Conversations of Ourselves
An Indigenous Survey of James Kivetoruk Moses
James Kivetoruk Moses was born in 1903 in Cape Espenberg, Alaska. He spent the first half of his life as a subsistence hunter, but after a debilitating airplane crash in 1953 left him unable to continue hunting, Kivetoruk Moses embarked on a second life as an artist. By this point, there was a relatively consistent market for Native Alaskan art through the comings and goings of tourists and travelers to this far northeastern region.
Kivetoruk Moses drafted incredibly detailed images of life in the region (both real and imagined). Collectors and early scholars often praised Kivetoruk Moses for the anthropological accuracy of his works. From his depictions of subsistence hunting and fishing to clothing, regalia, tattoos, ceremonies, and dances, Kivetoruk Moses was praised for creating “authentic” depictions of lifeways under threat or already gone.
These interpretations must be questioned. While Kivetoruk Moses created images of incredible detail, the scenes were often more amalgamation, or even imaginings rather than snapshots—nor are these lifeways gone today. They continue the path of survivance that Kivetoruk Moses himself traveled some sixty years ago. His images both capture and transcend the power of the photograph in translating the past into the present. Through his scenes of ice tundras, animals, Siberian and Inupiat individuals, hunting, dancing, engaging in challenges and feats, and instructive stories of mythical and powerful beings, Kivetoruk Moses envisioned a world that, in many ways, he longed for after his debilitating injuries.
But what does an Indigenous person see in Kivetoruk Moses’s work? The contributors in this exhibition come from Inupiaq, Alutiiq, and Ahtna cultures across Alaska. While this collection currently lives in New Mexico, it is essential to gain the perspective of Indigenous people from the place in which Kivetoruk Moses created—the Arctic. Moses’s work tells a certain narrative of Inupiaq life to the western anthropologist and art historian. It is a narrative that is often reduced to a glimpse of Indigenous life as “it was”. To Indigenous people, who share history, memory, and knowledge of life in the Arctic, Kivetoruk’s narrative is one of fantasy and vision. His work was storytelling; storytelling of Indigenous subsistence and ways of life as well as a foreshadowing of the lasting effects of western contact. This perspective of the contributors in this exhibit is one that has not been shared in the context of critique or interpretation of Moses’s work. And it is one that is critical for a deeper and truer understanding of Moses’s world.
Conversations of Ourselves: An Indigenous survey of James Kivetoruk Moses is a modern-day story circle with Kivetoruk Moses as its point of origin. The collaborative dialogue that took place across the digital realm in the creation of this project does the crucial work of approaching the place, meaning, and ongoing significance of these incredible images from within.
The James Kivetoruk Moses pieces included in Conversations of Ourselves have been generously loaned to the Coe Center from a private collector. This project is supported in part by a National Endowment for Arts Art Works grant and is one of 1015 grants nationwide, and one of twelve in the state of New Mexico.
The main priority on this project was to sincerely represent the artistic impressions, knowledge, and perspectives of Alaska Native people when looking at this collection of Kivetoruk Moses works. This was done by relying on our curator’s personal relationship with each contributor. Because of this closer connection, the conversations were informal, people-centered, and personal. The curator worked with all contributing individuals to edit each conversation for clarity. In some cases, the contributors added selections of their own artwork to add to the depth of the conversation. To experience each conversation click through their portraits below.
This collection has been generously loaned to the Coe Center by a private collector. The pieces included in the exhibition express the subtlety, care, and passion for the moments of Indigenous life that Kivetoruk Moses created over the last decades of his life. We are honored to be able to share these works with the artists, scholars, and community members who have been part of this project – and with every viewer who visits this exhibition.
Photo credits: Terran Last Gun (Piikani).
Conversations of Ourselves: An Indigenous survey of James Kivetoruk Moses is a project that has been created with a research-based approach. Its content was completely driven by the conversations Melissa Shaginoff had with Alaska Native Elders, artists, art historians, and language warriors. This collaborative team, formed by The Coe Center, supported this experimental project as it changed and grew.
Bess Murphy is Creative Director and Curator at the Coe Center for the Arts where she works with leading Native artists, community members, and students to develop meaningful and creative programs and exhibitions. At the Coe, she has shared in the creation of many community and artist-driven projects including the 2018-19 exhibition IMPRINT and the immersive project Function with artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. Her curatorial practice is centered on authentic and meaningful collaboration. As the child of an artist, mutual respect and creating together are cornerstones of her work. Bess also directs the Coe’s education programing, including the Hands-On Student Curator Program. Bess received her doctorate in Art History, with a focus on Native and American 20th century art, from the University of Southern California. She was formerly a Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center fellow and has published in exhibition catalogs and El Palacio Magazine. She has taught Art History and Museum Studies at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the Institute of American Indian Arts and has held positions at galleries, museums, and art centers as well as alternative artist-led art spaces.
Melissa Shaginoff is part of the Udzisyu (caribou) and Cui Ui Ticutta (fish-eater) clans from Nay’dini’aa Na Kayax (Chickaloon Village, Alaska). She is an Ahtna and Paiute person, an artist, a curator, and an Auntie. In principle, her work is shaped by the framework and intricacies of Indigenous ceremonies and social protocols. In practice, Melissa visits. Her work is about finding deeper and truer understanding, thus she centers conversation as her art praxis. Melissa recently completed an invitational artist residency in Sweden with the Skövde Kontsmuseet. She has also participated in invitational residencies in Venice, Italy; Wells, British Columbia; and Sitka, Alaska. Melissa has curated and juried art exhibitions with the Anchorage Museum, the Alaska Pacific University Galleries, the University of Alaska Anchorage Hugh McPeck Gallery, the Coe Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has been published in the Alaska Humanities FORUM Magazine, First American Art Magazine, Inuit Art Quarterly, and the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Learning Lab. Melissa is also a part of Łuk’ae Tse’ Tsass (fish head soup) Comics, a new media group focusing on Indigenous collaboration and representation in narratives and science-fiction.
Samantha Tracy is Diné from Fort Defiance, AZ. She is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), where she received her BFA in Museum Studies.
Samantha’s field of interest and work is in collections care. Her previous work experience has been at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) collection, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture as a research assistant, and in 2018 she was awarded the Anne Ray Internship at the School for Advanced Research. Prior to her current position at Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts, she completed an internship and a fellowship and now serves as the Coe Collections Manager.
Samantha’s interest in collection management is to ensure the preservation and protection of objects through proper care and handling. She believes in the importance of community access and representation in museum collection spaces that house cultural patrimony and works of art from originating communities. That includes respectful stewardship and relationships with artists, makers, and community members.
Keith Grosbeck is a Creative Director that works in film, photography, motion graphics, graphic design for print and web, consultation, web and media management, sound design and many other creative areas. He has been an independent contractor for over fifteen years with his personal studio, Oddest Age (oddestage.com). He is also a lifelong music lover, having spent the majority of his life sharing or experiencing music in many capacities.
Keith’s film work focuses primarily on documentary, community portraits as well as web and social media promotion. He co-founded and co-organized Attention Span, a 30 Second Film Showcase in college with his dear friend and colleague, Dylan McLaughlin (coverground.org). He has also recently worked for multiple movie theater chains as a projectionist and venue host. Another passion of his is watching films in the theater on a regular basis.
Keith has Plains Cree, Chippewa, Munsee-Delaware, Oneida, Mohawk, Blackfoot and European heritage. He was born and raised in Canada, primarily in the Chippewas Of The Thames First Nation community where he is a Registered Indian under the Indian Act Of Canada. With his unique heritage and cultural background, he has traveled and lived across North America in his lifetime. He currently calls North America (Turtle Island) his home.
Keith has also lived in Santa Fe, NM for several years and developed fond working and personal relationships in the United States with artists, Indigenous communities, museums, art galleries, businesses, restaurants and non-profit organizations. He continues to pursue creative endeavors and is consistently working on new projects. His accolades speak volumes about his integrity and passion to express his creative and Indigenous freedoms.