Art Talk with Anna Tsouhlarakis
Anna Tsouhlarakis. Photo courtesy of the artist
Let's be clear about one thing: though Anna Tsouhlarakis is a Native artist, you won't find beadwork, feathers, or images of buffalo in her work. Instead, she explores themes of Native identity through contemporary mediums, forcing people to readjust how they think of Native-American aesthetics. With a body of work that includes video, sculpture, installations, and photographs, Tsouhlarakis is helping rewrite the traditional artistic lexicon that can at once serve as cultural anchor and creative constraint. We spoke with the 2011 Eiteljorg Fellow via e-mail to hear her views on societal expectations of Native artists, her far-reaching creative inspirations, and the one artistic tool she couldn't live without.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
TSOUHLARAKIS: My version of the artist’s life changes from week to week. I used to be able to work on a much more leisurely schedule, but now, with a 15-month-old daughter, any free time I have to focus on my work is extremely precious and must be strategically used. In many ways, my daughter has made me a more productive artist.
NEA: What is your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?
TSOUHLARAKIS: My father used to be a contractor and made jewelry in his free time before eventually becoming a full-time artist. When he was a contractor, he used to bring home scraps of wood that my brother and I would nail together and stack. When he was in his studio, he would give us scraps of metal to do stamp work and smash in the vices. When visiting my grandmother in New Mexico, I would help her spin wool and watch her weave on her loom. I would also sit near her and build sheep and horse corrals out of mud and sticks. Ever since I can remember, I manipulated materials and built objects. I never had much interest in drawing or painting---it was always about constructing.
Video still from Crossing (3 minute, 2 channel digital video. 2009.). Photo courtesy of artist
NEA: Did you grow up with strong Native traditions? How did you decide to make Native identity the focus of your artistic work?
TSOUHLARAKIS: Yes, both my father and grandmother, who lived with us until she passed away when I was 17, have strong cultural ties. While my grandmother lived with us in an urban area, she was a very traditional woman. Every aspect of life was through the lens of Navajo ideologies.
While I consider myself a contemporary artist, I was taught traditional silversmithing and beading, and I know how to make almost any part of a powwow outfit. I use to dance competitively at powwows and also learned many traditional Native dances since I was in various dance troupes. I went through the traditional female puberty ceremony and had a traditional Navajo wedding. I say this because at times it is assumed that I lack a connection to or understanding of my background and that is why I make the work I make. I make art with a clear and conscious understanding of where I come from and my people.
Throughout my life, I have always been surrounded by artists. There came a point when I realized that I had strong feelings and thoughts relating to contemporary Native-American life. The connections I was making between various subjects were not ones I saw being illustrated within the art world, and this compelled me to start creating my own work.
NEA: In your artist’s statement, you say “there are certain perceptions and expectations that confine Native American Art.” Can you describe what these expectations and perceptions are? How do you hope to break through them?
TSOUHLARAKIS: A hundred years ago our ancestors were not afraid to experiment with new materials and ideas. They didn’t worry about people’s perceptions of their “Indianness” and were willing to evolve in various ways. When beads, metals, and different types of cloth were introduced, they took control of these materials and made them their own. At a certain point, Natives became less willing to experiment with new media, and identity has played a big part of that hesitation. If you use clay or make jewelry you are considered a Native artist, but if you do installation or performance art, many people are not willing to recognize you as a Native artist because that work does not fit into their nice, neat little definition of Native art. I am very vocal that I am a Native artist who happens to work in new media, even if my identity gets attacked and questioned because of it. “Does she do that type of work because she doesn’t know her traditions?” “Does she do that work because she lacks the skill to bead or solder silver?” Granted, my patience runs out quickly when beading or sewing, but that is another subject….
When I was growing up, I had conversations with my father about his desire to try new materials and pursue new ideas, but the financial restrictions of the Native art market limited his ability to experiment. While he was, and still is, an innovator in jewelry design and inlay work, he has had to work within the constraints of knowing what will sell, and thus, to some extent, letting buyers dictate his artistic practice. Seeing this cycle in play led me to ask questions about what Native artists were making and why. In college I was exposed to forms of art that were totally different and new to me. I learned about how these branches of art history grew within African-American and Latin-American art, and I wondered where this branch was for Native-American art. I saw the beginnings in the work of Jimmie Durham, James Luna, and similar artists, and I realized that I could help extend that branch; that I had something to add to the Native trajectory through installation and video.
View of Tsouhlarakis' Clash of the Titans installation. 2007. Photo courtesy of the artist
NEA: You have said you’d like to redefine what “Native” means. What does it mean to you?
TSOUHLARAKIS: I have found that many people think that in order for something to be Native it has to use the same language that has been used for the past 50 years. It has to have a buffalo or an arrowhead on it to qualify it as Native. We have been pulling from the same well of artistic language for so long. We need to add some fresh, new vocabulary to keep our culture strong and vibrant.
NEA: You work with photographs, drawings, installations, and performance videos. How did you become involved with so many different mediums?
TSOUHLARAKIS: I prefer the media of video, photography, and installation because unlike traditional sculpture and painting, they are distinct art forms that are separate from craft. I realized that being a Native artist and working in a more traditional art form came with an extreme amount of baggage and expectation. The boundaries were harder to break and the medium overwhelmed the concept. The aesthetic awareness and preciousness that surrounds certain art forms is not something I am interested in attaining. As I said before, my father is a jeweler and he learned traditional silversmithing from his grandfather and we often have discussions around the ideas of the preciousness of art objects and the idea of ephemerality in art-making. I came to realize that video, photography, and installation tend to be the languages that best translate my ideas and allow me to move more easily and more freely between concepts.
NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?
TSOUHLARAKIS: It really varies from project to project, but one consistent interest is creating conceptual connections between seemingly disparate subjects. For instance, in my exhibition Clash of the Titans, my love for Gabriel García Márquez’s writing, memories of Greek myths, a recent read of the book Zorba the Greek, and a visit to an Ilya Kabakov installation combined to become the vehicle for deciphering and interpreting my own familial narratives. While the surface of such pieces may seem disconnected from indigenous aesthetics, the foundation of the work remains rooted in Native beliefs and philosophies.
NEA: What artistic tools could you not live without?
TSOUHLARAKIS: My family and friends. While that may be a somewhat cliché answer, it’s the truth. I have very few family and friends who have not participated or lent a hand to the work. No matter where I am and no matter the project, it seems I always end up wrangling people to be part of the process in some way.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your artistic career?
TSOUHLARAKIS: The decision that has most impacted my artistic career was not mine, but was my father’s decision to raise my brother and I on his own. My grandmother joined us, and later he met my new mother, a supportive and successful woman in her own right. My life could have gone in a different direction, but I ended up being raised by a father who practiced and revered the arts. While he didn’t start out with much, he worked hard to become a master of his trade. He showed me how to dream, to persevere, and to be an artist.