Bunnell artist in residence aims to connect communities
Falling in love, connecting communities and creating communities. That all sounds like serious stuff, until you get to the part about playing games — men vs. women — and, oh yeah, becoming a caribou.
In Allison Warden’s “Come on Caribou!” workshops this week, and her performance, “Let Glow,” showing 8 p.m. March 28 at Bunnell Street Arts Center, interactive theater participants will play games, reshape Bunnell into an Alaska Native village and become caribou. They’ll even make their own caribou antlers.
From 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Warden also leads the “Love Lichen Treasure Hunt and Dance Party.” Starting at Bunnell, teams will head out in Old Town in search of the missing love lichen. They’ll then have a dance party.
Serious topics like love and community overlaid with genuine goofiness describes Warden herself. She started out her slide talk on Sunday with a discussion of her Alaska Native heritage, right down to photos of her grandmothers and uncles. In Native culture, respecting and paying homage to your elders is as traditional as it gets.
“This generation inspires me to this day,” Warden said. “I soaked up elders as a little sponge.”
At the talk, Warden, 41, a full-time interactive performance artist since 2011, laid out her musical and theater background. Born and raised in Fairbanks, she sang in English and Inupiaq church choirs with her Inupiaq mother, Mary Ann Warden, acted in church plays and, in high school in Juneau, did an internship with Perseverance Theatre. A subtle lined chin tattoo also shows her commitment to her culture, although there’s a bit of pop to that, with the lines in color and not blue-black ink.
But then Warden wears a sealskin ball cap, wild eye makeup, big black square hipster glasses and a spiked bracelet that could take out an eye if you didn’t step back when she waves her hands, which she does a lot. A musician, she plays in the three-woman band, Yada Di, and also raps as Aku-Matu.
In the 1990s she might have been called a New Wave Native, but today, no label would dare to constrain her. Warden describes herself as interdisciplinary artist, a realization she came to when she had a regular job at Ilisagvik College in Barrow. Warden decided she could not, not be an artist.
“It made me look at what kind of art I want to do. It’s interdisciplinary art,” she said.
Three years ago, she decided to become an artist full time.
“Which is a very interesting thing to do as a human being,” Warden said. “It’s a very odd job.”
Her art and performance pieces include an interactive exhibit at the MTS Gallery in Anchorage, “Wait, Let me Finish Putting on My Armour,” about Native people getting ready for the tourist season. Performers stood behind cardboard cut-outs and said what tourists expected to hear. Visitors were encouraged to dress as tourists and given disposable cameras. In 2008 at Bunnell she worked with James Luna and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, two Native interdisciplinary artists she considers major influences, in “La Nostalgia Re-mix.”
Warden is probably best known for her work, “Ode to the Polar Bear,” about the threat to polar bears from climate change. She expanded it into “Calling All Polar Bears,” performed in 2012 at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Bunnell has sponsored many of Warden’s appearances in Homer.
“They have allowed me to become the artist I am today,” she said. “I am so grateful to Bunnell for continuing to support me and my visions.”
As Warden describes “Let Glow,” the piece “transforms audience members into a herd of Porcupine caribou where they find their inner glow and begin to fall in love with themselves, with one another as a herd and hopefully as a match of two love-struck caribou.”
The Porcupine caribou herd is the nearly 200,000-strong herd named after the Porcupine River that migrates in northwest Alaska and Canada. It connects the Athabaskan village of Arctic Village and the Inupiaq village of Kaktovik, both areas in its migration through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Debate over the future of the ANWR coastal plain, where the caribou calve, has polarized the two villages, Warden said. The idea is to use caribou to connect, not divide, communities. Being a caribou also equalizes everyone.
“We’re all caribou migrating together as a herd,” she said. “I’m hoping people are in love with this caribou thing.”
At Bunnell, in this week’s interactive workshops, participants will recreate a village. People will play village games, Fourth of July games, like Red Rover, an egg toss, a gunny-sack race or a three-legged race. They’ll play card games like Snert.
“You can come late. You can come early. You don’t have to come all the days,” Warden said. “I won’t be upset.”
Because male and female caribou sometimes connect on the migration, Homer’s herd might have a little love connection, too. Warden’s grandmother was a matchmaker, and she herself has brought together 10 couples who eventually married.
“If you’re single and you want to be matched, just give me your name,” she said.
Warden said she hopes “Let Glow” will grow into a national project.
“The bigger vision is to make a national migrating herd. Everybody’s a caribou. We enable people to be caribou who care,” she said. “Everybody connects, caribou across the nation as caribou.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Old Town Artist in Residence
Bunnell Street Arts Center
5-7 p.m. Thursday-Friday:
Continuation of “Come on Caribou!” interactive theater workshop (for ages 18 and older), Bunnell Street Arts Center
4-8 p.m. Saturday:
Love Lichen Treasure Hunt and Dance Party (all ages), Bunnell Street Arts Center, $5.
8 p.m. March 28:
“Let Glow” performance; $10-$20 suggested donation,
Bunnell Street Arts Center
For more information
Follow her on Twitter at aku-matu
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