Conceptual artist Christine Babic is making waves in Seattle’s art community.
The Seattle Center on Contemporary Art, CoCA, chose Babic, a Chugach Alutiiq Native from Cordova, to be their December Lab Artist in Residence. Her show, “When She Dies, You Too Will Die,” ran through Dec. 26.
“When She Dies, You Too Will Die, is a love letter inspired by the devastating and unspoken history of colonization written to every victim of ‘The American Genocide of the Native’ long-dead, and a call-to-arms for those generations of survivors beaten and exhausted,” Babic said.
Babic is considering a future show in Cordova, with her family participating.
“I want to organize a group show with my mom, aunts and cousins, to raise money for the village of Kivalina, Alaska,” she said. “They need to relocate due to the effects of climate change, and no one is talking about it.”
Babic, the daughter of Rusty and Mary Babic, was born 30 years ago in Cordova, and went on to attend Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore.
A few years ago, she moved to Seattle, “to make art, and spend time with my grandmother, Sally Hottinger, who lives here.”
“I have made art my entire life – but who hasn’t, I suppose,” Babic said, in an interview with The Cordova Times via email from her home in Seattle.
Growing up in Cordova in a tightly knit family unit, Babic credits her mother as the biggest influence on who she is today.
Mary Babic taught her daughter traditional Alaska subsistence ways and values. She taught her how to hunt, skin animals, forage and gather plants and berries, skin sew, do bead work, and fish.
“My mom has a strong, intuitive sense about her artwork,” she said. “She knows the value in preserving cultural knowledge and tradition, whilst not adhering to any rigid or limiting guidelines. From her, I learned that Native art could be whatever I wanted it to be, and that my voice as an indigenous woman was an important one.
“My mom, again, is my biggest inspiration artistically and personally.”
“When She Dies, You Too Will Die,” was Babic’s first solo show and was the culmination of a CoCA residency Babic did in the Georgetown area of Seattle, inside a shipping container.
The show was a reference to a prophecy about the relationship between a people and their land. The CoCA website notes that the show included text-based works made from the skins and hides of seals, rabbits, and caribou; works that co-inhabit the dresses Babic wore as a young dancer, the American flags she draped herself in on her trip to Standing Rock, and pieces of her grandmother’s clothing.
The journey as a conceptual artist is not an easy one, but Babic said she feeds her muse by reflecting the times, both in current events and politics.
“Sometimes, that means making work about the past and how we can steer away from racial injustice while exposing false colonial narratives,” she said. “I find myself existing in a grey area somewhere between contemporary and indigenous; how do we value and preserve our cultural traditions while maintaining relevance in modern times?”
Babic was two years old when the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
This event also influences her art and her life.
“Growing up in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster has a huge impact on how I view our world and the function of government. I talk a lot about corporations being above the law and treated as though they are the same as a person’s life, (news flash, they’re not),” she said.
“Now, more than ever, it is crucial we stand up and fight for what is right, so in a lot of ways I have been prepared for my art and activism since then, since I knew that our government would protect only the very few, rich elite, even if it means destroying the working class,” Babic said.
“I work with concepts and mediums follow. I like using traditional materials; furs and beads, but I’m open to using anything if it drives my concepts. I’ve been doing some performance art lately, so in this case, my medium is an action,” she said.
Babic said being a female artist is a struggle.
“It can be disheartening,” she said. “Once you start digging at the patriarchy, you realize how often it saturates every institution you work with, and every interaction you have. I find my work being criticized more and looked at less, than a man’s work, but that’s why it’s important,” she said. “Especially as a Native woman, we need to look at our current state with an intersectional lens.”
Seattleites were sometimes confused when seeing Babic’s art for the first time, specifically, she said, when she’s not dressed for the part in traditional Native regalia, as the preconceived notion of what an Alaska Native looks like, generally isn’t one of a woman wearing an evening dress and heels while she skins rabbits and works with their pelts during some of her performance art shows.
During her CoCA lab residency project in October, Genocide Rules Everything Around Me, more than a dozen rabbit pelts were taxidermided into lifeless animal heads that extended out from the container’s wall in a large circular pattern.
It drew a lot of attention.
“Mostly, I get good feedback,” Babic said. “I am not the first to use animal materials in art, and certainly won’t be the last. It’s important for me to reflect subsistence and traditionalism while maintaining my personal identity. I’ve done works where I dress up in Native regalia and skin animals, and works where I wear a pretty dress and skin animals. I get more negative or confused feedback when I’m not ‘dressing the part,’ so you see – people want you to dress up like an Indian for them – skin your rabbits and make your art, because that’s the colonial narrative that they are comfortable with; and though the intention is not to make people uncomfortable, this feeling can be a side effect of my performances, which are intentional acts of decolonization.”
But, people seemed to grasp the intention of her work – the correlation between our global environment, the near eradication of Native cultures and languages, and the white people of her grandmother’s time trying to eradicate indigenous races.
“With each show, I grow less scared and more confident in my voice,” she said.
After receiving the CoCA Un-Contained residency last fall, Babic felt an overwhelming responsibility to drive 17 hours to
Cannonball, North Dakota, and protest in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe – and she wants to go back, according to the CoCA Artist in Residence Facebook page.
Visiting Standing Rock left an indelible impression on Babic.
“My time there was so valuable and awe-inspiring. To be a part of something so much larger than oneself! Wow! And to see the intertribal solidarity was spectacular. We, as indigenous people, are still being displaced from our native lands and resources, and we’ve been through this before, colonization has not stopped,” Babic said.