The Steeling the Gaze exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada reinvents and turns upside down the traditional notion of the portrait. At the same, it critiques and undermines at every turn the way Native peoples have been represented, taking apart such myths as the noble savage, the stoic and the warrior. It features works by some of Canada’s most influential First Nations artists.
This exhibition of photographs, etchings, collages and videos offers viewers the chance to understand more deeply the Aboriginal struggle for healing and wholeness through portrayals that question, play with and reconstruct identity. But these portraits aren’t only about struggle. Some, like the photographs by Dana Claxton and KC Adams are highly constructed, ironic and tinged with humour. Others, like David Neel’s more traditional photographic portraits, honour the beauty and grace of their subjects, which include Bill Reid and Elijah Harper. Regardless of the standpoint presented, no serious viewer will leave this exhibit without questioning the impact of how Native people have been portrayed in all forms of media.
Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists is presented by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP), and is housed at the National Gallery of Canada. It is co-curated by Steven Loft, the National Gallery’s first ever Curator in Residence, Indigenous Art, and Andrea Cunard of the CMCP.
The Steeling the Gaze exhibit offers visitors the chance to learn about 12 of the most important contemporary Native artists working today, including KC Adams, Carl Beam, Dana Claxton, Thirza Cuthand, Rosalie Favell, Kent Monkman, David Neel, Shelley Niro, Arthur Renwick, Greg Staats, Jeff Thomas and Bear Witness.
KC Adams’ works, from the series “Cyborg Hybrids,” are glossy, highly photo-shopped portraits of Native people set against white backgrounds. Each subject wears a white choker and matching white T-shirt with a slogan on it, referencing stereotypes such as “Gang Member,” “Sniffer” and “Noble Savage.” Adams herself is presented as the “Indian Princess.” These portraits show how representation can freeze identity by glossing over imperfections. Adams has staged each portrait so that the individuality of her subjects is removed; she has created generic glamorous Indians.
The average visitor to this exhibit probably would not know that each person featured in these portraits is a First Nations celebrity of mixed European and Aboriginal heritage. According to Adams, all of the subjects presented are “forward thinkers and plugged in with technology.” As Cyborg Hybrids, they represent a hybrid of nature (the living) and technology (progress). Adam’s Cyborg series is influenced by Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “Cyborg Manifesto.”
Carl Beam was also preoccupied (in a different way) with the impact of science and technology on Native culture and identity. Beam was an Ojibwe artist from M’Chigeeng, Manitoulin Island. He passed away in 2005, leaving behind a large body of work created using photography, etching, sculpture, pottery and other media. Beam was the first Native artist to sell contemporary art to the National Gallery of Canada.
Beam’s collages combine and juxtapose iconic images of Native and non-Native historical figures with a variety of symbols, signs and other imagery. His artworks force the viewer to develop new understandings and insights in order to interpret his art. Beam’s work has had a significant impact on contemporary art, both within the Aboriginal art world and beyond.
Three of Beam’s artworks are featured in the exhibit from his series The Columbus Project. One photo-etching, called “Originator No. 2” is a photograph of a turtle. Across this photograph are heavy, straight horizontal lines drawn in pencil; on the right side are a series of numbers, and on the left, four small squares of colour. Gazing at the turtle can be like looking back in time, through the stricture of these lines. The lines seem to imprison and cross out the culture and world-view that makes the turtle so significant: It was on her back that the world is thought to have been created in Ojibwe and many other Native cultures. The lines, numbers and squares reference the European settler culture, driven by its need to measure and apportion; to force the natural world into limited categories. The colours (yellow, blue, red and white), may represent the colours of the four directions. In this image they are imprisoned within the small boxes.
Jeff Thomas, a photographer who identifies himself as “Urban-based Iroquois (Onondaga Tribe),” has 13 works displayed in the exhibit. Like Beam, Thomas combines and juxtaposes imagery. Many of Thomas’ artworks are diptychs (two-panelled artworks) that juxtapose historical portraits of Native leaders with modern-day Iroquois men. Particularly interesting is the “Four Indian Kings” series, which features four diptychs.
The “Kings” that Thomas refers to were Native representatives who visited London, England in 1710 and met with Queen Anne’s court to forge military and political alliances. Their arrival in England created a sensation. They were called the four “Indian Kings” and perceived as exotic specimens from the new world. While in England, the Queen commissioned their portraits, which are reproduced as part of Jeff Thomas’ series. Alongside each portrait, Thomas places a photograph of a contemporary Iroquois man.
In one of the diptychs, Jeff Thomas’ brother Steve appears in a photograph as a faux Mohawk warrior, wearing a welding helmet and a quiver of arrows. He is paired with Sa Ga Yeath Pieth Tow (Christianized Brant), the grandfather of Joseph Brant (a Mohawk leader and British military officer also known as Thayendanegea). This pairing of Thomas, the faux warrior with the painting of “Brant” reinforces the legacy of the Iroquois leader in the painting, whose descendant played an important military role in Iroquois history. It also explores how the label of warrior can obscure the humanity of the person hidden behind it, as Thomas is hidden behind the welding helmet.
In another diptych, the late Joe David (who was a Mohawk artist from Kanesatake) is paired with the portrait of Etow Oh Koam (Christianized Nicholas). In contrast of the portrait of Steve Thomas, who is disguised in his welder’s helmet, David is unmasked. He looks back at the viewer from behind studious glasses. He stands beside a sign that says “No Trespassing,” wearing cut-off shorts and a t-shirt, his hands tucked into his pockets. The photograph captures a thoughtful-looking Native man; a most unlikely warrior. But David was actually behind the barricades at Kanesatake during the 1990 stand-off between Mohawks and the Quebec Police (who were eventually joined by the Canadian army). The No Trespassing sign takes on more significance in light of David’s story.
Jeff Thomas himself appears in a self-portrait, alongside Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row (Christianized Henrick), Emperor of the Six Nations. As Hendrick was emperor of the Six Nations, so Thomas is emperor of his own artistic vision. In this portrait, Thomas is standing beside the sculpture of the Indian scout when it was part of the Champlain monument in Ottawa. The scout, which is an ultimate stereotype of the Indian as noble savage and servant, has since been moved to a park across the street from the Champlain monument, in response to protests by the Assembly of First Nations. The scout is juxtaposed to Jeff Thomas, a modern First Nations man, who in contrast to the scout determines his own destiny. While the scout kneels before Champlain, Thomas stands, dominating the photograph.
The modern Iroquois men presented in these diptychs can be seen as the descendents of the four “Indian kings.” They represent the continuity of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and other Native peoples, while the kings serve as reminders of a long and fraught history of conflict and the struggle for recognition and respect. The presence of the contemporary Native men also reminds us of how constructed and idealized the Indian King portraits are, and opens up a space to imagine these leaders from 300 year ago as real people.
Jeff Thomas’ fascinating portraits comprise a large number of the works in the exhibit and most of them fit well. There are, however, three photographs depicting scenes from Thomas’ home town of Buffalo that seem out of place in an exhibit intended to reflect on the portrait. The urban scenes are all the more difficult to place since none of the works in the exhibit are presented with much background or contextual information.
Shelley Niro, a Mohawk from Six Nations, contributed two videos and a photograph to the exhibit. The photo, entitled “Time Travels through Us,” depicts three women: one old (perhaps a grandmother) and two young (perhaps granddaughters). The grandmother holds a bird’s nest in her hands. The nest contains three eggs. The young woman on her right holds a turtle. The image is set in cotton and beaded mat work that is reminiscent of the material used in making ribbon shirts and dresses that are often worn by Iroquois people. The three eggs in the nest mirror the three women in the photograph. The eggs’ round shape suggests continuity, from generation to generation. The turtle may refer to the women’s clan — the grandmother wears a turtle necklace, and Shelley Niro is part of the Turtle Clan.
The works of Dana Claxton (Lakota Sioux Canadian) and Arthur Renwick (Haisla) are presented on adjoining walls in the exhibit. Both sets of photographs are big, full colour portraits. While Renwick’s are full face portraits, Claxton’s present a strikingly post-modern Indian family with Mustangs. Included are a boy on a horse, twin girls in matching red dresses on Mustang bicycles and a Native man in face paint standing next to a red Mustang convertible. The references to horses reflect the importance of the horse for Lakota people. The use of consumer goods, such as the convertible and bicycles show how Native people have adapted and evolved in relation to the dominant culture and its commodities while still maintaining their identity.
Arthur Renwick’s photographs, from his Mask series, show images of First Nations professionals involved in the arts. When Renwick’s subjects sat for these portraits, Renwick asked each of them to think about the history of the relationship between the camera lens and the Indian. He then asked his subjects to express how this relationship made them feel by using a facial gesture.
The result is a series of photographs that include novelist Eden Robinson, singer Jani Lauzon and others, distorting their faces for the lens. Not only do these portraits break through the mask of stereotypical Native, they also place the viewer in the uncomfortable position of being looked back at, even confronted, by these distorted, expression-filled faces of modern Aboriginal people.
Besides the artists discussed here, there are many others whose work is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to explore the relationship between Canadian settler culture and First Nations peoples. The exhibit is also an important contribution of the discussion of identity through contemporary art.
Steeling the Gaze can be viewed at the National Gallery of Canada until March 22, 2009. All images courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Originally published in Rabble.ca