Now on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art are four installations that are part of Honolulu Biennial 2019—and one of them features a medium that once lived and breathed. It’s a massive, taxidermy polar bear. With its dark brown eyes staring straight ahead, mouth ajar and left paw lifted, the polar bear seems frozen mid-stride. But a better look reveals the polar bear’s back half is as flat as the rug it once was. It’s difficult not to ponder the meaning of the polar bear’s transformation.

The thought-provoking work—We Dreamt Deaf—is by Tlingit/Unangax̂ multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Galanin. Born in Sitka, Alaska, Galanin earned his BFA in jewelry design from London Guildhall University and later received his MFA in indigenous visual arts at Massey University in New Zealand. Exploring identity, culture and politics, he works as a solo artist and is also part of two artist collectives: Black Constellation and Winter Count. Most recently, he is a participating artist in the second Honolulu Biennial, which opened on Saturday at HoMA.

The HoMA blog caught up with Galanin to learn more about what influences his work and the process behind the polar bear, which the New York Times calls an example of “incandescent method” that deftly “skip[s] past the verbal mind to hit you right in the belly.”

"We Dreamt Deaf" by Nicholas Galanin, photo courtesy of artist

“We Dreamt Deaf” by Nicholas Galanin, photo courtesy of artist

You first learned the traditional crafts of your tribe from your family. When did you realize you were going to expand on these crafts and pursue contemporary art?

My foundation in the creative world largely started through customary cultural apprenticeships studying and working within the Tlingit Continuum, all we can do to honor those that have come before us and contribute to the community and culture for future generations. The term contemporary art is never enough in these conversations… I will leave you with a quote from a piece I wrote for Walker Art Magazine, a piece that goes into depth surrounding the verbiage of traditional, contemporary.

I have the immense joy and honor to participate in the continuum of Tlingit culture, creating from a position of independence and interdependence. Settler society attempts to categorize and compartmentalize work by artists of indigenous descent. In doing so, lines are invented according to percentages, materials, processes, and dates strategically selected to limit who and what we are told we can be and how we should function. I refuse to separate the intricacies of indigenous culture and community to maintain authority for colonial and settler institutions or agendas. Stereotypes and romanticization of Indigenous people are rooted in centuries-old justifications for genocide which have been continued via blood quantum and ethnicity based on percentage. We are the only community in the United States that resides in part in internment camps (reservations). We are the only community in the United States whose blood percentage is monitored to determine if we are registered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs by a number. I challenge those who view or listen to my work to consider that indigenous people are not contained by colonial mechanisms designed to erase our existence through continually narrowing categories of Indian-ness.

How do your culture and the way history has defined it influence your work?

I am part of this continuum, we all have a position, do you know yours? My community is formed by many beautiful and powerful aspects, including land, love, survival, the supernatural, dance, song, creation, continuum, ancestral knowledge. It all influences my work, my music, my ideas. A large part of creating sovereignly is listening.

Tell me about what went into creating We Dreamt Deaf.

The taxidermy polar bear—shot in the 1970s by a white sport hunter in Shishmaref, a village now falling back into the ocean due to climate change—melts into trophy form. We Dreamt Deaf is half-animal, half-rug, fixed in the struggle to survive an unsustainable condition. With this title, we are all implicated in participating in the anthropocentric industrial dream that renders us deaf to our impact on all of our relatives (human and non-human). Speaking to colonizers and colonized, to generations past and future, to humans as an animal forgetful of our place in the world, the work speaks of losing sight and sound of what is done to us and by us; of how we are living, what is being lost through our taking. The polar bear is an iconic symbol of the struggle for survival of animals and cultures who have been decimated through colonial corporate enterprises focused on extraction from land, and the development of capital without care for the consequences.

What do you want audiences to think when they see this piece?

I hope the work speaks for itself. I am not asking the audience to think a certain way, I am asking them to act a different way than society has continually enabled the destruction of our environment due to capitalism and disconnect.

On view through May 5.