Susan Fair's untimely death in 2003 cut short a career as a curator, academic, and strong advocate of Native American arts, and this book demonstrates how passionate she was about the region and its people. The aim of the work is to present a comprehensive picture of the works of artists in a wide range of media and styles, across all regions of Alaska. This may seem like an impossible undertaking in just one book, and indeed it does make for a rather dizzying introduction to the subject, but an effective one nonetheless.
The work amounts to 280 well-illustrated pages, and if one obvious complaint can be made, it is that the book needs to be far longer in order to tackle the huge range of available material. Of course, time constraints and keeping the work at an affordable price made this impossible, and it is testament to the formidable editorial skills of Jean Blodgett that she managed to tackle the project so effectively. Having never met Fair, she took on the tasks of grappling with the hundreds of photographs, interviews, and notes that were left to her, and forming them into a coherent work. A curator and art historian by profession, Blodgett had previously focused upon the Native art of Canada, where the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs maintains a database incorporating the biographies of hundreds of artists. Sadly, no such system is in place in Alaska, making the task of the editor and author much more complex and necessitating a search through a wide range of sources to find artist information. One can only hope that the Alaskan Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs follows the Canadian example and produces a centralised database for the benefit of current and future generations of both academics and general readers. Surely an online digital archive is long overdue?
The consequence of the relatively sparse amount of artist information in the Alaskan public domain is a more object-focused viewpoint from Blodgett, which is in keeping with her background as an art historian. Conversely, Fair chose a context-based approach in her study, and compensated for the lack of biographical information on some artists with a good collection of interviews and her substantial personal network acquired through many years of working in Alaskan art. In practice, the two women complement each other well, and that they never met does not seem to have impacted negatively upon the book — indeed, the opposite could be true; by not having collaborated, they have no special personal loyalty and so work toward the objective of the publication, and not the feelings of each other. Blodgett removed some of what she describes as ‘the more academic or esoteric discussions’ from Fair's text, and the result is a clear, concise, and eminently readable introduction and overview.
In dealing with the vast amount of work from which to select, Blodgett generally chose to limit the amount of works to one by each artist. This does have inevitable drawbacks; one cannot get a sense of an individual artist's creative development and evolution, nor see how an individual's work differs depending on the media used. However, this ‘one-object, one-artist’ approach does seem to be the most sensible way of coping with the size of the project.
Selection policy inevitably comes into play, and this manifests itself in the emphasis placed on certain Native groups. Many Western readers naturally think of Alaskan Native art and ‘Eskimo’ art as synonymous; hopefully Fair's presentation of the diverse range of cultures in the region will be an antidote to this. In truth, Inupiaq, Yup'ik, and Aleut are given rather more attention than groups from the south, such as Tsimshian and Haida, but nonetheless it is nice to see a chapter dedicated to the ‘Indian’ cultures, including a good amount of space given over to describing objects and their context from the interior Athabascan cultures. The state's ‘Percent for Art’ programme (1% of the construction costs of public buildings must be spent on art for that facility) is only touched on briefly, as Fair focuses principally upon exhibitions that she curated. It would have been interesting to read more about the work that has come out of this initiative since its inception in 1975, but again, limitations in space prevent a fuller exploration of public art.
The typeface is clear, and illustrations are generally close to the relevant text, making for a pleasurable read. The captions for each work are concise, and offer the kind of background information that lifts the works out of the abstract, and gives a sense of the living vibrancy of the objects and the communities and individuals that create them. The book has a comprehensive index, and a wide-ranging bibliography.
Fair's succinct essays highlight the role that individual artists play in their community and the cultural value placed on particular objects, styles, and materials. She presents a convincing argument on the artificiality of such concepts as ‘tradition’ and ‘market art,’ indicating instead that innovation and trade have informed and influenced Native artists for centuries. She develops her argument about the fluidity of the Native concept of tradition by presenting a series of artists who challenge western perceptions of traditionalism in their use of materials and motifs. Artists such as Susie Qimmiqsaq Bevins and Larry James Beck demonstrate how ‘traditional’ motifs and genres can be developed and altered through the use of modern materials. Here Fair highlights continuity as well as change — Beck's use of unusual and found objects (such as plastic pancake turners and hubcaps) is both strikingly post-modern and yet also a continuation of the centuries-old tradition of beach-combing, which has played such an important part in the cultural and economic experience of coastal communities.
Fair underpinned the entire work with first-hand interviews, making for a very artist-focused read. Unusually, she chose a poetic format for interview quotations, which Blodgett removed from the final text in order to make the work more accessible to a general audience. These interviews are developed into some interesting discussions on native worldviews. Shishmaref-based sculptor Harvey Pootoogooluk was as keen to discuss his experiences of hunting as he was to talk of his sculpture, and this blurring of the boundaries between art and survival is a constant theme in Native experience. Later one reads of the cultural resonance of mukluks (boots), which are both decorative and extremely functional — a well-made pair can save their owner's life on a hunting trip. Properly insulated mukluks, a fine multifunctional patkutaq (which can act as a bowl, fan, plate, and mosquito-swat), and the well-carved handle of an Ulu knife: all are perceived as both decorative art pieces and functional, life-saving implements, and the outsider must gain some insight into this viewpoint in order to understand the cultural meanings that underlie the objects. Furthermore, the multi-functional nature of many of these objects makes them very difficult to categorise in Western terminology. Fair explores this idea, and also the notion that language plays an important role in understanding purpose and intention. She cites the example of Yup'ik grass containers and seal-skin bags for dolls; both share the same name in Yup'ik (‘like a basket’). These objects share a functional commonality in Yup'ik worldview, which is alien to Western discourse. It is a shame that the constraints of the size of the book mean that these arguments cannot be developed further.
The chapter on ‘Genres, boundaries and ways of making’ effectively brings the various Native groups together to explore similarities and contrasts. One reads that Eskimo culture tends to value intellectual property above material objects, seeing the artwork as almost ephemeral. Conversely, the Tlingit value the object in itself, having a stronger affinity with the physical. The attitude towards masks is another example; in different areas of the state they are viewed in completely different manner. To some, they are mere entertainment, whilst elsewhere they have enormous cultural resonance, and need to be handled with great respect, if at all. Elsewhere one observes that within groups there are different ideals and values at play. Tlingit weavers Teri Rofar and Marie Laws use their art to express their opposition to clear-cut logging in southeast Alaska, which (Fair indicates) does not reflect the opinions of the majority of Native Sitka residents. Throughout the book there are reminders that Alaska is far from homogenous.
Fair did not shy away from the controversies of her own profession; curatorship. Through her discussion of the topic, a curator's view on selection policy is demonstrated, as is the presentation of objects within the public context. This is, as always, underpinned with interviews with artists, ensuring that the curator/artist dynamic is explored from both perspectives.
The main accomplishment of author and editor is the success in resolving the conflict between making a book accessible to a general audience, whilst maintaining its academic substance, and in turn making this accessible to a non-Native audience whilst attempting to reflect the spirit and intention of the Native artists themselves. Although one cannot speak on behalf of the artists, one cannot deny that the book is permeated with a sense of respect for the objects and their creators, and of genuine joy in exposing this often neglected art to a wider audience.