“Sky Hopinka: Subterranean Ceremonies” at Frye Art Museum, Seattle

Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, born 1984, Ferndale, Washington) layers imagery and poetic prose to create art that foregrounds relationships between communities, landscape, and language. His work intermingles English and Indigenous dialects such as Chinuk Wawa (which Hopinka notes he embarked upon learning in tandem with photography and filmmaking), a revived Chinookan creole of the Pacific Northwest, to consider how language shapes perception of place and acts as a container of culture. This presentation—the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in his home state of Washington—features four recent films and new photographs that focus on personal and political notions of Indigenous homeland.

Growing up in Washington State, far from his ancestral tribal lands in Wisconsin and Southern California, Hopinka traveled the western powwow circuit with his parents. These foundational experiences of itinerancy continue to influence his artistic practice. The films in Subterranean Ceremonies revolve around transit and life on the road, a liminal zone the artist embraces as a space of community and knowledge production. Mnemonics of Shape and Reason (2021), for example, interweaves scattered landscapes to ruminate on the spiritual implications of colonial plunder, while The Island Weights (2021) narrates a journey along the boundaries of Ho-Chunk homelands in search of four water spirits from the tribe’s creation story.

Hopinka’s project of Indigenous language recovery and translation is threaded through the exhibition. Coming of age without learning his geographically distant ancestral languages prompted the artist—then living in Washington and Oregon—to learn a language indigenous to the Pacific Northwest: Chinuk Wawa. The film Kicking the Clouds (2021) centers on a fifty-year-old audio recording of the artist’s grandmother learning the Pechanga language from her mother. Hopinka combines the original recording with his mother’s reflections on the tape and their lives, as well as footage of their “chosen home” in Whatcom County, Washington: a place far from the family’s ancestral homelands but described by the artist as “a home nonetheless.”

The photographs in the exhibition glimpse disparate locations linked through the artist’s travels and include etched phrases drawn from stories, songs, and his own poetry. Together, the works reflect an ethos of wandering—an approach that allows Hopinka’s work to resist static depictions of Indigenous cultures and move fluidly between past and present.

at Frye Art Museum, Seattle
until May 26, 2024