In N. Y., northern exposure
Alaska’s native culture, art a hit in the Big Apple; Palin’s rise spurs interest
NEW YORK n the market for a basket woven from seal intestines? How about a pouch fashioned from a moose bladder and decorated with shells? Or a statue of a musk ox carved from a woolly- mammoth tooth?
If so, you can go to Alaska— or visit the newly opened Alaska House, New York, where the work of more than 200 Alaskan Native artists is on display.
For Alaska House, the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican party’s vice presidential nominee was fortuitous: It has sparked a sudden interest in all things Alaskan.
“ Her rise in stature has certainly put Alaska on the map, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Tracey Foster, executive director of the nonprofit art and cultural center that opened in the city’s artsy SoHo district in September.
Most Americans know little about the state beyond snow and polar bears. And they know even less about the rich tradition of indigenous art that often finds expression in the remote and poor villages where many Alaska Natives live.
Housed in an airy 3,200- square- foot duplex, Alaska House aims not only to highlight environmental issues challenging the state but also to assist rural economic development by bringing Alaska Native art to a Lower 48 market, which otherwise might never experience it.
Artists will receive about half the proceeds from sales, with the balance going to the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage, according to Jean Carlo, the senior curatorial consultant for Alaska House, who has lived in the state for 30 years.
Except for visitors who pass through rural villages during the annual
Irunning of the 1,150- mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska Natives have few customers for their art.
“ They have no market,” said philanthropist Alice Rogoff, founder of Alaska House, New York and the native arts foundation.
A Harvard Business School graduate and former chief financial officer at U. S. News & World Report, Rogoff fell in love with Alaska, its native people and their art during a 2002 trip through the state’s most remote regions.
Started later that year, the arts foundation in Anchorage, where Rogoff has a home, represents nearly 1,000 artists, many of whom receive grants through a partnership with the Ford Foundation, she said.
To increase their national exposure, Alaska House was born. “ If you can’t have enough space to show the art in context, with educational programs to back it up, all you’re doing is selling art that doesn’t mean anything except visually,” Rogoff said.
Native art speaks eloquently about the lives of the people and their relationship to a starkly beautiful land, where the permafrost is thawing beneath their homes and their hunting grounds for walrus and seal are drifting farther away as the ice melts.
At first glance, the gallery, bristling with works in fur, skins, ivory and feathers by some 200 artists, could be the stuff of nightmares for animal- rights activists.
There is an Eskimo doll, with delicately carved walrus ivory face and hands, dressed in traditional clothing of sealskin and rabbit, priced about $ 3,600. There are baskets woven from baleen, the sieve- like fibers inside the mouth of a whale, topped with walrus ivory finials in the shape of polar bear heads, ranging from $ 1,000 to $ 4,000. There are moosehide slippers for $ 400. And there is a waterproof bag, fashioned from the pericardium sac of a moose, trimmed in shells, for $ 1,000.
But Carlo pointed out that Alaska Natives hunt and fish for subsistence, honor the spirit of the animal and use every part of it.
“ You never throw anything out,” she said.
Senior curatorial consultant Jean Carlo displays a jacket at AlaskaHouse, New York. Much of the native art incorporatesmaterial such aswalrus tusk, moose hide, whalebone, fish scales, feathers and furs.