Conversations of Ourselves

Project Spotlight: An exhibition of work by an Iñupiaq artist based on Alaska Native perspectives. 

ᓄᓇᖃᖅᑳᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ ᐱᒋᔭᖏᑦ ᓴᖅᑭᑎᑦᑎᓂᖅ ᑭᒡᒐᖅᑐᐃᔩᑦ
Photo of Melissa Shaginoff. She has long, brown-blonde hair, wears a black apron, and stands outside with an out-of-focus greenery background.

Conversations of Ourselves: An Indigenous Survey of James Kivetoruk Moses (2022) is an online exhibition presented by The Coe Center for the Arts that features artwork by a renowned Iñupiaq artist whose work has appeared in many museum exhibitions and publications. But here, his work is shared in a new way: from the multi-vocal perspectives of nine Iñupiaq artists and community members today and from an Alaska Native art historian, all in dialogue with Alaska Native artist, curator and social activist Melissa Shaginoff (Athna Athabascan, Paiute).

Photo of Melissa Shaginoff. She has long, brown-blonde hair, wears a black apron, and stands outside with an out-of-focus greenery background.
Photo of Melissa Shaginoff, project leader, co-curator and illustrator of the online exhibition “Conversations of Ourselves” at The Coe Center for the Arts. COURTESY MELISSA SHAGINOFF.

The exhibition website notes that Moses’ work was praised by collectors and early scholars “for creating ‘authentic’ depictions of lifeways under threat or already gone,” and that a goal of the project was to question such interpretations. “While Kivetoruk Moses created images of incredible detail, the scenes were often more amalgamation, or even imaginings, rather than snapshots – nor are these lifeways gone today. They continue the path of survivance that Kivetoruk Moses himself traveled some sixty years ago.”

Kivetoruk Moses (ca. 1903-1982) shared richly detailed visual information about Iñupiaq life in his artwork, derived from a lifetime of experiences living his culture before becoming an artist. According to the obituary by artist and art professor David Mollet, Moses was a “hunter, trapper, trader and reindeer herder,” who became an artist at age 50 after a debilitating accident left him unable to continue that lifestyle. Instead, he “returned to a childhood interest in drawing and began a successful new life as a professional artist. Moses quickly became known for his works on paper that were a painting-like synthesis of mixed media techniques: colored pencil, ink and watercolor.” Mollet wrote this in his work “Moses embellishes his pictures with as much information as his considerable skills allow. He reaches for illusionistic realism through naturalistic color and meticulously rendered texture.”

In order to be accessible and egalitarian, as well as relevant and well-informed, museums and curators presenting Indigenous art today today need to participate in strongly collaborative work with Indigenous knowledge-keepers, artists and Elders. Conversations of Ourselves is clearly on that path. The Coe Center describes both their team and project as collaborative, and as “completely driven by the conversations Melissa Shaginoff had with Alaska Native Elders, artists, art historians, and language warriors.” Coe staff characterized their role as “support[ing] this experimental project as it changed and grew.” The central question of the exhibition was “what does an Indigenous person see in Kivetoruk Moses’s work,” which was asked in order to do “the crucial work of approaching the place, meaning, and ongoing significance of these incredible images from within.” 

Image from the exhibition website of ten pencil-sketched portraits showing the people in the conversation links.
Screenshot of the conversation links from online exhibition “Conversations of Ourselves” featuring portrait sketches by Melissa Shaginoff. COURTESY MELISSA SHAGINOFF.

At the heart of the online exhibition are the conversations with Iñupiaq artists and community members: Joseph Senungetuk, Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Kathleen Bonnar, Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie, Jenny Irene Miller, Howdice Brown, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Brower and Erin Ggaadimits Ivalu Gingrich. There is also a conversation with Alutiiq art historian and art administrator Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi. Each website link provides information about the conversation partner, examples—for artists—of their work, a recording of their conversation with Shaginoff, transcripts, and images of the Moses artwork they discussed. The website also shares a collection of sixty-six digital images of pieces by Moses, loaned to the Coe Center by a private collector. The exhibition team is acknowledged online as Bess Murphy, Curator/Project Manager; Melissa Shaginoff, Curator/Illustrator; Samantha Tracy, Collection Coordinator; and Keith Grosbeck, Website Designer. You can learn more about each of them at the bottom of this page.

Author Biography

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.