Sonya Kelliher-Combs

Artist Spotlight: Revealing the personal and cultural histories embedded in materials

Représentation Création Souveraineté autochtone Activisme

Sonya Kelliher-Combs is an Iñupiaq and Athabascan multidisciplinary artist based out of Anchorage, Alaska. Working primarily in sculpture and mixed-media painting, Kelliher-Combs creates work that examines issues of self-determination, identity and intergenerational knowledge within an Alaskan-Native context.

Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Small Secrets (detail) (2009). COURTESY THE ARTIST.

Raised in the Northwest community of Sitŋasuaq (Nome), Alaska, Kelliher-Combs grew up learning traditional skills like skin sewing, beading and food preparation during summers spent on the land with her family. She builds upon these traditions in her practice through the combination of organic materials like fur, rawhide and intestines with synthetic materials and modern techniques. This union opens up a unique dialogue that reveals the personal and cultural histories embedded in materials. Yet, some meanings remain hidden — or obscured — in Kelliher-Combs’ work. 

“I examine the relationship and melding of Alaska Native and Western cultures. I strive to create works that address these issues.” 
Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Iñupiaq and Athabascan Multidisciplinary Artist

In Small Secrets (2009), a series of delicate, fingertip-shaped pouches made from walrus gut line the gallery wall. Each sculpture is unique, embellished with a variety of materials from glass beads to knotted human hair or nylon thread. These intimate vessels and the title Secrets are a recurring motif in Kelliher-Combs’ work, taking on other forms from Guarded Secrets (2014), in which similar tubular forms are bristling with porcupine quills; to mixed-media paintings like Pink Unraveled Secrets (2006) made up of layers of acrylic polymer that form a synthetic ‘paint skin.’

“The work I create is inspired by the relationship of our ancestors to their environment – how they used skin, fur, and membrane in material culture,” says Kelliher-Combs in an interview with Chela Perley about creating Small Secrets (2009), adding “My medium is skin, the surface by which an individual mediates their socio-cultural experience and reality. I examine the relationship and melding of Alaska Native and Western cultures. I strive to create works that address these issues.” 

Sonya Kelliher-Combs received a BFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1992 and went on to receive an MFA from Arizona State University in 1998. Her work has been shown in numerous individual and group exhibitions internationally, most recently Alakkaajut (Many Things Appear), the inaugural exhibition for the SAW Gallery’s Nordic Lab in Ottawa, ON. Kelliher-Combs is the recipient of several awards including the 2007 Eiteljorg Museum Fellowship, the 2005 Anchorage Mayor’s Artist Award and the Arctic Education Foundation Academic Excellence Award. Her work can be found in private and public collections including those of the National Museum of the American Indian, the Anchorage Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum, the British Royal Museum, the Institute of American Indian Art, the Museum of Contemporary Native Art and the Alaska State Museum.

Credit: This video was originally filmed for the exhibition This Is Not A Silent Movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists, Craft Contemporary (formerly Craft & Folk Art Museum), Los Angeles, May 26 – September 8, 2013. Exhibition curated by Julie Decker, Chief Curator at Anchorage Museum, Alaska. COURTESY CRAFT CONTEMPORARY.