The new exhibition Recent Acquisitions features art in a wide range of media, from woodwork and photography to ceramics and a sound-and-video “micro sculpture.” But one object stands apart—a seal gut parka from the Aleutian Islands. Suspended in a corner, with sleeves impressively outstretched (thanks to the museum’s installation expert Jason Teraoka), the garment might be aptly called living art—created from once-living organic material approximately 60 to 80 years ago by a master craftsman of the Yup’ik Eskimo people. Called an imarnin (summer dried seal gut parka), or oasperrluk (over-garment) in Yup’ik, the parka carries with it both the seal’s story and the story of the craftsman. And because it was a working garment, it is also a lived-in piece of art, carrying the story of the person who wore it, too. Together, these narrative possibilities lead to a larger question: Where has this thing been?
Textile curator Sara Oka has gone to great length to answer that question. One key to understanding the item’s origin is through parsing the codes entwined in the garment’s nuanced stitching and ornamentation. Though predominantly beige in color, like a typical hide, the translucent parka is lined along at least eight major seams by colored threads, each with special significance. To interpret their meanings, Oka deferred to artist, storyteller, educator and native Yup’ik Eskimo Chuna McIntyre. According to him, “the colored bits of yarn resonate cultural ideals—red for the blood that binds us all, black for the underworld, darkness and mystery, and blue for the fleeting sky. White is the color of snow, of light and of the Yup’ik heaven.”
In addition to these mythological resonances, the colors also have personal meanings. In a lecture he gave at the museum on Dec. 9, Chuna offered insight into his people’s textiles and garments. “Each family had their own designs,” he explained. “You can always tell which family belongs to whom, by one little element [on the lower back of the garment] that they had the right to wear.” He also pointed out that the Yup’ik have made parkas from the hides of a variety of animals—from sea mammals to wolves, wolverines to muskrats—needless to say, on top of being master craftsmen, the Yup’ik people are prodigiously resourceful. They even use the changing seasons to their advantage. According to Chuna, “Summer dried gut retains an ethereal translucency. Winter dried gut is in essence freeze-dried, and the results would have been more opaque. The attention to detail on this parka, easily missed by the untrained eye, pays tribute to the last generation who were the keepers of this knowledge.”
This parka’s journey to this exhibition also represents a larger narrative for the museum. Earlier this year, Chuna lent one of his own parkas to the museum for the textile exhibition Sheer Delight. When he visited the museum to pack up the parka, he gave a demonstration for Collections staff of proper care techniques. Inspired by that experience, the museum purchased a parka of its own, and that has now come full circle in Recent Acquisitions. On display, the garment’s open hood is illuminated by a sun-like light mounted above. Decades ago, the beaming face of a Yup’ik Eskimo would have been peering from that hood, from the prow of a traditional Aleutian kayak, or across the vast white and green of the Alaskan tundra.
In his lecture, Chuna talked about another parka, which is in a German museum following a tumultuous life through the worlds of Bavarian and Russian royalty after being taken from Alaska. “When you look at the piece it fires the imagination, and as well it should,” Chuna said. “It has 3,000 years of history behind it. The garment just didn’t happen; it was created over a long history and time. Each element has its own time and space, and its own function.”