Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Susie Silook

 By Heather Igloliorte

Sedna with Mask, 1999 Walrus tusk, sea mammal whiskers, baleen, whale bone, metal, and pigment 12 7/8 x 10 x 4 1/4 inches Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco Bequest of Thomas G. Fowler [2007.21.389]

Sedna with Mask, 1999 Walrus tusk, sea mammal whiskers, baleen, whale bone, metal, and pigment 12 7/8 x 10 x 4 1/4 inches Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco Bequest of Thomas G. Fowler [2007.21.389]

 While the form and aesthetic appearance of Susie Silook’s (1960-) ivory artworks reference the centuries-old circumpolar tradition of carving in walrus tusk, her subject matter is decidedly more contemporary. Her works, usually carved from a single piece of ivory and mounted on a base so that they stand upright, are deeply embedded with the oldest Inuit carving traditions, yet her subject matter diverges from the typical historic and pre-contact imagery of hunting and camping scenes (or land and sea animals) that you might expect to see carved in walrus ivory. Instead, Silook uses her considerable talents to depict themes that confront contemporary Alaska Natives, including issues of identity, spirituality, conflict and adaptation, as embodied by the female form. Her sculptures of women are so graceful and lithe that they have been compared to Amedeo Modigliani’s nudes and Léon Bakst’s depictions of Diaghilev’s dancers in the Ballets Russes[1] yet these are not portraits of delicate or timid women. Silook’s heroines resist colonization, critique violence and oppression and represent an unwavering faith in Native belief systems and Eskimo worldview.

Silook, who is of Siberian Yupik, Inupiaq and Irish descent, is originally from the Siberian village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, on the Bering Sea.  Her works reflect her determination to maintain the trace of the past in the future, particularly evident in her lyrical portrayals of the female deity Sedna.  One such piece, Seeking Her Forgiveness (1993), depicts an intricately carved shaman untangling the hair of the Central Arctic sea goddess Sedna in order to placate her, and thus ensure the future harvests of sea mammals and the transmigration of animal souls.  Sedna is an incredibly powerful deity in Inupiat as well as in the worldview of many circumpolar Inuit cultures, and the Inupiaq oral history of this goddess reverberates with the artist. Yupik Angel (1994), in contrast, made only of walrus ivory and sinew, is a graceful meditation on religious syncretism, conveying a spiritual message simultaneously about traditional and contemporary religious beliefs.

Mining not only Inupiat belief systems but also her own personal and community histories, Silook has contributed a significant body of work to Native American art that critiques the legacies of colonization in the Arctic and the ongoing violence against women. As one of the first female carvers to gain critical acclaim in a male-dominated field, Silook has used her considerable platform to issue powerful statements such as Mask of Post Colonizational Trauma (1994), made of ivory, wood and sinew, and All the Rage (2001), a mixed media sculpture created in reaction to the horrific violence against women.  These critical assessments of the impacts of colonization and assimilative strategies are belied by the poetic forms of her skillfully carved ivory works, demanding that you pay attention, that you get up close. The precarious balance between provocative subject matter and sinuous form is what makes Silook’s work such a compelling inclusion in the history of Native American art.

Silook’s work has been shown and sold all over Alaska and the United States and her sculptures can be found in the collections of the de Young Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Alaskan Native Heritage Centre, as well as in many other public and private collections.  In 2000 she was awarded the Governor’s Award for an Individual Artist, in 2001 she held a prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship, and in 2007 she was United States Artists Rasmuson Fellow.

[1]  Janet Catherine Berlo, “Susie Silook: ‘Simultaneous Worlds’ and the Yupik Imagination,” in After the Storm: The Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art 2001, ed. W. Jackson Rushing III (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum), 77.

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

Web Resources 

“Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art: Susie Silook.” Eiteljorg Museum. 2001.

This link leads to the Susie Silook artist profile on the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art webpage. It contains a short biography, images of selected works, and information about Silook.

“Susie Silook Ivory.” Alaska Gallery. Copyright 2003.

This is a link to a web gallery that has a lot of images of Susie Silooks work. This website doesn’t have much information about the artist, but would be useful for people wanting to view her work. Susie Silook’s work is very intriguing. I highly suggest taking a look. 

Silook, Susie. “Which Play to Write? She Listens to Her Native Voice.” LA Stage LA Stage Alliance. June 14, 2011.

This link leads to a blog written by Susie Silook about her contribution to the Alaska Native Playwrights Project and writing her memoirs. Silook comments on her traumas and the effects of writing in her own healing process.    

Selected Bibliography 

Igloliorte, Heather. “Susie Silook.” New Native Art Criticism: Manifestations. Santa Fe: Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, 2011.

This is the citation for the biography provided above. This book is useful for someone researching Contemporary Native American art and artists. Not only does it contain many biographies, but is also has some very interesting essays.  

Silook, Susie. “On Inspiration.” Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 2. New York: Museum of Art & Design, 2005.

This is an essay written by the artist Susie Silook. In this essay, Silook comments on what inspires and motivates her to create.