Artist Emily Johnson is bringing her multi-media installation Niicugni to Homer’s Pier One Theatre this weekend. The performance includes dance, music, storytelling and dozens of hand-sewn fish-skin lanterns.
Niicugni is a Yup’ik word that means listen, or to pay attention. The piece is the second installment of a trilogy. The inspiration for Niicugni actually came from a fish-skin exhibit called Skin Sisters that Johnson saw at Bunnell Street Arts Center four years ago.
“I saw that show, and I’ve always fished, of course, with my family. But suddenly, I’m like ‘oh, I want to learn this way of working with fish now.’ So I learned from Audrey Armstrong across the bay and starting making these lanterns. I’ve made these fish-skin lanterns with volunteers across the country now. It’s just been a wonderful way to share salmon,” she said.
When you see a performance of Niicungi, you’ll see movement and stillness. You’ll also hear sounds and see lights all around you. The performance itself is fluid with people coming on stage, adding their part and exiting. Johnson said that includes volunteer community members who are sitting in the audience.
“I like to create pieces that aren’t just about sitting and watching something directly in front of you. It’s really about an experience that we’re all having together,” Johnson said.
She said the work adapts to the each place it’s performed. That means each performance is different and unique.
“It’s one of the things I really love about bringing Niicugni to different places. It’s both getting to meet some people who volunteer with us, but also that it will be in Homer not like it was in New York…. It roots here a little bit. I like that,” she said.
Aretha Aoki performs with Johnson during the work. She’s on stage moving and speaking with her. Sometimes the two are in perfect unison and other times Aoki said the two are pulling apart.
“Moment to moment that’s happening and from the outside there are moments when we are very clearly speaking together. And there’s other… moments of twinning. And at the same time, there are these moments of breaking away. It’s sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme. It’s like an accordion,” Aoki said.
Johnson is from Alaska and grew up on the central Kenai Peninsula. She said her Yup’ik background has influenced this work as well as her previous work called The Thank-You Bar. Johnson said that piece was focused on finding and building “home.” Niicugni is more about the connection to everything that surrounds us. She said the intimacy of the Pier One Theatre will lend itself to the idea of building a connection.
“We have performed this piece all over the country and in some houses that were just huge. And I really love… intimate space and I love how that really charges a room. It sort of charges a connection somehow between us as performers and the audience,” she said.
Performances of Niicungi are scheduled for Friday May 24 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday May 25 at 3 p.m. and Saturday night at 7:30. Tickets are available at Bunnell or through Pier One. Johnson also has a companion exhibit on display at Bunnell until Saturday.