Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Nicholas Galanin

By Barry Ace


The Curtis Legacy, C-print, 36 x 24 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

Nicholas Galanin was born in 1979 in Sitka, Alaska and is of mixed Tlingit/Aleut and non-Native ancestry. His approach to making art is conceptual, thematically addressing pertinent issues of Native American representation and cultural critique. He uses a multidisciplinary approach to art-making and his body of work for the most part includes sculpture, installation, video and new media. The work is aesthetically provocative, sublime and layered — touching upon aspects of authority, authenticity, representation and commoditization of Native American culture. Galanin brings to his work a liberating space for people of all cultures to engage with and relate to from their unique cultural perspective.

In 2006 Galanin created a suite of sculptural works entitled What Have We Become? that were cut and assembled from literally thousands of individual sheets of blank and text-laden paper. The works began not as culture specific, but instead a generic face was used to create a culture-free mask-like form. In What Have We Become? Vol. 4, Galanin hand-bound one thousand blank pages that were cut and assembled into a 3-dimensional human face, while in What Have We Become? Vol. 3, he cut away one thousand pages to form a negative relief of a human face in book form. This series of works progressed to include other forms, some with blank pages and others with text such as Tlingit Raven Vol. 14, cut from seventeen hundred pages of the publication Under Mount Saint Elias, a sacred mountain to the Tlingit. The use of this particular text in the work is significant for its cultural critique of anthropology.

Made In Indonesia Vol. 17 is another paper sculptural work consisting of seven hundred cut pages forming a generic mask facial form, this time with the replicated text “Made In Indonesia.” In these works, Galanin draws our attention to the impact of economies of purchase, where cloned and appropriated representations of Native American material culture are recreated and represented back to a consumer Nicholas Galanin economy, often to the very country from which they were originally appropriated. The works from this suite move on a number of complex layers and meanings; from questioning the impact of the social sciences, to defining culture, to the homogenization of culture, to the importance of the authenticity of voice. The cutting away or alteration of the book may also be read as a disrupting force in the symbolic authority of the book as a dominant conveyor of knowledge.

The Imaginary Indian Series, 2009, Mixed Media Installation, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the Artist

The Imaginary Indian Series, 2009, Mixed Media Installation, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the Artist

In his suite The Imaginary Indian, Galanin presented non-Native-made masks and some Native-made tourist trade objects embellished with and mounted against a French toile motif. The objects are generic in form and function and the toile motifs depict nineteenth-century European vignettes depicting high society bourgeois imagery. Galanin has “white-washed” the form and function of these objects and presents them as objets d’art trapped in a romanticized cultural stasis. Yet the critique is not entirely negative, for Galanin has left us room for the possibility for cultural revitalization. 

Cultural idealism is also prevalent in Galanin’s work and is addressed in the suite of works under The Curtis Legacy. Frontier photographer Edward Curtis, best noted for his early twentieth century comprehensive portfolio of images of Native Americans, is the source of inspiration for Galanin’s work. Curtis’s images of mass-marketed stereotypical cultural ideals and primitive representations have become a topic of academic debate and reinterpretation. In his critique, Galanin reverses the representation of Curtis’s imagery through a suite of works depicting a nude non-Native woman wearing a non-Native-made generic mask. The work draws our attention to the impact of the economy of cultural idealism, appropriation, colonization and the objectification of the female body.



Additional Resources compiled by Students in the Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Spring 2013

Web-based Resources


“Nicholas Galanin: Artists: Beat Nation – Hip Hop as Indigenous Culture.” Beat Nation. 2013.

 Beat Nation website offers his biography, artist statement and videos of his multimedia art.

 “Alaskan artist, Nicholas Galanin, wins prestigious fellowship.” Alaska Dispatch. 2012.

An online article written by Alaska Dispatch gives detail about the artist winning his prestigious fellowship.

 “Nicholas Galanin, Native American Artist.” Native Arts Collective. 2012.

 Native Arts Collective provides the artist’s artwork inspiration and background, including more links.

Everette, Deborah, and Elayne Zorn. Encyclopedia of Native American Artist. Greenwood Press, 2008. eBook Academic Collection. 49- 50.

 This is an online eBook that contains presentable resources about the artist’s biography and artwork.   

Selected Bibliography


Casey, Sanchez. “CULTURE SHOCK VALUE.” Santa Fe New Mexican. Points of View Reference Center, July 2010. 26.

 This article reviews about the artist’s artwork and the intentions behind it through a conceptual and provocative approach.

Walker, Ellyn. “Nicholas Galanin: First Law of Motion.” C. International Contemporary Art. Supplemental Index. Spring 2012.

 This article evaluates the artist’s art exhibition “First Law of Motion” that had shown numerous works held at the Toronto Free Gallery in Toronto, Ontario from November 15th – December 18th, 2011.