Universally acclaimed artist Nicholas Galanin has been pushing important, difficult conversations around racial and social justice through his large-scale works shown all over the world.
Hailing from Sitka, Alaska, Galanin is of Tlingit and Unangax descent and has received wide recognition for his activism focused on indigenous communities. Some of his most recent work — like the 2020 piece Land Swipe, made from a painted deer hide showing a NYC subway map with landmarks where instances of police violence on black youth occured — have been hailed as some of the most important works of art of the last few years by outlets like Artsy and The New York Times.
With his newest musical project Ya Tseen, Galanin has created a genre-jumping odyssey that is as welcoming as it is radical. The 11 songs on the Sub Pop released Indian Yard burst at the seams with ideas spanning from cosmic funk to shades of indie rock.
The album also boasts a high profile list of collaborators like Portugal, The Man on the album’s opener “Knives,” Nick Hakim on “A Feeling Undefined” and his longtime hero Ishamel Butler from Shabazz Palaces on the lush and skittering standout “Synthetic Gods.”
Galanin recorded several albums under different aliases over the years like Silver Jackson and most recently as Indian Agent. But with Ya Tseen — which means “be alive” and is taken from his Tlingit name, Yeil Ya Tseen — he feels as though he was able to break through with a more wide-reaching message and musical style. As he sees it, this is a record for this time and moment.
“It’s definitely a broader step that’s not focused on one period of time or history,” he said.
The album was written and recorded over three years with bandmates Zak D. Wass, Otis Calvin III and longtime collaborator Benjamin Verdoes. To come up with ideas Galanin took a mobile recording rig with him around the globe before booking recording sessions in Seattle and working in his home studio on the remote island of Sitka, Alaska.
As the years went by, the project shifted continuously as Galanin built up his studio with analog synthesizers.
“The studio grew and the sounds changed. There were a lot of political changes and a lot of life changes within that time,” he said.
Even though much of his art deals with the struggles of historically oppressed people, Galanin wanted Indian Yard to represent the emotions that get misrepresented when discussing an artist’s motivations. Of course Galanin is not downplaying the importance of trauma and pain in the creation of meaningful work, he feels as though the positive aspects of life that give it meaning are not always included in the conversation by academics and institutions who assign value to art.
“A lot of the songs and sonic ideas on this record are to me humanizing aspects of existence,” said Galanin.“That existence is the joy and the love and other things that are overlooked when our identities come into play.”
It’s a perspective that ties joy with resistance. In the song “Gently to the Sun,” Galanin sees the overthrow of tyrannical and oppressive politicians as inevitable as the next generations will surpass and outlive their archaic bullshit. “Politicians built that border wall,” he sings. “We go raise the children that will make it fall.” Youth is not on the side of repression. In the song, Galanin doesn’t assign democrats or republicans to the “politicians” at fault. But in a way, they all should be taken to task for letting these divisions occur and not addressing the ones that have broken up the indigenous communities of North America.
“There’s definitely divisions that get publicized that serve the political space more than the community. These borders cross our communities,” Galanin said. “They were placed here and divided our communities, especially our indigenous communities.”
With his success in the art world, Galanin lives a nomadic life, traveling the globe for different installations and residencies over nearly two decades. But, with the global pandemic, he was able to “utilize this as a pause” to spend some time at home. From there, he could tune in to see the increase in political activism around the Black Lives Matter movement and younger people becoming more engaged and informed than ever before.
Even though advances have been made, does Galanin see this intensity continuing into this next administration? “I always hope so,” said Galanin. “It’s not a form of entertainment and it’s not a hobby. It is people’s real life experiences and their livelihood. It’s not to pass the time. I hope it continues to grow.”
Indian Yard will be released April 30 on Sub Pop.