An interview with Allison Akootchook Warden
Allison Akootchook Warden is a multidisciplinary artist of IÃ±upiaq descent from Alaska. A multidisciplinary artist, Warden is a recipient of 2018 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artistic Fellowship in the field of Music, a 2018 Rasmuson Individual Artist Fellowship in the field of New Genre.
For many people, 2020 has been a year of change and transition. That is true for Alaska-based artist Allison Akootchook Warden.
Allison, who has ancestral ties to the North Slope village of Kaktovik, is one of many artists facing a new reality as each day is shaped by health, sickness, and hope instead of filled with the acts of creating, evolving and performing pieces of art.
“I was the co-founder of the KisaÄ¡viÄ¡miut Traditional Dancers, with Isaiah Patkotak MacKenzie,’ they said. “This year, I stepped down from the co-leader position, yet I was still heavily involved with the group. We as a group had just found our new rhythm, had gotten some new members and a great practice space that felt like a village community hall. We had new momentum going as a group, which felt great. Then, the pandemic hit.’
The social and physical distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the KisaÄ¡viÄ¡miut family in a time where normally they would be pulling together in support.
“As a group, our main leader is living now in Noatak, just had a baby and is soon to get married,’ they said. “The Anchorage Museum has offered some support for the group to do ‘virtual practicing’, yet I think most of us have been taking time to adjust to our immediate needs.’
For Allison, a new medium through which they can channel art could be a blessing in disguise.
“I could see us practicing through an internet video portal, or through a group skype phone call, yet the organic feel of how a practice is normally run and the community gathering feeling will definitely be something different. I have a feeling this physical distancing will be with us for longer than anticipated, so I am just starting to wrap my head around what that means for my work in music, dance and theatre.’
Community of creation
What will be missing in that digital space is the immense physicality and almost tangible nature of the works created by Allison and the KisaÄ¡viÄ¡miut Traditional Dancers. When gathered in a space that is made sacred by the presence of art, both audience and artist experience transformation. It’s something Allison values greatly.
“The opportunity to immerse a person, a patron of the arts, a community member into an entire encompassing universe around one central idea, one hypothesis, one simple strong gesture, [is] a gift to the people,’ they said
“I like to think of all the senses, smell, sound, taste, touch, movement and also inter-activity, the ability to become a part of the space, completely. Everything is changed. It is creating a portal, a portal of possibilities, a portal into a different dimension, into a different universe. I want people to feel embraced in this universe, that all of their senses are taken care of and that they can discover an unknown or dormant part of themselves as part of the art experience.’
Creativity and community are in Allison’s blood. Performing at times under the name AKU-MATU, they are paying respects to their namesake ancestors: amau (great-grandfather) Akootchook, and attata (great-uncle) Matumeak, themselves both creators of original songs. Matumeak also led a choir, similar to how today Allison leads audiences through immersive visual and audio experiences.
“I have often joked that I work in many mediums but if I absolutely had to choose, I would choose installation art,’ said Allison. “For me, work comes from an idea. The idea has to be tested, stretched, it needs to sit, simmer, expand, contract and many more things before it manifests into form.’
“The form in which it manifests is the one that best supports the idea after it has gone through the ‘idea vetting process’. Sometimes, ideas become universes, and many different mediums could be utilized to express the same idea.’
And not all ideas are worthy of coming to fruition. “Some ideas don’t get past the page, they don’t stand up to the tests, so they don’t make it into physicality,’ they admit.
Allison also takes an interdisciplinary approach to formulating artistic ideas and concepts.
“I often work as an artist, using the scientific method,’ they said. “I have a question, a hypothesis. I then have a method to test the hypothesis, to see if it is true or not, if it holds water.
“The idea of utilizing animals as a mechanism to bring a message to an audience is a clear example of this method being employed. I started embodying the voice of the animals because I had noticed that there was a lot of media/attention/press/people caring about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge yet there was no direct input from the people of the village of Kaktovik, my Ancestral homelands, where I am a tribal member. This was back in 2008.’
Animals are viewed by humans as different to them in many ways. This meant that the medium would influence the message, per Allison’s theory.
“My hypothesis is that people/audiences would respond more on an emotional level to the story when it is told in the form of a polar bear, instead of a regular person who is impacted by this ongoing battle/conversation,’ they said
“So, I created Ode to the Polar Bear, which was a show from the perspective of a polar bear. Essentially, the polar bear was saying goodbye to Alaska,’ they explains. “It was a very, very open-ended show, without any intent of steering the audience to any kind of conclusion one way or the other.’
This embodiment of a new creature offered new experiences for the artist and the audience.
“Depending on the audience,’ they said, “they could walk away with one message, or a completely different message. It varied from person to person. Yet for me, I noticed that by becoming the polar bear, the audience opened up more. When I became a whale, the audience would connect in a different, deeper way than if I had said the same message as a human.’
Rap at the top of the world
Yes, a whale–specifically, a bowhead, the species which has been crucial for sustaining life of Arctic peoples since time immemorial.
“That is a rap character of mine, the bowhead whale,’ they explain. “Also, artistically it is fun for me to become different characters during the course of a performance.’
The whale also plays a role in what the “Oh, I’m a Bowhead Whale” song, which is one of Allison’s favorite pieces of work to date, because, the artist said, “it is my chance to be flirtatious with the audience, which is fun.’
She’s also expressed the views of a caribou, as well as an ancestor that has traveled so far through time that they have come back from the future, questioning time, place and tradition. It’s a conversation that is laden with information to process and ponder.
“I love rap because you can get a lot of information out in a very short period of time,” they said of the medium. “It is dense, almost like a code.’
“I remember being in Utqiagvik when rap was first reaching the Arctic and my cousins brought me upstairs to listen to the rap music they had just gotten–and I forget the group but the lyrics were extremely explicit and misogynistic, to say the least. I knew right then that I wanted to create music that spoke to our People, our world.’
The brave new world of words paired with music excited Allison.
“It totally motivated me to become a rapper. I had seen a rapper from the lower 48 who was Native, and I thought I could give a message that would speak more directly to my own people and to the youth, so I practiced for many years to get the skills to support the messages.’
Those messages Allison has to share with the world speak to how they see themself in this world, how they integrate art, community, life and the artistic and scientific processes and wish to see more of that. But it also speaks to their genuine, caring nature.
“Love who you are, and super super embrace your uniqueness, your unique story of how you came to be who you are and how you are evolving,” they said To the artists, they heed: “Protect your ideas. I would recommend not telling people about your work until it is debuted, until the day that it is debuted, or the moment that it is debuted. Talking about the work before it is done dilutes the work.’
Allison’s reasoning for secrecy during the creative process is logical and protective for the artist. “There are often people who will be jealous, or who will be negative, or who will question your vision, or try to knock you down from your vision,’ they said. “Be aware of this and protect yourself. Stay true to yourself.’
They encourage creators to experience growth, advising them to, “Do research on other artists, artists who are doing a bit better than you, or a whole lot better than you. Watch what steps they took, look at many successful artists and see if you can find a pattern. Look at what their resume looks like, what their statement looks like, how they present themselves.’
The creative process itself can be a tiring one, straining the creator or sometimes bombarding them with too many ideas at once. It’s easy to burn out or become overwhelmed. To keep this at bay, Allison has a method.
“I keep an idea book, and then sometimes I re-visit flashes of inspiration that were quickly written down in the book. I unpack them at a later date. I meditate, I take care of my spirit.’
Just as Allison marries the ancient and the modern, rhyme and rhythm, they also paint unique portraits of life with words through poetry. Sharing their verse with the world via Twitter and other platforms, in many of their poems they discuss the issues brought about by global warming and the effect it has on the animals in the Arctic environment. “Disillusioned walrus/ gather on the land/ mourning the ice/ baby rocks dig/ into their thick skins/ the walrus leader/ holds silence.’
The IÃ±upiat language that is spoken in northern Alaska, and in the village of Kaktovik that holds Allison’s heart, is itself musical and informative. Parts of speech called morphemes can be added to one another to form larger, sentence-like words: for example, the words for ‘among’ and ‘dog’ can be combined to form a new word–qimmisigun–meaning ‘in the midst of dogs’. The meaning, context, information and concepts conveyed by the word increase as more elements are added.
This is what the work of Allison Akootchook Warden is like: an IÃ±upiat word composed of many parts and sung loudly into the cold air, bringing with it life, color, and melody with each component.
Allison Akootchook Warden and their work are at once humble and powerful, ever-evolving, charming and magnetic. Their work is made with the intent to build greater community bonds. The experiences they create are to be shared and soaked up by the body with every sense, then transported into the soul of the audience.
In a time where social distancing is now a regular part of our society, Allison reminds other creators to seek calm and to come to a place of understanding with oneself. A community of one. Why not? We have the time.
“Take time to heal yourself,’ they said. “Do the work you need to do to unpack and heal and find safety and peace and love and continue to do this work. Be unapologetically yourself.’