Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Artist – Anchorage
Sonya Kelliher-Combs is an artist of mixed decent: Iñupiaq from the Alaska community of Utqiagvik, and Athabascan from the village of Nulato. Through the use of synthetic, organic, customary, and modern materials and techniques, she builds upon the traditions of her people. The subjects of her work are patterns. Personal and cultural symbolism forms the imagery. These symbols speak to history, culture, family, and the life of her people. They also speak about abuse, marginalization, and the historical and contemporary struggles of Indigenous peoples.
Her work has been shown in numerous individual and group exhibitions in Alaska and abroad, including HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor, SITELINES: Much Wider Than a Line, Sakahan: International Indigenous Art, and Native Art Now: Contemporary Indigenous Art. Her current and upcoming exhibitions include the traveling group exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists 2019-20 and Mark at Minus Space in Brooklyn this November. She will be teaching a two-day fish skin workshop this Friday and Saturday at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery in Whitehorse.
- The gift of Strength
I applaud those who are not afraid to stand up and say what is hard to express. Artists like Shan Goshorn, Rebecca Belmore, James Luna, Daka-Xeen Mehner, Marie Watt, Nicholas Galanin, and many more. Their work and voices cast light on the atrocities inflicted on generations of Indigenous People across North America and beyond. I am thankful for their work and their courage.
- The gift of Memory
The Idiot Strings series began as a memorial to three uncles and one cousin who tragically took their own lives, four men who suffered from the experience of boarding school, the Vietnam War, and abuse of the clergy. Idiot strings are tethers that hold one’s mittens; they are also a tie than cannot be cut. We must always remember those whom we have lost and continue to heal from the historical traumas of colonization. Alaska Natives are three times more likely to take their life than the rest of our nation. Healing is a process that takes a lifetime, and sometimes generations. Despite the negative taboo of speaking of this issue, everyday objects are a positive testament to the innovation and perseverance of our cultures. These problems, although challenging, must be voiced in order to transform and promote healing and awareness.
- The gift of Nature
I was taught that the land and sea would provide resources, spiritual and physical, necessary to sustain a healthy life. We have unspoken truths: honor all that you harvest; respect the natural world that provides for you, your family, and your community; take care of one another; and do not take more than you need. Nothing is more beautiful than growing up on the land, harvesting with your family, and understanding that you are a part of this place.
- The gift of Traditions
Through the observation and practice of time-honored traditions – skin sewing, beading, food preparation and gathering – I realized my role as Woman, Daughter, Sister, Wife, and Artist. Customary women’s work taught me to appreciate the intimacy of intergenerational knowledge and material histories.
- The gift of Knowledge and Sharing
I am inspired by our ancestors and their relationship to their environment embodied in their use of skin, fur, and membrane in material culture. I am passionate about sharing and learning. An amazing program is the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center’s Material Traditions Program that brings together Alaska Native Master Artists and Culture Bearers to share endangered arts and practices with each other, youth, and the public. Their exhibition and programs are an amazing example of working with communities to elevate Alaska Native voices.