Queer Form, Quiet Frame: A Sense of Alaska Native Aesthetics in Emily Johnson's The Thank-You Bar
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Queer Form, Quiet Frame:
A Sense of Alaska Native Aesthetics in Emily Johnson's The Thank-You Bar
Figure 1. Emily Johnson, The Thank-You Bar, 2009. Photograph by Cameron Wittig. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 1.

Emily Johnson, The Thank-You Bar, 2009. Photograph by Cameron Wittig. Image courtesy of the artist.

The stage is sparsely lit and musicians JOEL PICKARD and JAMES EVEREST enter, one at a time, taking turns recording a broken apart country-western song. The sounds of the pedal steel guitar roam across the empty stage. Everest [End Page 307] plays his guitar with a bow while Pickard runs what looks like a piece of red iron rod along the neck of his own guitar. In a ragged Merle Haggard whisper that sounds like a yell, Pickard bends down into his pedal steel guitar and asks: "Do you have a story to tell? Is there something you need to say?"1

The ambient music is tinny, distant, and soft. Everest and Pickard's recorded and repeating sounds recall a Western film, a white man walking alone amid a barren landscape with tumbleweed at his ankles. The thick sonic reach of the slide guitar is like the slow lull of a drone. The eerie soundtrack of westward expansionist violence and dispossession collides with the small town comfort of a country-western jukebox. When the music stops and the lights go down, we hear a noise that sounds like a big flat frame drum. Thump. Thump. Thump. Choreographer and dancer Emily Johnson slowly thumps out on stage with short stilts made of wooden two-by-fours with what look like square camping lights affixed on the ends. Thick bluish lines are drawn on her legs; they come apart at the top, like two rivers flowing in reverse, or varicose fish-skin veins. Wearing a short blue sequin onesie, Johnson somersaults between the stilts and lies down flat against the ground. The small square stilt lights face upward, and she sings, "I am so lones-oo-oo-ome" drawing the word out in a descending wail. This is the opening of Johnson's The Thank-You Bar, which premiered in Anchorage in 2009; it is a dance piece Johnson made as a kind of love letter to growing up Yup'ik in Alaska, a desire to re-root herself back into the ground after having been away for fifteen years.

In this essay, I sit with the complex theorizations of quiet, indirectness, and place in Johnson's The Thank-You Bar. I argue that Johnson's work provides a way to imagine Alaska Native aesthetics and histories without fixing them into what Gerald Vizenor has called the "fugitive pose." Vizenor describes the freeze-frame of Native representation, where Indigenous peoples are caught in the pictorial and become simulations of themselves in the "pageantry and portraiture of dominance."2 The image of "the rustic reservation indian" in the early twentieth-century anthropological lens of photographers such as Edward Curtis signals the erasure of Indigenous peoples through the overdetermination of the Indian simulation. Thinking with Vizenor, I explore the sensory and epistemological frames that might make it possible to experience Johnson's work outside the "poselock" of Native representation in anthropology or art [End Page 308] history.3 Engaging recent work on queer formalism, brown aesthetics, and Black articulations of quiet, I argue that Johnson's work offers a way into imagining contemporary Alaska Native art and performance as a sovereign Indigenous practice. I examine moments of indirectness in Johnson's performance where the body's choreographic vocabulary moves in quiet excess of what David Getsy calls "compulsory self-disclosure."4

Writing alongside Johnson's mode of performance, I listen closely to her multi-sensory methodological propositions to risk a descriptive strategy of writing in-step with Alaska Native art. Focusing on description, on the slow roll of detailed visual and sonic observations, I take my methodological cue from the formal structures put forth by Johnson and in conversation with other Indigenous artists, including Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Iñupiaq/Athabascan) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax). Examining Johnson's resignifications of skin and secrets, I argue that her work opens up a generative way of reading and...


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