Peter Williams: Tradition Innovation
January - April 2021
About This Exhibition
An exhibition of garments, artwork, objects and film that highlights the lifestyle and creation of Alaska Native and environmental-based art by Peter Williams. Rooted in Yup’ik ways of knowing and being, and guided by tradition and a respect, his practice has evolved organically into contemporary media that advocates for the rights of Alaska Natives to live a traditional lifestyle in the present day, exemplifying reciprocity between the human and natural worlds to ensure that both will be around for future generations.
Peter Williams gave a presentation for his Solo Exhibition at the Sheldon Jackson Museum on January 16, 2021. He shares images of many of the works in the show and talks about his inspiration and the conceptual framework behind Tradition Innovation.
Yup’ik culture embodies reciprocity between human, plant, animal and spiritual worlds. I assume responsibility for this by practicing an endangered art form disrupted by colonization: sewing the skins of marine mammals and fish. My work challenges anti-Native policy, the lingering colonial mindset of divine right to rule America’s original inhabitants, and the role that mindset has in climate change and ecological collapse threatening Indigenous peoples and the natural world we depend on. My pieces intentionally discomfit viewers who subscribe to mainstream, non-Indigenous views of conservation, believing that we must “preserve” nature by minimizing human interaction with it. This is in contrast to Indigenous perspectives: we must build reciprocal, intimate relationships with plants and animals, as we nourish ourselves and adorn our bodies with them every day.
I create by manipulating the patterns, colors and shades of fish, seal and sea otter skins, carefully arranging scraps to create striking geometries or fluid curves. The surface aesthetics are simple, accessible, and do not initially communicate a narrative until the viewer notices the unusual texture of the works. A closer look leads to dialogue about the materials and the story of their becoming. The conservation of seals and sea otters is governed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the United States, which prohibits them from being hunted by most US citizens. Coastal Alaska Natives like myself are exempted from this prohibition, as we have sustainably and respectfully harvested these species for thousands of years. Marine mammals are a foundational part of our culture; and studies by marine biologists have demonstrated that our harvest does not negatively affect the species’ population levels.
My process perpetuates Alaska Native protocol of developing a personal relationship with ‘the materials of place.’ I source by hunting and fishing; I alter by tanning; I construct by the time consuming yet cathartic labor of hand sewing, each stitch a prayer. The start-to-finish intimacy of my work underlines the ethos of Indigenous practice: Our environment and its inhabitants are not to be treated as disposable resources, but as critical relationships. Before a hunt I smudge and pray, asking the animal for its life; after the hunt I honor the animal by giving it its last drink of water per Yup’ik custom. Catches are shared as nourishment for my community, then repurposed into a reflection of Native experience. By hand-sewing garments, sculptures and paintings out of fish and marine mammals that I hunt, I bind the human, natural and spiritual realms into traditional and new art forms, creating a capsule of Indigenous knowledge and a warning siren to the balance of humanity that ignores it.