The complex ecosystem of Bristol Bay in southeast Alaska, and the struggle to preserve this world’s largest salmon fishery from the planned Pebble Mine project, have “spawned” a great range of artistic responses, including the striking work of the artist Apay’uq.
For Yup’ik peoples, like other Native peoples of the region, the life cycles of salmon and of human beings are intimately intertwined in material and spiritual registers. Apay’uq explores these interdependent cycles of creation in her painting Our Agreement (2011). a work inspired by the artist’s own pregnancy. The swell of the abdomen of the pregnant woman, in which a developing fetus is glimpsed, describes the shape of a leaping salmon, which seems to speak to the woman, her breasts perhaps beginning to fill with milk in anticipation of the child’s arrival. The life-giving arterial blood in the woman’s hand, which is echoed in the delicate placental blood vessels feeding the child, are merged into the tail of the salmon, a reminder that Salmon provides the vital nutrients for human development.
In the background the artist has written repeatedly the words of Salmon, that came to her as she viewed her painting: “I will nourish your future generations, as long as you protect mine.” The swirling blue of ocean and river water, which nurtures salmon, splash up to become uterine fluid, giving life to the developing child.. Salmon willingly gives of its flesh to nurture its human counterparts, include the child yet to be born, with the age-old understanding that human beings will honor Salmon in ritual ceremonials and through sustainable harvesting practices. This covenant is now extended to the vital struggle of preserving the Bristol Bay ecosystem from Pebble Mine.
In a similar vein, in her “Original-Identity, They return to remind future generations who we are.” Apay’uq depicts a swimming salmon couple; the female in the foreground has within its belly a sleeping smiling human child, curled into a fetal position. The background text repeats the title phrase, They return to remind our future generations who we are.” This prophetic message is reinforced by the repeated ancient petroglyph symbols of the spiral, reminder of the continuous mystery of creation, and handprints, evoking the enduring presence of previous human generations nurtured by Salmon, and of all those yet to come. The eggs within the female salmon are metaphorically linked to the growth of future human children. Each year, salmon return to spawn in the river’s headwaters, creating the wealth that will nurture untold human generations yet to come.
The essential embedding of salmon in the regional landscape, in turn, is celebrated in Apay’uq’s “A Place that’s always been,” a vision of the glorious expanse of Bristol Bay in summer. The piece was created, the artist notes, to support a local Native Corporation’s commercial on this theme, “A Place that’s always been.” In the foreground we see the flowering sred almonberries or cloudberries (Rubus spectabilis) traditionally mixed with salmon roe in Native cuisine. Above the bay and the distant mountains we view clouds in the shape of migrating salmon returning to the headwaters where they hatched years earlier, to spawn a new generation of migrating beings. The blue of the sky is reflected in the bay’s waters, and the clouds above, in turn, reflect the migrating fish under the water’s surface. The artist writes of the salmon in this painting, “For me they represent the spirit of Bristol bay. Our people are very spiritual and all beings are to be respected. So I romanticize the idea of the salmon being part of everything.”
The red berries in the foreground make the entire composition sing in an ancient chant rejoicing in the coming of new life. The artist here makes no direct allusion to the threat of Pebble Mine, but all the visible elements here, including the berry clusters , the life-giving waters, and the celestial salmon run, remind us what is at stake if Pebble Mine permitting proceeds and vast mineral extraction threatens this exquisite, life-giving ecosystem.
Proponents of Pebble Mine have claimed it will provide jobs and wealth to the region’s people, more than making up for projected decline in commercial fishing revenues in the fishery is damaged. The artist speaks to this argument in “Understanding Wealth’, depicting a Yup’ik person displaying his or her.wallet. The billfold’s top compartment opens up into vision of water filled with migrating salmon, the ultimate foundation of meaningful life. Dollar signs, the “S” shaped as pink salmon, remind us what real wealth is. The smiling person generously holds the open wallet towards the viewer, presenting these swimming, living contents to all of us; the true wealth of Bristol Bay, including the world’s greatest salmon fishery, are the common heritage of all people, who all share a common responsibility to honor nature’s beings.
In other work, Apay’uq has taken on the Pebble Mine more overtly. Her witty logo for the struggle places a metal screw across the words Pebble Mine in a diagonal slant. Screw Pebble Mine, indeed.