Seattle Culture

Finding Place in Pictures

Artist Sky Hopinka’s first solo museum exhibit in the northwest showcases his creative approach to language and identity

By Rachel Gallaher April 24, 2024

Sky Hopinka. Mnemonics of Shape and Reason (Still), 2021. Digital Video
(Color, Sound); 4:12 Min.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Language — the slippery device we use to communicate, connect, and define — has always fascinated artist Sky Hopinka. Born in Ferndale, Hopinka (a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) grew up living amongst the Lummi Nation and the Coachella Valley, but spent his university years in Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee, Wisc. Although he spoke English as a young child, by the time Hopinka was eight or nine, he was working with language-learning materials from the Ho-Chunk Nation.

“I had cassette tapes and workbooks, but it was hard because I was living in Washington, and my tribal language has roots in Wisconsin,” Hopinka says. Learning alone, he could listen to prerecorded Hocak phrases and practice writing letters and words, but an essential component was missing — another person to speak with. An early indication of the nuance and flexibility of language, the experience —coupled with an interest in what it means to belong — sparked Hopinka’s curiosity in the topic, kicking off a lifelong linguistic exploration that continues today.

Hopinka’s current exhibition, Subterranean Ceremonies, (running at the Frye Art Museum through May 26) advances these ideas, further delving into questions surrounding landscape, spirituality, identity, and the indigenous experience. As Hopinka’s first solo museum show in the Northwest, it is a homecoming of sorts.

Subterranean Ceremonies continues a thread I’ve been unraveling around the idea of what makes us who we are and how we exist in places,” says Hopinka, whose indigenous heritage heavily informs his work. “It’s also about the reclamation of self, of identity.”

Growing up in Washington state, far from his ancestral homelands, Hopinka struggled for many years with the feeling of living in a liminal space. His family resided near the Lummi Nation, which gave him a sense of indigenous community, but he still felt like an outsider. As a child, he traveled the western powwow circuit with his parents, an experience that influenced his later work.

“I grew up near the Lummi homelands, but I always had a certain awareness that I’m not Lummi, and I come from this different place,” Hopinka says. “I have a lot of friends and familial bonds (in the Lummi Nation), but at the same time, I wondered, where is my homeland? Where do I feel that strong connection to the land? That question has guided me or been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember.”

Hopinka earned his bachelor’s degree from Portland State University, fulfilling his foreign language requirement with an indigenous language. At first, he set out to become fluent in Hocak, which is spoken by the Ho-Chunk people. However, after an instructor suggested he start with Chinuk Wawa — a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin — he switched to help support that community and its linguistic future. “I spent four or five months working closely with a language teacher,” Hopinka recalls, “and at the same time, I picked up a camera and started making films.”

Hopinka made his first film in 2010 — a short piece that featured him and his friends building a fishing scaffold on the Columbia River. The work was shot with the intention of presenting indigenous young men engaged with their culture without explanation — indigenous viewers would have a different takeaway than non-indigenous viewers. Given the United States’ violent colonial history and its centuries of white gatekeeping of information and entitlement, Hopinka wasn’t interested in artistic handholding or “educating” anyone.

Portrait of artist Sky Hopinka wearing a green shirt and several tattoos on his arms

Sky Hopinka’s body of work examines his personal interpretations of language, culture, and home.

Courtesy of the artist

Three years later, in 2013, Hopinka started working on his first serious film: wawa. He was enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he would earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in film, video, and new genres. Featuring speakers of Chinuk Wawa, the six-minute video is part ethnography, part documentary — an increasingly confused, sped-up, and layered look at language and its meanings.

Hopinka was picking at the edge of the complex relationship between language and identity, and the idea that an entire culture — its histories, its ideas, its values — can be collapsed into the act of speaking. What language you speak, whether it’s taught, forced, or actively chosen, says volumes about your history, identity, and home.

“I’m fascinated by how Sky thinks about and treats language,” says Georgia Erger, associate curator at the Frye Art Museum. Erger, who co-curated Subterranean Ceremonies with Amanda Donnan, the museum’s chief curator and director of exhibitions, first encountered Hopinka’s work about eight years ago. “He brings together words and images into these beautiful choreographies with one another in ways that expand the parameters of language.”

Sky Hopinka. Kicking the clouds (still), 2021. 16mm film transferred to digital video (color, sound); 15:36 min.

Courtesy of the artist

After graduating, Hopinka continued to make films and visual art that combines photography and the written word — fragmented collages and vibrantly hued landscapes are bordered and edged with gentle, poetic texts that refer to ancestors, topographical features, and life cycles.

His pieces are ethereal, emotion-inducing, and underscored with a sense of loneliness and longing that strikes at the heart of human emotion. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2022, Hopinka was an inaugural fellow at Forge Project in 2021 and has exhibited his work globally (at the Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate Modern, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others) and participated in prominent film festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival.

In 2016, Hopinka organized a film program called “What Was Always Yours and Never Lost,” which focused on Indigenous experimental cinema. Three years later, the program was part of the Whitney Biennial.

Ultimately, Hopinka is a storyteller. He understands how the scaffolding of language can build into conversations, histories, and narratives, and much of his practice is dedicated to the idea of indigenous stories. In Subterranean Ceremonies, Hopinka presents four recent video works and four new photo-based works, all of which, according to the show’s description, “focus on personal and political notions of Indigenous homeland.”

Included works give glimpses of disparate locations that Hopinka has traversed. A connection is made through his presence, his impressions of each site, and how searching  for a home is impacted by indigenous identity and colonial legacies.

But sometimes language isn’t captured in the lines and curves of written words. It isn’t in exchanges of the voice. In Hopinka’s 2015 film, Jáaji Approx, which includes shaky video of landscapes – bodies of water, forests, birds flying, a bright-blue sky peaking through clumps of clouds – the artist and his father appear to be on a winding road trip through the American West. Set to taped audio recordings of Hopinka’s father singing or talking about singing, the work presents male familiar relationships through a lens of refracted emotions including tenderness, distance, uncertainty, and loyalty.

It’s a testament of Hopinka’s skill as a storyteller that, even with his dedication to and interest in the written and spoken word, he can convey the importance of human connection without saying anything at all.

Sky Hopinka. Saith the ghost, dream, oh, dream again, 2023. Inkjet print, etching. 39 3/4 X 39 3/4 in.

Courtesy of the artist


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