Ilgavak

Artist Spotlight: For Yup’ik artist, hunter, fashion designer and advocate Ilgavak, it’s more than skin deep.

ch’i cha jų̃ kwa’ch’e uts’an kwäts’eden-ji Indigenous Sovereignty
Twelve square compositions of geometric forms made from furs are arranged on a grid against a white background.

Yup’ik artist and fashion designer Ilgavak (Peter Williams) is passionate about fur: as a hunter, he considers harvesting marine mammals sacred; as an advocate and activist, he is dedicated to combating misinformation about Indigenous Alaskan hunting and fishing practices and promoting his people’s subsistence rights. He applies this same attitude to his art and fashion work, sewing seal, otter and fish skins in pieces that embody his Yup’ik values of reciprocity, nourishment, community, respect and adornment. As Ilgavak said to the Guardian in a 2015 profile: “My business is not separate from my activism […]it’s not separate from my spirituality, it’s not separate from my culture.”

Twelve square compositions of geometric forms made from furs are arranged on a grid against a white background.
Ilgavak, Seasons’ Transitions, 2019. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BUNNELL STREET ARTS CENTER. PHOTO: ALYSSA RUSSELL.

Born in Sheet’ká, Alaska, where he continues to reside, Ilgavak operates Shaman Furs, a high-end fashion label specializing in clothing and accessories that he harvests. Over the last ten years, Ilgavak has been a determined advocate for Indigenous Alaskan fur products in the upscale fashion market, with presentations at New York City Fashion Week (2015), Fashion Week Brooklyn (2016), and New York Fashion Trade Show (2018). In his fashion presentations and ongoing education work (he’s been a resident, research fellow, and conducted workshops and demonstrations across the United States, with an emphasis on passing skills on to Indigenous Youth in Alaska), he has worked to elevate the profile of local hunters, sewers and craftspeople.

In a 2020 series of “fur paintings” shown at the Bunnell Street Arts Centre, Ilgavak reflects on the impact of colonialism and ongoing US-led resource extraction on climate and marine mammal harvesting policy, popular perceptions of fur propagated by animal rights activists and the colonial history of the fur trade. Stretched over canvas stretchers, the works use furs to create abstractions based on maps, landscapes, seasonal shifts and nationalistic symbols such as the American flag. 

While working with fur and honouring Yup’ik hunting practices is a constant, Ilgavak’s advocacy and artistic practice continues to take many shifting forms—a recent project as one of the inaugural Luce Foundation Indigenous Knowledge Fellows was to develop a curriculum designed to bring Indigenous perspectives to environmental sciences for high school students. The project builds on his short 2016 documentary film, Harvest: Quyurciq (which Ilgavak produced and appears in). The film strives to educate Indigenous viewers about marine mammal harvesting and prepare them to advocate for their subsistence rights, while also informing non-Indigenous viewers and policy makers about the barriers Indigenous Alaskans face in earning a living from seal and otter fur products, and the integrity and vibrancy of the cultural practices that make up the harvest.

Credit: This video was originally published by Harvest: Quyurciq Documentary on January 5, 2016. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND HARVEST: QUYURCIQ.