By Kathy Day, Photos By Jim Kohl, courtesy of the Anchorage Museum
Extra Tough: Women of the North, an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum through Labor Day, is a must-see for anyone interested in learning more about the history and influence of women in Alaska.
We chatted with Anchorage Museum Chief Curator Francesca Du Brock about how the exhibit came about and why it’s important to see it.
How did the idea for this exhibit come about?
With the Extra Tough exhibit, we are striving to tell the stories that expand the more generalized and dominant understanding of Alaska. There is a prevailing idea of the north as a masculinized place, so we decided to focus on Alaska women. It’s an interesting lens to tell new stories.
Why Is It Important for Alaskans to Experience this Exhibit?
I think the exhibit offers a really rich and vital vision of this place and the people who have shaped it that has not received its due in the broader culture. Women have been shaping, caring for, and making their mark on the state for centuries. Values of sustainability and care, which you see a lot in Indigenous women’s stories and perspectives, are something that I find inspiring. These values are also something we need to be considering as we think about our future here. There are so many threats to the north – the flagging economy, climate change, the pandemic. The values, ideas, and legacies of the women in this exhibition help us understand where we came from and where we are going.
What are the different parts of the exhibit?
One section looks at Women & Society. This looks at how womanhood is understood and expressed across different cultures and over time. The artwork demonstrates how social norms are modeled and learned, enforced, subverted, transformed, or disrupted. Some of the artwork pushes back on standards of beauty. There also are several portraits that push back on social constraints dictating the ways women are seen, categorized or expected to behave. In Women & Place, we look at art that offers a more intimate and complicated view of the land, rather than the typical landscape paintings that often reinforce the romantic notion of the North as a place untouched. Women & Work looks at how women’s labor has shaped our place, and how social attitudes and jobs have changed for women over the years. It also has a section on heroes and trailblazers including some of Alaska’s women explorers and adventurers. There also is a woman in history wall that tells the stories of people who made a mark in the state’s history.
What are your favorite parts of Extra Tough?
I have two favorite parts. The first is a projected video by Sámi Finnish artist Marja Helander, titled Birds in the Earth. It’s right at the entrance to the exhibition. It depicts two ballerinas dancing through the landscape. It’s a really beautiful and meditative piece about Indigenous sovereignty and land rights.
My other favorite is The Affirmation Chair. We reached out to over 50 individuals from all over the state and asked them to submit a guiding piece of advice, mantra, or pivotal experience from their lives. The results were incredible. So if you visit the exhibit, you sit in a chair similar to a chair at a hair salon. You don’t have to touch anything, as there are hood speakers that are suspended above you. You just listen to all of the voices sharing intimate and uplifting advice. Working on this piece of the project during the pandemic and seeing the generosity of the contributors was really uplifting for me. (Arctic Entries is doing a show about the Affirmation Chair on Sunday, March 28 at 8 pm on KSKA 91.1 FM).
Tell us a little about you and your job at the Museum
I was born and raised in Anchorage and have always been interested in art. I studied art history in college, then moved to San Francisco and got my master’s degree in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. I worked in San Francisco and then Mexico City teaching kids, running art programs, and working in galleries, as well as working with art collectors and on murals. Then, I came back to the U.S. and did a one-year master’s program in education at Harvard. I decided I wanted to come back to Alaska and somehow combine art and education. I pitched a project to the Anchorage Museum that focused on immigration in Alaska and worked on that for a year. Then, they offered me the chief curator position. I help put together the Museum’s exhibitions and also work on collaborative projects and programs. I love that my job keeps me learning new things and working in collaboration with communities and artists.
Extra Tough: Women of the North will be on display at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C Street, through September. Check the website at www.anchoragemuseum.org for Museum hours, as they have been limited during the pandemic. Museum admission is $20 for adults, $17 for Alaska residents, $15 for seniors, students, and military. Ages 6-12 are $10 and children five and under are free. Become a museum member and admission is free.