Indigenous artist's exhibit explores the impacts of colonization
By Brian Sandford
January 19, 2024
Before viewing Nicholas Galanin’s Interference Patterns, a sprawling SITE Santa Fe exhibition delving in part into the legacies and consequences of colonization, visitors might hear uncontrolled screaming and wonder if they’re about to see more explicit horrors than they’d imagined.
The first room featuring the Indigenous multidisciplinary artist’s work houses Neon American Anthem, an 11½-by-16-foot stark neon sign reading, “I’ve Composed a New National Anthem: Take a Knee and Scream Until You Can’t Breathe.” Fifteen mats are arranged in front of the buzzing red letters in what curator Brandee Caoba calls an invitation for catharsis.
“‘Take a knee’ was made popular through [former San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick in the NFL,” she says. “It’s at once a gesture of reverence but also defiance, and ‘scream until you can’t breathe’ is a reference to police brutality and the murders of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols and so many other people of color by police. There’s so much reverberating settler colonial violence and generational trauma in New Mexico. … There’s a lot to be screaming about right now.”
Caoba is pleased so many visitors have been comfortable flouting societal expectations and shrieking within earshot of others. The exercise might set them up for an even more raw emotional experience as they explore the seven other gallery spaces containing Galanin’s creations.
In the heart of the exhibition, three pieces intersect to resonate with viewers. You’re Doing Such a Good Job is as uplifting as the title suggests. On a 12-by-15-foot video screen, an off-camera Galanin (Tlingit-Unangax) speaks kind phrases to his pigtailed 4-year-old son At Tugáni’, who grins joyfully as the Pyramid Mountains near their Sitka, Alaska, home tower magnificently in the background. The phrases include “I love you I love you I love you,” “You’re the sweetest,” and “Thank you” and are spoken in Lingít.
"There’s so much reverberating settler colonial violence and generational trauma in New Mexico. … There’s a lot to be screaming about right now.” — Brandee Caoba, SITE Santa Fe curator
Galanin took part in an artist talk on October 7 at SITE Santa Fe, and At Tugáni’ was one of three family members who accompanied him. At Tugáni’ hadn’t seen the show, Caoba says, and exclaimed, “Oh my god, that’s me!” upon seeing the screen.
“Just hearing a father speak words of care to his son is kind of revolutionary in some ways, and it is healing and beautiful,” Caoba says. “Nicholas is speaking Lingít language, which was lost; he wasn’t taught it growing up. I think because of colonization and residential boarding schools, it wasn’t passed on in his family. So through his artwork, he is reclaiming the language. He’s learning this language; he’s teaching his son this language. And he’s implementing it with words of care.”
The interaction includes large English subtitles and is heartwarming enough to induce tears of joy. Near the base of the screen, Indian Children’s Bracelets is heartbreaking to the point of evoking a different emotion with tears.
It consists of a small pair of handcuffs clearly not intended for adults, sending one’s mind spinning about the evil they helped facilitate. It doesn’t require much imagination, given their proximity to the video of a smiling Indigenous child.
“These handcuffs are not unlike those that were used to forcibly remove children from their homes,” Caoba says, referring to young Indigenous people being sent to boarding schools to essentially be culturally deprogrammed. “There are a lot of layers. He’s definitely critiquing the way the Western culture covets and logs Indigenous jewelry, Indigenous art, Indigenous culture, while it doesn’t want to look at the history of Indigenous people.”
Loom, a few feet away from Indian Children’s Bracelets, is a tower of stacked school desks.
“All of the works reference the historical trauma of residential boarding schools in Canada and the United States,” Caoba says. “There were, like, over 400 boarding schools across the United States and Canada, and 42 of them, I believe, were in New Mexico.”
Earlier in Interference Patterns, Indian Land is a photograph of block letters spelling those words against a mountain backdrop near Palm Springs, mimicking the famous sign elsewhere in California.
“These are huge public art pieces; each letter in Indian Land stands 45 feet tall,” Caoba says. “It’s the same scale as the Hollywood sign. It obviously references the Hollywood sign, which used to say, ‘Hollywoodland.’ That was a new housing development that displaced a lot of Black and brown people in that area, and it was designed to keep them out.”
Upon closer inspection, White Flag, on a wall facing Indian Land, reveals a polar bear clinging to a piece of wood, its arms outstretched. The bear was killed by European trophy hunters in the 1920s, Caoba says; Galanin purchased it on eBay. Caoba calls it the sharpest critique of climate change she has ever seen.
“I think it’s interesting being a New Mexican, living in the Southwest climate, and Nicholas living in Sitka,” she says. “Both of our environments are front lines for the impacts of climate change, in some sense, with melting icebergs there, and fires and water scarcity here.”
Near the exhibition’s end, Converted, Unconverted juxtaposes a pristine deer hide with one of similar size that’s pixelated, as though the original image had been uploaded, then output on a low-resolution printer. It’s a statement on how the complexity of culture gets lost in the process of conversion, Caoba says.
Caoba became familiar with Galanin’s work in 2015. A video he had created nine years earlier of an Indigenous dancer moving to modern music, followed by a modern dancer moving to traditional music, was featured at the since-closed Red Dot Gallery on Canyon Road. Galanin composed the modern music; he also wrote all the texts accompanying his creations, a rarity in the art world.
Caoba approached Galanin about being featured at SITE Santa Fe in 2021. The video and music she’d seen at Red Dot are at the end of Interference Patterns.
“When we started our conversations, we were focusing on ideas around climate change, how it’s predicated on colonization,” she says. “We developed a checklist that evolved into this show, which is speaking to both the ways that natural patterns are being interfered with by human-driven climate change, and also ways in which we can interfere with systemic oppression.”