Aqay’u’s striking painting, “Anerneq” (Spirit/Breath), 2020, bears the caption, “We are a part of the world, all as beings. We progress and evolve through each generation, but are expected by the spirits among us to carry on in the truest way of the human being. Respect all.”
The painting is centered on an enormous, serene green figure of Mother Earth, who in this rendering is the sacred essence “Anerneq”. Anerneq is sometimes described for Yup’ik and related peoples of southwestern and western Alaska as the soul or breath of a person that may be transmitted from one generation to the next, especially through naming ceremonies.
The green being, an emanation of the living landscape itself, is surrounded by life-giving waters of a flowing river. She holds in her large green hands a dried plant of the wormwood family, used, the artist explains, as medicine or tea being, here being smudged. Blessing smoke from the smudging rises up around her, towards four unclothed children, who sit within the green banks of the river, filled with brilliant flowers redolent of the forces of new life. The artist writes that in her mind the children represent the past, present, and future of the Yup’ik people. Above the youth are distant blue mountain peaks, shaped with faces of ancestors, who gaze up a a bright orange sky that perhaps evokes sunrise and the coming of a new day. Apaqy’uq notes that in her mind the the sky kisses the faces of the ancestors.
The artist further explains that the composition is inspired by the design of a traditional Yup’ik earthen or sod house, which was centered on a smoke hole. Here, the Mother Earth figure of Anerneq seems to be akin to a sheltering dwelling, from which blessing smoke rises up, as a prayer permeating all of creation.
To these observations, I will add some more speculative thoughts. It would appear that the young child at the upper right is holding a mask from the Yup’ik Winter ceremonial dance, which aids in the transition of animals and other living beings from generation to generation, allowing for hunting and fishing to continue in the coming year. Perhaps we could even understand the whole painting as a transformation of the classic Winter Ceremonial mask motif, in which various sacred natural beings and forces—including the North Wind, Salmon, Moose, Eagle, Duck, and Seal (sometimes signaled by feathers or tail carvings)— radiate out from a central face, held in concentric lattice work. The children themselves seem to be positioned rather like the feathers that encircle many Yup’ik masks, calling forth new life in the seasons to come.
If I am reading the image correctly, the children are creating music, hitting traditional drums with drum sticks, as would be appropriate when a mask is activated in ritual activity that supports the regeneration of life. Like the ceremonial masked dance performances, the overall composition appears dedicated to maintaining balance between visible and invisible realms, and between persons and nature’s beings.
Historically, winter ceremonial masks would have been allowed over time to dissolve and disintegrate in the outdoors, gradually returning to the landscape from which their materials had been gathered. Apay’uq’s painting, in contrast, is a long-term permanent gift, helping to instruct all who see it in the core values of respect and spiritual connections across time.
It appears that the eyes of the central green maternal figure are closed, and that we are meant to behold her in a state of sleep, trance, or dream-vision. She may in that sense be akin to a shamanic figure, who historically, guided by spiritual visions, would have carved masks or instructed mask carvers in the shape and imagery of each mask. Perhaps we are being invited by the artist into a productive dreamscape, witnessing how the energies of land, water, and air are passed along in great cycles of renewal, in ways that transcend conventional understanding. Looking into this beautiful, meditative face we are invited to slow down our own breathing and to become attuned to the gradual rhythms of the natural world. The encircling waterway that flows from the ancestral mountains past the children and through the Earth Mother may remind us of the annual run of salmon through Bristol Bay–which brings ocean nutrients deep into the land’s interior and its highlands. The net effect of the work is to honor the unified matrix of persons, animals, foliage, land, and water that will continue to nurture future life, so long as we honor our responsibility to safeguard these precious gifts.
For Further Reading
Ann Fienup-Riordan. 2001. What’s in a Name: Becoming a Real Person in a Yup’ik Community. in Strangers to Relatives. The Adoption and Naming of Anthropologists in Native North America. Edited by Sergei Kan. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press.
Ann Fienup-Riordan. 1986 The Real People: The Concept of Personhood Among the Yup’ik Eskimos of Western Alaska Études/Inuit/Studies Vol. 10, No. 1/2, À LA FRONTIÈRE DES SEXES / ON THE BORDER OF GENDERS (1986), pp. 261-270
Harold Napoleon. 1996 Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being. Edited by Eric Madsen. Alaska Native Knowledge Network.
–Listen to an interview with Apay’uq Moore and filmmaker Mark Titus at: