Writer Lisa Alexia notes that “her work visually explores the effects of colonization and the evolution and strength of Indigenous people[s] after genocide and intergenerational trauma through portraiture and textiles. She is exploring pictorial storytelling to communicate contemporary stories of oppression, historic trauma, resilience, humor, changing climate, motherhood and resistance.”
Webb’s practice includes advocacy work on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. She has expressed the enormity of this crisis and its personal connections through drawing black-ink portraits of these women on white cloth parkas—called a qaspeq in the Yup’ik language—in large scale format. Webb made her first qaspeq from hand-stitched, recycled bedsheets and drew on it the faces of forty-seven missing or murdered Alaska Native women and girls. I first saw this work when I met Webb in 2017 through mutual friend Melissa Shaginoff (Athna/Paiute artist and social activist), and we introduced her to Monica Shah, Head of Collections at the Anchorage Museum, who facilitated its purchase for the Museums’ collection. When Webb shared this work with us, she expressed the care, caution, love and difficulties of making this work, which she was still adding to. She took breaks for herself and waited until she was ready to work again, to bring these women forward for all of us to witness, to share, and to support.
Webb received a 2018 Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation to support making a larger-scale qaspeq project “covered with ink portraits of nearly 400 missing or murdered Indigenous women, with supplementary Yup’ik designs,” that “will explore issues of vulnerability, injustice, permanence, violence and healing in a layered way.” She told reporter Alex McCarthy in a 2019 Juneau Empire article, “We’re not going to solve the problem unless people feel it, so I was trying to do this kind of project to say, when you look at this many faces at once, you can’t just call it a statistic. These are people. These are people’s relatives. These are all of our relatives.”
Natalie Evans, host of the podcast “Some Kind of Brown,” describes Webb elegantly and insightfully: “Gifted with the ability to depict the duality of both celebrating Native strength and the pain of all our lost sisters, Amber is an artist who speaks through and breathes her Yup’ik culture into her work. Through all of the painstaking details of her creations, it is easy to see Amber’s heart and passion for bringing missing Indigenous women and girls to the forefront.” The impact of Webb’s work continues, as described in this public radio feature from Dillingham, her home village: “Bristol Bay artist’s qaspeq continues to document the toll of MMIP by lifting up their stories.” (May 10, 2022)
In 2019, Webb was honored by the Alaska Federation of Natives with the Walter Sobeleff Warrior of Light Award, which recognizes “individuals who uplift our people, enrich our spirits, and unify our people.” To see recent work by Webb, visit the Bunnell Street Arts Center website, where she completed an artist’s residency and solo show in April and May of 2022. Her new work features black ink drawings on two-dimensional wood panels, most depicting nude, full-figured Indigenous women with elements of visual storytelling from her Yup’ik heritage.
Dawn Biddison is the Museum Specialist at the Alaska office of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. Since 2002, she has worked with Alaska Native Elders, artists, educators, scholars, knowledge-keepers and cultural organization staff. Her work began with museum research, exhibition, catalog and website work. Since 2010, her work shifted to outreach with Alaska Natives through collaborative community-based cultural heritage projects that include facilitating museum collections access, artist residencies, community workshops, public programs and equitable documentation that respects Indigenous protocols and goals, supports intergenerational learning, and provides ongoing, accessible educational resources through print and online distribution. You can see examples of her work on the Smithsonian Learning Lab site, “Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska.”
This article was funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
This story is part of the Alaska Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.