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Nicholas Galanin Looks Past Trauma to Recovery
By Stacy J. Platt
January 24, 2024

SANTA FE — How often do we consider art making an act of care? Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin takes the notion of creation in the service of care seriously, and the theme serves as a through line in his retrospective show Interference Patterns, currently on view at SITE Santa Fe.

From the building’s entrance, visitors are beckoned into a room lit by a buzzing red neon sign set against a large black wall. The text to “Neon American Anthem (red)” reads: “I’VE COMPOSED A NEW AMERICAN NATIONAL ANTHEM: TAKE A KNEE AND SCREAM UNTIL YOU CAN’T BREATHE.” Many viewers see the Instagrammable wall and take the imperative to mean instead “take a selfie here.” I can’t help but wonder if and how many people follow the artwork’s directive. 

“Oh, there is screaming every day,” Rocio, a gallery guide, told me. 

Kids scream joyfully as they’re given full permission in a space where they would normally be shushed, and adults scream in all kinds of ways: hesitantly, musically, in groups, and sometimes with full-throated guttural grief. Rocio confided, “On Christmas Eve, right before closing, a woman entered with her child. She shared that she had lost a daughter the year before, and had just learned that you were allowed to scream in public in this room.” She did, wailing with the grief of such a painful loss, in the mostly empty space of SITE, before everyone was about to leave to enjoy the holiday break.

Several of the exhibition’s works elicit a cascade of complex responses, ranging from delight, humor, and intrigue to feelings of complicity and despair. Some pieces reference situations and events that feel ever present and intransigent, like “In every language there is Land / En cada lengua hay una Tierra.” The large C-print shows a sculpture by Galanin in which steel diverted from the construction of the US/Mexico border wall spells out the word “land.” Like many pieces in the show, the work speaks to multiple injustices that occur and merge along differing timelines: land taken from Indigenous people in the Americas; those communities’ inability to return to that land; and the dangers of immigrating to the US from the southern border. The sculpture is the same height as the border wall. At some approaches people can walk through it, while other spots are completely impassable. It currently resides in Brooklyn Bridge Park, on view through March 10.

The main gallery contains the series Architecture of Return, Escape, three mounted animal hides whose undersides are painted in dark architect’s blue and white. They illustrate the floor plans of major US museums that hold substantial collections of Indigenous artifacts, remains, and ceremonial objects. Embroidered in red thread, each floor plan also shows a visitor’s escape route from the rooms containing Indigenous collections, in order to repatriate these to the communities from which they were stolen. It’s as if Galanin has created a treasure map to steal back what was plundered, and return it to its communities. In an exhibition opening conversation between Galanin and scholar Joseph M. Pierce, the artist was asked what his hope for the Architecture of Return series was. Galanin replied:

Everything has to be returned. Period. … These are materials that our communities know how to harvest, handle — we create ceremonial objects that connect us to our history, that connect us to the supernatural. The reality is that we hold that knowledge [of care] and we pass it on in continuum, and that’s how we exist beyond these spaces that freeze us in a time period.

Nicholas Galanin, “Neon American Anthem (red)” (2023
), neon by Noble Neon, Seattle, Washington (courtesy the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York; 
SITE SANTA FE commission with the support of Peter Blum Gallery, New York, and Becky Gochman, photo Brad Trone)

Installation view of Nicholas Galanin: Interference Patterns at SITE Santa Fe. Left: “Loom” (2022), prefab children’s school desks and chairs with graphite and pencil carving; right: “K’idéin yéi jeené / You’re Doing Such a Good Job” (2021), video (phone Brad Trone)

Galanin poignantly returns to the theme of care in the video “K’idéin yéi jeené / You’re Doing Such a Good Job.” The camera focuses on the face of Galanin’s son At Tugáni, while Tlingit words of love, care, and affirmation are spoken to him off camera by his parents. The luminous sweetness of the child’s features is offset by the knowledge that recent generations of Indigenous children, captive at government boarding schools, never heard these expressions of care from family because they were taken, and they were brutally punished if they were heard speaking their native languages. Galanin is clear that this isn’t just a work about shedding light on a historical trauma, but an offering of a path to recover from it.

The two videos of “Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan” 1 and 2 demonstrate Galanin’s inclination to propose new ways to think about old tropes. The Tlingit title translates to “We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care.” In the first work, a contemporary, non-Tlingit dancer in a spare studio space performs fluid and freestyle movements in syncopation with a Tlingit song. The second video shows a Tlingit dancer in costume on a modern stage set, performing a Tlingit dance to contemporary industrial house music. Together, the videos underscore that Indigenous culture can be informed by and expanded through contact with Western knowledge, and that Indigenous cultural traditions can be modified and connected to Western culture through a shared affinity for an art form, regardless of who is performing.

My sense is that each work in Interference Patterns is both an invitation and a caution to the viewer: “Now that you know, now that I’ve shown you — what will you do differently?”

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