Explore Native Alaskan arts and culture in Alaska to incorporate elements of this art tradition in the classroom through the teaching of 3D art forms and elevate awareness of non-Western arts practices.
While at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, I met with Professor Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner, the Associate Professor of Native Art. We discussed the complexities of teaching Native arts to a cohort of students who are not all indigenous. Issues of representation, appropriation, authenticity, style versus technique and intention deeply impact how Professor Mehner approaches art-making and art-teaching and I anticipate grappling with these questions myself in translating my learning into my classroom.
I was reminded of how deeply I care about a careful and critical approach to representation. Alaska Native cultures and peoples have been painfully harmed by Western encroachments on land, resources and identity. As a Chinese-American, I have experienced the harm of stereotype and misrepresentation of the "Oriental" and I was confronted by the many challenges of properly representing a diverse set of cultures that have been grossly parodied in mainstream Western narratives for so long.
In my research, I noticed a discrepancy between how nonprofit institutions represented Native arts and how these traditional art forms showed up in private galleries and tourist shops. While museums set Native artwork within its specific sociopolitical context, most galleries and shops sold stylized, fairly stereotypical "traditional" pieces, often made by non-Native artists. My research increasingly veered into an examination of these differing approaches to representation and authenticity.
In my Spring 2023 semester, I plan to craft a 3D woodworking art class centered on Alaska Native woodworking traditions and techniques. We will be practicing with hand tools used by Alaska Native groups for centuries and create different projects based upon the wood crafts of distinct indigenous groups (e.g. Tlingit bent box, Inupiaq drum frame). I will encourage students to draw from the stories and themes of their own diverse cultures instead of trying to recreate Alaska Native spiritual icons
The bent wood box is an art form unique to the indigenous groups of Southeastern Alaska: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Eyak. These boxes served both ceremonial/aesthetic and practical functions and were crated by steaming a thinner piece of wood and bending it into a box shape, requiring no metal hinges or nails. The bent box will be one of the art projects I teach in my woodworking class; we will examine the history and traditions of bent wood box making before creating and decorating our own.
For this woodworking class, I will partner with local businesses and gathering places (such as a cafe) to provide my students the opportunity to curate their own woodworking exhibition at the end of the class. This student-created art exhibit will showcase the learning and art projects my students have done in this class and will invite families, colleagues and neighborhood residents to participate in my students' learning. This exhibition will also help to deepen existing community connections.