Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Alison Bremner’s Banff studio
Contributor’s note: “In Kind” Negotiations was a residency for indigenous artists that I attended at the Banff Centre. See all three studio visit conversations here.
Anxiously I sat down in a chair that was appropriately far away from (but near enough to) the other residents of In Kind Negotiations—you know, so I didn’t feel alone without being presumptuous enough to invade someone’s space. It was orientation day for my residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. Alison Bremner, as a brave, new In-Kind-Negotiator, walked right up to me and introduced herself. I immediately hoped we’d be friends, and my hopes were not in vain. During the residency, Alison was always next to me: alphabetically, in our adjacent studios and rooms, and at many shared meals.
By the time our studio visit rolled around, I shouted without any reservation over our shared studio wall to see if Alison was ready, and wandered over when she had settled in for our conversation. I found myself in the midst of paint and wood ephemera as Alison prepared for her departure.
Alison lives in the Seattle, Washington area. Her father was born in their community–the Tlingit community, and later her mother was adopted into it. After some time at Emily Carr in Vancouver, Alison left to apprentice under other traditional Tsimshian artists to learn her community’s art practices. She works in a variety of ways, but has made wood carvings, formline drawings, and stretched drums. I found myself getting lost in her work’s lyricism and secret hilarity. Her traditional work often finds itself up to mischief.
LTB: Who do you see as your ideal audience?
AB: I really see it as people in the know, people who are in on the joke.
After cursory glance of Alison’s work, it would seem incredibly serious. As a non-Tlingit viewer, I first get lost in the ebb and flow of the blacks and reds in pieces like Malibu Raven. I don’t know exactly what to look for with formline. Only after my double take at the title, do I start to see Raven’s stiletto heels. During our introductory presentations of our work, Alison guided us through her drawing, and I found myself imagining this sassy, Tlingit Raven strutting from shop to shop. Tradition meanders down the contemporary sidewalk.
LTB: How do you feel about museums purchasing some of your pieces given the complicated history of the acquisition of indigenous artworks?
AB: Many Tlingit artifacts in museums are objects that have been collected from graves. So, I feel that when a museum is purchasing something from me, it’s very positive. It’s good to showcase where my community is now—that the culture is alive.
She shares that there’s a joke that many traditional Northwest artists are art school drop-outs. The mastery of craft is paramount, and she felt there was a lot of resistance to the acceptance of craft as art—or at least that there wasn’t some hierarchy there. At contact Tlingit work was collected as “artifact,” not seen in the same category as Western artworks. They became part of curio collections. Tlingit work can have functions beyond “decoration”—sometimes it has a practical, social, or political function. Totems were chopped down and taken to be “preserved” at museums. These totems were actually meant as markers for their communities. Their makers actually intended them to fall apart, allowing time and climate to take their toll. These artworks weren’t meant to remain in stasis.
LTB: It seems like your community is really important to you. How do you see that as part of your art practice? What’s it like being in Seattle even though your community is in Alaska?
AB: I definitely want to move back eventually, but Seattle and Vancouver is a good place for my work. Seattle is where my mentors are right now.
Alison talks about hoping to teach her nephew and others to work traditionally. She sees her work as a dialogue for her community—about the objects she and others are making. There’s the question of the old objects taken by museums like totems, and she is hoping to help her community have them returned.
Alison has been participating in so many conversations around questions in indigenous politics and art-making. She participated in an indigenous leadership conference that ran concurrently while we were at Banff, and after the residency flew to Fairbanks, Alaska for the Community Doers Gathering.
AB: I do identify as a “Tlingit artist” because my identity with my tribe and clan runs so deeply. I’ve been thinking about how we’ve been talking about Adrian Piper’s“Dear Editor” piece. With that, I’ve been wanting to avoid being called a “female Tlingit artist.”
Adrian Piper says she earned the right to not be called a “black artist,” and instead an “artist.” I do feel that everyone here at this indigenous residency absolutely is an “artist.” However, there is so much agency in naming yourself. Alison and I have been talking about expectations from the (Westernized) art world when one does make work about any identity, whether that means being a woman or indigenous.
I said my goodbyes to Alison, who had meticulously packed away her rattle and new drums into a black suitcase. She left a few days before I did, and her empty studio reminded me that I’d soon be gone as well. At least Seattle and San Francisco are sort of next to each other.