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The Secrets Within Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ Artwork

Aug 31, 2023
by IAQ

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. 

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. 

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.” 


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