In New Show, Lingít Artist Nicholas Galanin Shows What Decolonization Actually Looks Like
By Harrison Jacobs
January 5, 2024
Nicholas Galanin’s wide-ranging new exhibition, “Interference Patterns,” at SITE Santa Fe opens with something that the multidisciplinary Lingít and Unangax artist posits is uniquely American: a scream.
His new site-specific installation, Neon American Anthem (red), consists of a neon sign inviting visitors to “Take A Knee and Scream Until You Can’t Breathe” in front of a grid of doormats. The last several years have provided plenty of reasons to heed Galanin’s invitation and unleash a catharsis of emotion in this crimson-lit room. The piece threads together many different protest movements: Galanin created the work in response to the climate crisis, but the piece in its final form ended up alluding to Black liberation and the kneeling gestures seen at football games.
Neon American Anthem, which is also currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum, is a perfect encapsulation of Galanin’s practice, which is sharply critical of systems of power and often acts as a mordant commentary on art world institutions, taking them to task for their continued role in colonialism. As Galanin explained in a recent interview with ARTnews, when the Seattle Art Museum first approached him about the piece, he was queried about how institutions could decolonize, a question he said he is often asked as an Indigenous artist. When his first proposals—to return tribal objects to their communities—were rejected, he arrived at the current work which, in its own way, bluntly unsettles the institutions in which its versions are housed.
“It’s interesting for me to see these engagements in different institutional spaces,” Galanin said. “It’s been getting strong feedback … but it’s also been difficult. [SAM] has had a hard time with it. They’re supporting the work, but it is engaging and challenging the entire institutional structure.”
When visitors engage the work by screaming, it is disruptive across the museum. At SITE, a contemporary arts space sprawled across a single floor, you hear the screams throughout the central lobby and many of the adjacent galleries.
The work is just one of 24 works in “Interference Patterns,” Galanin’s largest exhibition to date. The show includes sculptures, installations, and video that each contend with the past, present, and future of Indigenous peoples. The results are thought-provoking, heartwrenching, and boldly liberated, often all at the same time.
Take for example," ‘kʼidéin yéi jeené (You’re doing such a good job)’," a 2023 video work that features Galanin speaking off-camera in Lingít in words of support, love, care, endearment, and affirmation to his son, whose delighted face centers the screen. The video is paired with "Loom," a 2022 sculpture mimicking a totem pole; it is constructed out of children’s desks and deconstructed chairs carved with Lingít formlines in pencil. The work references the long history of North American residential schools that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families in order to assimilate them into white American or Canadian culture. Adjacent to that work is "Indian Children’s Bracelet," a pair of small handcuffs engraved with clan tattoos, another reference to the prison-like detainment these schools inflicted upon their Indigenous students. The sculptures symbolically reform and repair past generational traumas, turning them into new Indigenous symbols. The deeply personal video work does so more literally. Galanin ensures his child receives the care and love that entire generations of Indigenous children never did.
According to Galanin, there’s one other act of reclamation hidden in the piece. In the process of making the video, he taught himself to speak Lingít. “I was relearning a language that was removed from my culture via forced assimilation and colonial violence as near as my father’s generation,” he said.
Such are the “Interference Patterns” indicated in the exhibition’s title, which could have less artfully been titled “Actually Existing Decolonization.” For instance, in the room following "Neon American Anthem" is photographic documentation of Never Forget, his 2021 installation for Desert X in Palm Springs, California. For that project, Galanin constructed 45-foot-tall letters spelling out “INDIAN LAND” in the manner of the iconic Hollywood sign, which was originally constructed to promote a whites-only development. Galanin’s sign sardonically references liberal society’s now-ubiquitous land acknowledgements while also refusing to accept the historical loss of sovereignty they still imply.
“It was a literal call for settler landowners to return the land back,” Galanin said of Never Forget, which encouraged participation through a GoFundMe that has, to date, raised $56,000. The artist added that he is currently working on a future project, initiated by the SITE show, to return land to Indigenous communities.
Again and again in “Interference Patterns,” Galanin points the way towards true redress. In "World Clock" (2022), a monoprint depicts a New York Times front page reporting the return of Manhattan to the Lenape; below, stacks of the most recent editions of the paper pile up. The distance between the two front pages, especially in recent weeks with daily stories about airstrikes on Gaza, can be a dislocating experience. The installation is meant to cease when the actual Times matches the monoprint.
“That might seem impossible to some. And it might seem really necessary and the only way forward for others,” said Galanin. “What I’ve learned about a lot of my work is that there has to be some envisioned future in it.”
In Galanin’s experience, posing that envisioned future forces those who believe it impossible into quantitative conversations about why. Suddenly you’ve proven what has actually been taken or removed from those Indigenous communities, and that’s where the real conversation begins.
In the case of Indigenous objects and human remains—both of which became central to the national conversation this year, following investigations into the Smithsonian Institute, the American Museum of Natural History, and other institutions—Galanin provides maps for what has been taken in his “Architecture of Return” series, begun in 2021. Those works display architectural blueprints of the aforementioned institutions painted onto deer hides, with escape routes and the objects in question also depicted. On a nearby plinth rests "Purchase" (2022), a set of copper lock picks handmade and engraved by Galanin with text from provenance cards of Indigenous objects at AMNH.
Galanin said he has witnessed the challenges associated with the repatriation of Indigenous objects, both as an active instigator and as a community member on the sidelines. He explained that many Indigenous people now have different belief systems or practices than when the objects were originally taken, which creates complications over how the objects should be buried or cared for if they are returned. Does one follow current belief systems and practices, or does one rely upon historical ones? Further, what does one do when members of the community hold conflicting beliefs, as is often the case?
Meanwhile, Galanin is currently working on a new project to get a Lingít mask on loan from the British Museum, so that he could replicate it and train a younger Indigenous artist how to carve masks in the process. Yet, as he tells it, the project has been stymied by the cost of shipping—around $60,000—and institutional bureaucracy.
“That’s just to loan it!” he said. “Things are shifting, but very, very slowly.”
Bubbling beneath the surface of the critiques, redresses, and reclamations that Galanin enacts in the various works on display is the acknowledgement that the tools provided to do so by the institutions in power are inadequate. Several of the most stunning pieces in the exhibition use porcelain to drive home this point. In SITE’s lobby is "The Value of Sharpness: When It Falls" (2019), an array of 60 porcelain hatchets decorated with Delftware floral motifs and gilded edges that hang in an arc, as if just thrown, from clear threads. That work is echoed later in Break in Case of Emergency, a 2022 group of porcelain sculptures of fire axes encased in glass boxes. The axes, like the hatchets, represent “the tools we have been given in replacement by an oppressive government,” Galanin explained. Purely decorative and fragile by nature, they cannot save or protect or provide. “The real value of the hatchets is that, when they break, there will finally be a sharp edge that we can utilize as a tool,” he added. The master’s tools, indeed.
The question of interpretation, and misinterpretation, runs through Galanin’s work. All of the SITE Santa Fe show’s wall text is written by the artist. It is shorn of obscurantist language, and typically makes critiques or interventions plain for any viewer to understand. In some cases, he said, doing so is an acknowledgement of just how little most people know about Indigenous life and history; in others, it is protection against misrepresentation. “Often, [Indigenous artists] are asked to explain why we’re here in these spaces and institutions. Then when we get there, and ironically, sometimes we’re told, ‘Well, don’t tell us because we want to be able to contextualize it,'” Galanin said. “And then it continues to be completely misread and misrepresented by someone who’s had zero experience in Indigenous communities, arts, creative process, practice, or connection to our place and world.”
At its core is the conviction that Indigenous culture requires Indigenous people to make it real. Colonial knowledge extraction is dead on arrival, as it always was. The work "Unconverted/Converted," a 2022 diptych of a deer hide and then a panel painted according to a digitized image of the hide, makes the loss of knowledge in translation visually obvious. The digitized hide lacks texture and detail. For “Intellectual Property,” a 2020 series of photographs, Galanin simply refuses the knowledge transfer. The photographs display the materials needed to make the Indigenous objects indicated in the title, but no other explanation or context is provided.
“It reinforces the idea that our knowledge is also our property. It enforces the idea that it lives with us and it continues through us,” said Galanin. “To this day, we still know how to create and get these things to us and for our communities.”
Solidarity across movements and marginalized peoples is threaded through the exhibition. Galanin’s strategies may have been developed in response to his historical and contemporary conditions, but they reach out beyond the Indigenous community. Another porcelain work, "American Talking Stick," is shaped like a police baton, sarcastically contrasting Indigenous talking sticks—used at large gatherings—with the tools of police violence, wielded against protesters and marginalized peoples.
“It’s becoming more and more apparent to many, I hope, that the collective liberation of all communities is at the core of any of our conversations,” Galanin said. “That’s something that humanity and the world has been faced with. We’re seeing it play out in many ways right now, in ways that have shifted.”
In November, Galanin made that solidarity tangible when he and Merritt Johnson asked the National Gallery of Art to remove their sculpture from its current exhibition on contemporary Indigenous art. They asked the museum to do so “due to US government funding of Israel’s military assault and genocide against the Palestinian people,” as they wrote on Instagram.
After screaming, it seems, comes the real work: cultivating solidarity and taking actions that can foster tangible change.