale.
“I am twenty seven, and I relate to those objects,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I know them through my clan, my family, my community.”
She spoke of that and much more in an exclusive interview as she prepared to leave Paris.
How was your stay in Paris?
Wonderful! It will remain with me for the rest of my life. I love the place, the people, and I was surprised to discover that French people seem to know more about Native identity then Americans. There is still racism where we are: Our company, Trickster, promotes Native artists to break those destructive stereotypes so that people know the beauty of our culture through our art.
Is that why Trickster sells skateboards, basketballs and functional modern objects with a unique Tlingit touch?
Yes, Trickster was my brother’s idea, as he was hand-painting skate boards, that really worked well; so we decided to develop our company, to create new products, and work with the community, engaging the youth of Alaska. A lot of young Natives are into basketball and skateboards, and we wanted those products to be affordable. But one can also hang them on the wall as art pieces.
What did you experience at the auction?
My grandmother wanted me to be there; she knew what the Tlingit items meant. So I joined the protest, standing outside, holding signs. Hoping that this protest would reach the buyers, and they would give back the pieces to the community. We want them, because we are striving, as a culture. So it is a shame that an auction would sell those items and not give anything back to the community; and that they are sold as if Native people do not exist any more. So standing there, at the auction, and seeing my ancestors was frustrating. But it was a huge deal for me, and my community. I went to the Northwest coast room to see the objects, and they saw me: I wanted them to know that we are there for them, and we will wait for them. Their cultural value is essential to us: stories are related to each object, passed on to the next generation. All the pieces contain the spirits of the ancestors who created them. There is no Tlingit word for art, as our ceremonial objects are living beings. So this event was unfair; the items are our ancestors, they belong to our communities. Sacred objects used for ceremonies are not meant for individual usage. They should be inherited by the next generation; only the people of the community can translate what these objects represent. So, thinking that they would end up on someone’s home wall just for aesthetic reasons!
It sounds like a life and death experience?
Yes…. I felt alive being in my art show, and going to the auction was the opposite: I had to be quiet, as if I were invisible. Basically, it was like, ‘Your culture does not exist.’ A very contrasting experience: here I was in Paris, for this beautiful event at the Orenda Gallery, sharing my stories, meeting people, and at the same time, watching this disconnected relation between the items and their creators: the opposite of my experience as an artist. Our young people do art, so buying our art is meaningful. Why would you buy an item without knowing its story? Why not buy from an artist you can meet, and create a relationship with?
Photo: Dominique Godrèche
Tlingit Athabascan artist Crystal Worl of Juneau, poses with some of her work in Paris in May.