“Coming out of grad school, I got a lot of ‘that’s not Native art!’” said Anna Tsouhlarakis, a future Mellon artist-in-residence of Diné, Creek, and Greek descent. “But hundreds of years in the past, our ancestors didn’t bat an eye at integrating new techniques.”
A classroom was full in the Colorado College Fine Arts Center, on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 26. Tsouhlarakis will be in residence all of the 2019–20 school year, and this was her first talk at the school — a preview of her work and an introduction of sorts.
Her visit was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a charitable institution established during the 1900s by the children of wealthy industrialist and art collector Andrew Mellon. In 2016, CC received $1.2 million from the foundation to bring Southwest arts and culture to the college over a five-year period. Part of the grant has gone toward bringing artists with ties to the Southwest to the college for a residency of anywhere from six weeks to a semester.
In the past, these artists — including Virgil Ortiz, Melanie Yazzie, and Raven Chaon — have engaged with the campus community in a variety of ways, from exhibitions, to open studio hours, to co-teaching blocks. Tsouhlarakis, however, will be the first artist to stay for the entire year. She’ll have studio space to work in, and will likely hold open studios in addition to working with classes. While she hasn’t finalized what projects she’ll be working on yet, she envisions something focusing on time and space, and she will also continue work on an installation for the National Portrait Gallery on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
But, Tsouhlarakis added, “I really want to bring back a layer of humor to my work.”
Though art has always been a part of her life, due to her father’s immersion in traditional jewelry making, Tsouhlarakis was originally interested in math and science. While attending Dartmouth College, however, she decided to try art instead, and ended up graduating with a double major in Native American studies and studio art.
“I would always be second-guessing myself with math and science, so it felt very freeing to do art,” Tsouhlarakis said.
After college, Tsouhlarakis went on to obtain a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, and has since received numerous awards and grants in recognition of her work, which includes everything from photography, to performance pieces, to sculpture installations.
“I’m really flipping expectations on their head,” Tsouhlarakis said, discussing a Greek-inspired art installation she made for a Native American museum.
Other revolutionary pieces of hers include a dancing video she created while at Yale, which shows Tsouhlarakis — dressed in casual, everyday clothes — being taught various dances by a diverse group of people.
“Usually we’re the ones educating the audience,” Tsouhlarakis said. “That kind of [casual] imagery isn’t seen in the gallery setting for Native women.”
Breaking out of the stereotypical expectations placed on Native artists is a main theme in Tsouhlarakis’ work. “There are certain perceptions and expectations that confine Native American art”, she wrote on her website. “Holding Native American art to these limitations has caused it to remain stagnant. Reclaiming identity means creating a fresh vocabulary to redirect a dialogue, not merely playing with the language that has been placed upon a group.”
In the past, this has often invited criticism from people who expect something different from a Native artist, both from within and outside the Native community. In the past 10 years, however, that hasn’t been as common, as up-and-coming Native artists continue to push back against traditional limitations.
“The focus of my work is to create and uncover new truths,” Tsouhlarakis wrote. And that’s what she intends to continue doing at CC next year.