The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. What’s it worth when the artist augments paintings with words from an endangered Native language that has no original written form?
That’s what the public can decide by going to see the artwork by Alaska Native artist Argent Kvasnikoff on display at the Bunnell Street Arts Center for the rest of the month. During the Apollo’s Siheyuan exhibit opening last Friday, Kvasnikoff spoke about the importance of symbolism in helping to understand a language and the concepts, ideas and spiritual features of a culture. In this case, the culture is his own Dena’ina.
According to his artist statement about the exhibit, Apollo’s Siheyuan is “the meeting of the spiritual traditions in the ancient histories of two geographical extremes.” Apollo is the Greek god of the sun, music and art, among other things. Siheyuan is a Chinese architectural tradition influenced by Confucian ideals of social order and honor, Taoist principals of living with the forces of the natural world, and Buddhism, according to the exhibit overview.
The collection of art represents parts of spiritual traditions separated from their liturgies or structures, Kvasnikoff wrote.
“By examining features in how people express faith and how they have influence how we navigate the world, we can understand that the human need for expressing spirituality shapes almost every aspect of even the most secular environments,” he wrote in the overview.
Kvasnikoff is a member of the Ninilchik Tribe and lives and works in Ninilchik. In 2015 he embarked on the Qena Sint’isis project, in which he created a writing system for the alphabet of the Dena’ina language using symbols. Dena’ina is an oral language with no original written form. It was translated into Latin letters for the purposes of learning and preserving it. Diacritical marks are added to indicate sounds not found in the Latin alphabet.
In his project and in his most recent art exhibit, Kvasnikoff utilizes his created writing system in his ink paintings.
“Each symbol is a design based on a real thing, and so the Dena’ina words for those things begin with the same sound as that letter,” he said last Friday in his artist’s talk at Bunnell. “So it’s like a memory device as well.”
Also present at the Bunnell exhibit opening were a handful of 3D printed objects representing El’egen vessels, or vessels for a shaman or medicine person in Dena’ina culture.
Set up in the middle of the room was Kvasnikoff’s Sem K’izhi installation, translated to Celestial Incarnation. It was comprised of a plain white seat positioned underneath a white dome shaped roughly like flower petals, meant to symbolize a cloud. Inside the dome was a black surface through which bright blue lights blinked on and off, reflecting the location of the constellations in the night sky as they should have appeared around the day of the art exhibit opening, Kvasnikoff said.
The cloud plays a dominant role in the Dena’ina creation story, Kvasnikoff told the public during the artist talk. He also told a story about how, according to certain sources, staring wantonly up at the night sky could be a taboo activity for Dena’ina people who did not have a role or position in society that required them to.
“I just love that idea and I love being unorthodox, so I thought what better way to do that than to just kind of take that and make something that everybody can go look at it,” Kvasnikoff said.
Also included in the art exhibit was a representation of a Dena’ina medicine compass consisting of four panels connecting with a silver ring. The four panels unite elements of the traditional medicine wheel with the gospels of the four evangelists, according to the artist description.
During his artist talk at the Friday exhibit opening, Kvasnikoff answered a question from a community member about his use of his created writing system for Dena’ina in his art. The symbols used to represent phonetic sounds of Dena’ina feature in most of his work, including Apollonic Mirror paintings and Dnayi Scroll paintings on display Friday. He now includes them in pieces habitually, Kvasnikoff said.
“I just thought, well maybe a better way for some of those ideas to survive is also through a visual medium,” Kvasnikoff said of the paintings marked with various letters from the created alphabet. “And not just looking at Latin letters, which don’t make any sense, because when you see Latin letters you want to give them Latin sounds.”
The Dnayi Scrolls are calligraphic paintings depicting some natural phenomena, like a mountain or clouds, along with their name in Dena’ina written using Kvasnikoff’s alphabet.
“There’s been a lot of linguists who’ve done a lot of documenting and raw data,” Kvasnikoff said of how he thought to create the writing method. “But when I was talking to people who run youth programs, like in my tribe, a lot of those concepts, they’re a little bit big for kids to understand. So I thought, well when you just show a list of words to kids, they don’t know how to fit that into any kind of context. So you need to start kind of backwards, and that is by showing them the symbolic context of what they (the words) mean.”
Kvasnikoff told the assembled crowd at his exhibit opening that upon reviewing his work Bunnell Artistic Director Asia Freeman told him he was practicing reverse engineering in his art. Instead of reverse engineering physical things, Freeman said Kvasnikoff is reverse engineering ideas, he said.
“And I really like that, and that really stuck with me,” he said. “And I think that’s something that I’m going to use going forward from now. And so I really owe her a lot.”
Kvasnikoff said it was a treat for his art to be on display at Bunnell, an art gallery he’s been visiting since he was a child.