Two paths to making art matter

Ken Anderson has travelled the world in search of ancient Tlingit art. His hunt for the purer, older examples of Tlingit carving has led him to collections overseas where the plunders of first contact ended up.

Ken Anderson has travelled the world in search of ancient Tlingit art.

His hunt for the purer, older examples of Tlingit carving has led him to collections overseas where the plunders of first contact ended up.

“The Spanish came first, and then the Russians, and then the English and then the Americans,” said Anderson, 39, sitting on the patio outside the Copper Moon Gallery, where his newest exhibit, Multimedia: New Works by Ken Anderson, opened last Friday.

“All those different countries have collections of the art work and it’s all spread out around the world.”

He speaks fondly of seeing his Tlingit heritage “when it was more representative of a stronger living culture.”

“Now there’s so many influences on people’s lives that it’s not the same as it used to be.”

Anderson is in the business of making a once-dying art form relevant to people again. But he only lives on one side of the “living culture” conundrum.

Let’s back up a second to see the problem in full view.

When a culture loses relevance on a group of people, and is diluted in an invasion of new influences, an artist in the tradition must make a fateful choice – whether to address the invasion or to ignore it.

First Nations art is the Canadian example par excellence. Brian Jungen’s aboriginal masks made from Nike shoes pay witness to the stamp consumerism has made on First Nation life. Locally, artist Joseph Tisiga’s Indian Band Corporation exhibits focus on the transformation of aboriginal identity in an era of control by external forces.

Both artists in this school are attempting to do what most artists do – make a cultural tradition relevant and powerful for people today. Aboriginal art suffers from not having the same power it did before contact with Europeans. Jungen and Tisiga’s strategy hinges on addressing the rupture of the last few hundred years. They want to make the tradition alive by including the invasion of outside forces in their work.

Anderson sees it differently.

He’s also trying to make the art of his ancestors a living thing that engages the present. But the Whitehorse artist believes achieving that living element – a relevance to people today – is found in sticking closer to classical aboriginal forms.

“Those guys have something to say just like I do,” said Anderson. “We each take away something different from the past,” he said. “Our influences are different and are paths are different.”

“I don’t know if I address that time when (aboriginal living culture) wasn’t around, I’m just grateful that it survived,” he said.

While he acknowledges recent history, the painful shifts from pre-contact to post-contact life don’t appear in his works.

“I appreciate what (Jungen and Tisiga) are doing,” he said. “I just choose to be more focused on the form.”

Anderson has mixed Tlingit and Scandinavian heritage. He was born and raised in Whitehorse and has been making art professionally for 12 years.

As the title of his latest exhibit suggests, he’s put on display photographs, wooden sculptures and metal work. Some of the photographs go back as far as 2003, but all of the wood carvings date from the last six months.

The birch and basswood carvings best exemplify Anderson’s attempts at making aboriginal art relevant while sticking to traditional forms.

A dark mouth-like shape wraps around a punchy red salmon in Salmon Bowl, a wall piece made from birch and painted with acrylic.

In the piece’s brief blurb, Anderson writes that it represents how we all hold the fate of the salmon in our hands.

While care, attention and respect toward the salmon is an ancient theme in Northwest aboriginal art, speaking about it in this way is decidedly modern.

The powerful yet vulnerable presence of the salmon is an allusion to the species’ current plight in a world surrounded by imposing human infrastructure, from pollution to dams to climate change.

Yet the shapes and forms of the carving are classical. It’s a story about today told in the clothing of the past.

Octopus, another standout piece, represents a busy life. Again, it’s not a piece from 200 years ago, but it remains true to certain older forms.

A similar mix of contemporary themes and traditional forms is felt in most of the pieces.

The intention is for people to come back to the pieces over and over again with a willingness to notice previously hidden elements, said Anderson.

Many of the Tlingit stories he uses in his art works came from his grandmother.

“My grandma used to tell me the same stories over and over again,” he said. “I’m still learning from those stories. When I think back at those stories, I realize, Oh, that’s what she’s trying to teach me.”

While Jungen or Tisiga try to tell a story in direct terms with shock and awe, Anderson, by sticking to traditional forms, tells a story more subtly.

And that form of storytelling is identical to the oral tradition in Tlingit culture.

“She didn’t say this is what you need to learn,” said Anderson. “She just told the story. And you learned from that – from deducing something, I guess.”

The ability to discover hidden themes through a second or third viewing is also present in Anderson’s experience with the older works

“When you look at the older work, you’re always learning something. It’s never learn it once. You might go back and look at the same piece years later. Maybe your eyes are more open. You see something different.”

The carvings, like the oral story-telling, also have a personal development aspect to them. They are meant to guide the receiver through life.

“The elders know (when to tell a story,) I guess,” he said. “They know when a kid is ready to listen.”

“It was a whole process of getting me ready to listen, slowing me down a little bit and getting me ready to listen.”

Anderson has only briefly studied under professional carvers. He’s mostly self-taught through observation.

“I tried to look at what I considered to be the best art and then focused on certain areas of that, whether it’s the design or how the design flowed together and moved,” he said. “I call it the flow of the lines and stuff like that – how it all worked together.”

He admires the universal high standard of the older work, he said.

His hope is that those high standards, developed over thousands of years, are still strong enough to evoke reaction for people today.

“Looking at the old stuff is such an inspiration and being able to contribute to a living culture now, it’s an honour to be able to do that in some small way,” he said.

“Culture evolves.”

Contact James Munson at

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