Sonya Kelliher-Combs: Remnant (Caribou Antler), 2016, mixed media installation, organic and synthetic materials

Sonya Kelliher-Combs, an Alaskan native of Inupiaq heritage, grew up in Nome, a small town with a population of less than 3,600 people. “It’s not what you would consider a small village, but it’s a rural community, “ she told Pasatiempo. “You have to fly there.” Nome’s population today is far less than it was at the height of the 1900 Nome Gold Rush. Those days have passed, but panning for gold is still an active pastime for local inhabitants. “Every summer we spent out at our camp, which was not only a camp for berry picking, moose hunting, fowl hunting and things like that, but it was also a gold mining camp. So we grew up in this way where we gold mined, hunted, and gathered. We would spend our entire summer out there and come home every couple of weeks to do some laundry, shower, things like that.”

Kelliher-Combs, whose installation Remnant is a commissioned work for SITE Santa Fe’s biennial exhibition much wider than a line, now lives and works in Anchorage, but her artwork incorporates references to her Native culture and conflates them with a combination of natural and synthetic materials. “Remnant can have multiple meanings, but the idea is that something left behind is maybe found, unearthed, discovered,” she said. “I take these pieces of natural material and they’re embedded under this synthetic skin, this membrane that’s containing them, and that’s reminiscent of real skin or hide.”

Remnant is composed of a series of white-painted shadow boxes within which are affixed objects from the natural world, items from Alaskan wildlife primarily: wolf fur, musk ox fur, caribou antlers, a moose jawbone, to name a few. These objects are placed inside the boxes beneath the acrylic polymer “skin,” a translucent material that semi-obscures these organic remnants. “The boxes are similar to a museum display of artifacts where they put them underneath a vitrine or glass case and they become precious.”

Her past work has included a blending of mediums such as bone and walrus gut. Such items she harvests herself or obtains from relatives or purchases from subsistence hunters and gatherers. “The word subsistence is an interesting word,” she said. “I guess I just call it living. It’s hunting and gathering the way Alaskan Native people have done for millennia. But with the changing environment, our resources are changing.”

Once it’s embedded under the polymer skin, she’s left with a hybrid form of the organic and inorganic material. “It’s a commentary on this Western concept of making things out of synthetic materials because it’s supposed to be better and last longer, but look at what’s happened as a result of that: plastics are around for millennia, choking our oceans and waterways and killing our wildlife. A lot of it is commentary on how our environment is changing rapidly. Living in a place like this, there are complicated issues about wildlife management, sports hunting, subsistence hunting, indigenous rights, access to food, and things like that. I’m thinking about those things alongside the changing environment and the sense of place.” 

The impact of human activity on Alaskan wildlife is not Kelliher-Combs’ only concern. “There’s always this distinction between man and nature, but man is part of nature,” she said. “I’ve included some pieces that have human hair. There’s a long braid that’s encased in this media. We are a part of this environment. We all are impacting the land, the Earth. It’s not just a commentary about the animals, the fish, the birds. It’s about our place in this world.”

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