ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, New York — Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) makes work at the intersection of abstracted imagery, written word, and dynamic washes of sound and music. The filmmaker and visual artist foregrounds his identity and tells stories of Indigenous lifeways, diving deep into questions of his Indigeneity through quasi-autobiographical narratives that speak directly to Native audiences while not over-explaining meaning for non-Native viewers. 

“The very first film that I made was the idea to just make something without having to contextualize it, without having to spend ten minutes giving an [Indigenous] history lesson about who these people are, who we were, and what the subtext is for the film,” Hopinka told Hyperallergic. “I guess making the work that I do, it can be an idea, it can be a single gesture. Maybe the audience changes from piece to piece, something that is more focused on family and who I’m speaking to, something more broadly relating to Native peoples.”

Hopinka, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2022, was an inaugural fellow at Forge Project in 2021 and has exhibited his work globally in major museums, galleries, and shown at prominent film festivals including Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival, and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. In addition to his work as a practicing artist, Hopinka currently serves as an assistant professor in the Film and Electronic Arts Program at Bard College. Hopinka noted that during his undergraduate and post-graduate studies, the absence of meaningful and in-depth Indigenous studies curriculum was palpable.

“I was frustrated because [the Native studies courses] all felt geared toward White students,” he said. “I was like, okay, this is Native Studies 101, but what’s Native Studies 201, and what’s the 300 level? What are the questions that were not being taught in these classes, and if Native Studies isn’t for us, then what is?” These questions fueled much of Hopinka’s work, integrating film as a means of and outlet for telling stories directly to the Indigenous audiences he felt were being left out of the conversation. “In some ways it felt really practical — I’m going to make this film and not contextualize anything or explain anything” he said. “It also felt like an intellectual exercise. Native peoples in this country are so marginalized, [making films for and about Native people] just seemed like an impossibility.”

Sky Hopinka, 2022 (courtesy the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles)

Hopinka possesses a razor-sharp acumen for storytelling. However, it is a type of storytelling that is not hinged on a strict linear timeline. There is a befuddled beauty in the undulating narrative-building Hopinka crafts, one that leads the viewer through varied landscapes of story with no explicit beginning, middle, or end, essentially allowing a viewer to enter the work at any point in its timeline and still be able to have a meaningful experience with it. 

In his short film “Jáaji Approx.” (2015), Hopinka laces together audio recordings made between 2005 and 2015 of his father, Mike Hopinka, talking about and singing powwow songs. The recordings, which act as the film’s score, are articulated on the screen through subtitles in Chinuk Wawa (a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin.) The video vacillates between moments of shaky camera work and graceful fixed and panned shots that at times go in and out of focus. Footage of natural landscapes, gas stations, and highways atmospherically yet warmly play across the screen, at times dematerializing with bands of magenta, cyan, and ochre washes. The abstracted images play both visual and narrative functions within this work and others. 

“I wanted to layer the video and also just play around with the legibility of the image, to illustrate the relationship that I have with my father across time, these recordings became approximations of that relationship,” said Hopinka. “The abstractions became a way for me to communicate with his singing. I thought very literally about how I could sing along with him in terms of video work, and these images and abstraction were a way to do that.” 

One moment in the film features landscapes and, though not identical, they mirror one another. On the bottom of the frame is a natural scene, lush mountains against a clouded sky; at the top is an image of a city, cultivated and built up with structures and roads. “I want to look at the sort of duality of places without necessarily making a political statement, but more making a statement that has to do with a civil sort of reckoning or recognition of place,” he said. “Who is here now and who was here before and who continues to be here.”

Sky Hopinka, “Jáaji Approx. (2015), HD video, stereo, color, 7 minutes and 39 seconds, open edition (courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles

In his 2022 single-channel video “Sunflower Siege Engine” (on view in Sky Hopinka: Seeing and Seen at the San Jose Museum of Art through July 9), Hopinka layers together archival footage from the occupation of Alcatraz Island, lead by the United Indians of All Tribes from 1969 to 1971, including Richard Oakes reading of his “Proclamation: To the Great White Father and All His People” in November of 1969, illuminating the parameters of inhospitality that the United States government created with the Indigenous reservation system and linking it to the carceral nature of the island and the prison industrial complex. 

The work evokes a projected nostalgia, one of resistance and resurgence of agency while concurrently linking it back to Hopinka himself, reflecting on his body, aging, and experience. It’s a nostalgia that stretches into the future with one hand and reaches back into the past with the other. “There are ramblings of myself [in the work], as I was thinking about my body in these different places, or who I am, or how I exist as a Native person.” The recurring chant “Get Them Out,” hangs in the air, a haunting call awaiting its response.

Sky Hopinka, “Jáaji Approx. (2015), HD video, stereo, color, 7 minutes and 39 seconds, open edition (courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles)
Sky Hopinka, from “Sunflower Siege Engine” (2022), 16 mm to HD Video, video, stereo, colour 12 minutes 22 seconds, edition of 3 + 2 AP (courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles
Sky Hopinka, “Mnemonics of Shape and Reason” (2021), HD video, stereo, color, 4 minutes and 13 seconds, open edition (courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin and Los Angeles)

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Erin Joyce

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art, and has organized over 30 exhibitions across the US. She was a 2019 Rabkin Prize nominee, and has received attention for her work in Vogue Magazine,...

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