You may have heard Aliza Amihude’s name before.
Back in 2003, she received quite a bit of press — both praising and critical — over the jewellery she made with funding from the Manitoba Arts Council. Using vinyl tubing, pubic hair, fingernails and other materials such as mouse poop, Aliza created pieces that caused quite the stir. It led the Canadian Taxpayer Federation to honour her with a Teddies Waste Award in 2004, citing her work and the funding she received for it as a prime example of taxpayer monies misspent.
Speaking about the pieces, Aliza says, “When people heard about the mouse poo necklace, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is the most disgusting thing!’ They were writing me hate emails and letters. But the people that saw the piece understood more what it was about, and they saw the beauty in it as well. I was exploring the idea of wearing your deepest secrets in a clear tube around your neck. What if we wore a statement on our necks that said, ‘This is part of me that I’m ashamed of’? I grew up in a house with mouse poo, and I hated mice.”
On a Saturday afternoon with sunlight streaming through the windows of her Point Douglas home, Aliza tours me through with contented pride. The surfaces in her kitchen, living room, and studio at the rear are littered with materials for making jewellery: small boxes of beads, wire wound in neat circles, pieces in various stages of completion hanging from mannequins and wire racks. Of an array of earrings made from malleable coloured wire tucked by the door to her studio, Aliza comments, “Those pieces are too fragile to be worn as jewelry, I just like the shapes they create, and I’m enjoying playing with that.”
Aliza shows me around, and the interview just happens. I fumble quickly for my phone, eager to record her words. After our chat, she pulls out a briefcase containing carefully wrapped pieces she’s made over the years. She hands me a vinyl tube bracelet filled with what, at a glance, looks like grains of rice encircled by a precious metal detail, asking me what I think it is. Looking closer, I realize the tube is chock full of fingernail clippings.
Aliza tells me, “I like to play with perception. A lot of people can’t tell what this bracelet is made of, and when they find out, they’re often repulsed. But before that, they’re attracted to it. I love to play with that attraction and repulsion.”
She returns the items to the briefcase and busies herself over a pot of soup on the stove. I snap photos of her cats sunbathing in the great room upstairs while Aliza prepares the soup, humming quietly. We eat and talk for another hour. As the sun sinks lower in the late afternoon, we exchange goodbyes and part ways with a hug.
FULL: What are you working on currently?
Aliza Amihude: I’ve been doing pieces with vinyl tubing and precious stones like amethyst. With the way the tubing works, it makes some interesting shapes. I like it when the materials are the ones making the piece. Vinyl is cheap to get and people often comment on me mixing cheap materials with precious ones. But vinyl is made of petroleum. You’re wearing dinosaurs! How can you put a price on that?
I have really great tools that I can work with, but I love making stuff out of everything. I have boxes of polar bear fur, and beaver, and antlers. I’ve got so much stuff in here it’s crazy.
FULL: So you’re working with vinyl right now, and earlier you showed me the electrum stacking rings you’re making for the Winnipeg Art Gallery. And you’ve just mentioned some more organic materials. It seems like you’ve cycled through a lot of different materials. How does that process work for you? Do you just see what you’re drawn to and go from there?
AA: Sometimes I see something finished in my head, and then I have to gather the materials to make it, and other times I look at the things around me and feel inspired by those things, and sometimes I don’t know what to do so I sort of close my eyes and grab something and it shows me.
I have this piece that’s half polar bear fur and half harp seal skin, and there’s a diamond hidden inside. I had this idea about preciousness, what people call precious and what’s really precious: clean water, clean air. But people consider diamonds and gold precious. So we sacrifice all this shit for these diamonds and gold. I had to find polar bear fur, which is pretty much illegal. You have to have a permit to hunt a polar bear and that costs a lot. I went to all these different furriers, and I finally found some 40-year-old pieces of polar bear fur, and I was able to make my piece.
FULL: Why were you drawn to polar bear fur? Is it because of the fact that they’re endangered?
AA: One of the reasons is, yes, because they’re endangered, but also because people make a really big deal out of stuff that’s stupid. I believe that global warming is a natural cycle of the planet. We were under ice 10 000 years ago, right here. We’re still warming from that period. We’ve accelerated it with all our human folly, but the fact is that it’s actually a natural thing, and species evolve and have been evolving for millions of years, and it’s natural. To me, it’s not as heart-wrenching as a lot of people make it.
I love animals, I love nature, and I don’t want to lose polar bears, but I also play with people’s emotions in my work. Some of it’s very confrontational.
One of my friends asked why I was using polar bear fur to talk about the fact that they’re endangered. It’s a total paradox, and I agree, which is why I’m using old stuff. I made the piece a few years ago when people were going crazy over polar bears and there were pictures everywhere, and I was wondering why there were no pictures of the blood on their muzzles. Because polar bears are mean, and they kill things and eat them voraciously. They’re not cuddly, cute little pets.
I did a grant application about how we have a master slave relationship with our environment; we think we’re the masters, but we’re actually the slaves. I was playing with that idea. I have a mask that is part polar bear fur and part beaver fur, with hemp strings dipped in red wine, and it’s called Canadian History and it’s a blindfold.
Earlier, I was talking about this piece called Northern Catch with polar bear fur and harp seal skin, because polar bears eat harp seals. I was trying to make that correlation, and it was outlined in white gold to represent the water. If you want to get to the diamond that’s sewn in, you have to destroy the piece. Which is also, like --
FULL: very symbolic.
AA: Exactly. A lot of my stuff is a little political in that way. Like that backscratcher is called The Right to Bear Arms and it’s a bear claw. It’s about how, well, you can go many directions with it, but it’s mostly about how when the colonists came and essentially said, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch my back,” but really it was, “You’ll scratch my back and I’ll kill you with my gun.”
FULL: -- or how firearms changed Aboriginal warfare.
AA: Absolutely, they are very adept at adapting to whatever is around their environment. When the horses came, they were good at that; they got really good at using the rifles. All the warfare they adapted really well. It’s not like they were a peaceful people all the time. But the rifle decimated them.
I haven’t made it yet, but I’ve been collecting buffalo hide, because I want to make a gimp mask out of buffalo, with the eyes as beaded American flags from the 1870’s.
I’m trying to use these materials to wake people up a bit. I feel I have a right to use them.
FULL: Rights are always balanced by responsibilities, so if you feel you have a right to use the materials, then the question becomes what is your responsibility in using them?
AA: I use the materials to try to educate. Because most people have no idea of the degree to which people were slaughtered. One of the reasons I’m doing the gimp mask with the eyes, is because in those years, three times in a ten-to-fifteen-year span, the US government put a price on every Native American’s head. Then they slaughtered their food sources: millions and millions of bison in the 1800’s, and they scooped up all the sturgeon.
I want people to know how horrible and destructive people have been, and that it’s our responsibility to take care of our planet, and part of that responsibility is to acknowledge how we haven’t, and understand that reparations are part of education. I really believe reparation and education go hand-in-hand. And so with every piece that I present, I usually have a write-up explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing.
FULL: A lot of your work seems to be centred around the uglier aspects of humanity: those personal or shameful things people don’t like to talk about.
AA: You get an emotional response when you do that work! It’s so rare and hard to get from any person these days! Sometimes I ask myself, “Are you just pressing buttons because you want to be…?” But it’s not because I’m mean or nasty, it’s because I actually really believe that one of my responsibilities it to try and wake people up.
FULL: And there is a kind of art that’s a way of sanitizing the world. That makes everything seem perfect and smooth and nice. That’s not what life is.
AA: It’s a total lie!
FULL: So when someone does the opposite, but makes that ugly thing beautiful, for the people who see it and can connect with it, the art becomes a kind of healing in terms of understanding that the pain is a collective pain, that they’re not isolated in their pain.
AA: And that discomfort doesn’t have to be the end of the world either. And promoting discussion, back and forth, conversation. I’m an Artist in the Schools around Manitoba. I teach jewelry and wire working, and I tell the kids, “This is a censorship free zone, and if you don’t understand what someone’s making, and you want to say ‘Oh, that’s ugly.’ Why don’t you say, ‘Wow! Why did you make it that way?’ Why don’t you find out something about them instead of putting them down? Let’s converse about our feelings and who we are and let’s celebrate it!”
So that’s part of what I feel my role is, is just to inspire more communication. One thing about being an artist is being genuine, and being real, I think. It’s really important. And even though I’ve been scathed and feel really vulnerable sometimes because of it, I think that ultimately the rule of an artist is to be honest.