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Artist Percy Avugiak brings Alaska Native dance to life

Trina Landlord

Percy Avugiak is the featured artist for June and July 2012 at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in downtown Anchorage. His show, titled “Dance, Drum, Sing and Storytelling,” illustrates vibrant moving colors depicting cultural performances in abstract paintings.

Avugiak, whose Yup’ik name is “Apurin,” is of Inupiat and Yup’ik ancestry from the Alaska communities of Chefornak and White Mountain. He received his bachelor' degree in painting from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While in Fairbanks, Avugiak joined the Inu-Yupiaq Dance and Drummers Group.

Avugiak’s show at ANAF is inspired by Alaska Native dancing, after he watched and performed at some of Alaska’s biggest cultural festivals, such as the Camai Festival in Bethel, Kivgik in Barrow, the Festival of Native Arts in Fairbanks and Quyana Alaska at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage.

Generations ago in Alaska, Native dancing was forbidden. Avugiak’s artwork represents a modern resurgence of dance. In college, he said he observed young people who had never danced in their villages join the dance group. Today, some have formed their own dance groups.

“My best work is deeply rooted from watching and participating in Native dance festivals and gatherings,” he said.

Initially, Avugiak painted landscapes. His current distinct painting style happened by accident. He misplaced his glasses and couldn’t see well, so he was using broad strokes with bright colors. When he found his glasses, he had also found his new style.

His paintings depict people dressed in traditional clothing, wearing traditional masks, and arranged dancing in vibrant, moving colors. The paintings show different brush strokes and layers of shades, colors and hues, keeping a balance of color and movement.

He counts among his influences painter Ken Lisbourne, Inupiat from Point Hope, and his instructors in college, -- Alutiiq/Sugpiaq painter and sculptor, Alvin Amason and painter David Mallut. In addition to painting, Avugiak also carves ivory, wood and soapstone.

In his first show at ANAF, each piece has a unique story. “Walrus Dance” is a large-scale painting depicting a herd of walrus on an ice floe with two people dancing wearing walrus masks, while drummers play in the background. In the painting “Sun, Moon and Stars,” he drew inspiration from looking through Yup’ik mask books.

“Abstract art is always interesting to me because Alaskan Native cultures have always produced arts containing abstract elements,” Avugiak said. “My abstract work tends to focus and explore on the view of Alaskan Native, traditional and cultural values in Native Dance, storytelling, performances, songs, celebration and history.”

Visit the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in June and July and get the feeling of being in the front row of a Native dance performance.

Trina Landlord is the Executive Director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She can be reached at trina(at)alaskanativearts.org