Artists steal photography scene

Originally published on February 6, 2009

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 (Urban-based Iroquois [Onondaga tribe]) 1710–1998 / Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row - Mohawk (Christianized Hendrick), Emperor of the Six Nations, 1710/1998 / Self-portrait - Onondaga, Champlain Monument, Ottawa, Ontario 1998. From the series Four Indian Kings Diptych, chromogenic prints Canadian Museum of Contemporary PhotographyJeff 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

All my relations: Poetry review

Philip Kevin Paul. Taking the Names Down from the Hill. Roberts Creek: Nightwood Editions, 2003.

Neal McLeod. Songs to Kill a wihtikow. Regina: Hagios, 2005.

With the publication of these recent collections of poetry by a Saskatchewan Cree and a Saanich writer, two important voices have been added to the tapestry of Canadian writing. Philip Kevin Paul’s poetry takes a more traditional literary form, while Neal McLeod’s poems reflect the influences of performance poetry and urban music. Both poets write from within the heart of their relations: their families, homelands, and the web of living things to which they belong. As a result, these collections are vibrant examples of poetry that affirms the unbroken lines of indigenous cultures, but also each writer’s individual humanity.

Philip Kevin Paul’s first collection of poetry, Taking the Names Down from the Hill, is as much a territory as it is a book. To read this superb collection is to enter a complex ecosystem of imagination and memory made up of people, animals, rivers, trees, and stories. Although this collection is only Paul’s first full-length book, he has already developed a mature vision and a graceful, finely honed writing style. There are really no weaknesses in this book—Paul portrays people, places and nature equally well, brings humour and grief to bear in different contexts, and shows remarkable depth in his understanding and expression of complex ideas and situations.

The book’s chemistry can be summed up in words taken from Paul’s poem “About the Fire:” “The secret to any fire is to draw its pieces close enough together to offer each other heat, but not too close or they will smother the flame” (Italics the author’s). As with pieces of wood drawn together to start a fire, Paul’s poems achieve closeness to their subject matter without smothering under the considerable weight of the poet’s memories and emotions, many of which are associated with his grief at the loss of his parents and other close family members, as well as cultural loss. While many of Paul’s poems eulogize his parents, they also explore the spiritual and geographical depths of Paul’s Wsanec (Saanich) culture and territory, located near Brentwood Bay, British Columbia.

One of the key figures in Paul’s poems is his late father. In the poem, “About the Fire,” Paul explores their relationship, and eulogizes his father. Paul describes hearing his father calling him to do chores in “bitter tones.” Paul would then accompany him into the bush behind their house to cut wood: “His tone pulls me away from whatever I am doing,/ forcing all reluctance into a knot in my belly.” In the bush, his father points out the best pieces of scrap wood and shows him how to build a fire: “…with the magical fluency of his hands: four balls of newspaper, cedar, maple…Waving the last twig at me like a wand…” The fires they built, like the relationship between the senior and junior Pauls, would sometimes smother, sometimes ignite too quickly, but occasionally became “…a slow burning, long-haired, smokeless fire,” the kind perfect for long conversations. Sometimes, if Paul’s father thought it safe, they would let the fire burn on when they left, just as the inner fire sparked by their relationship burns on in the poet’s memory and writing after his father’s death.

Another important and ubiquitous figure in this book is the poet’s mother, who died prematurely of cancer. In an important series of three poems called “What We Call Life,” Paul writes about three Saanich concepts: HELI (lively and alive), S’HELI (life) and SOX, HELI (personal belief). These poems explore on a deeper level what is to be Saanich, and reveal how Paul’s deepest understanding of himself as a Saanich person is intertwined with his language and the one who taught him his mother tongue. In the poem “SOX, HELI” Paul writes of picking Salal berries at dawn with his mother, learning to harvest and prepare this important food. As with learning to build a fire with his father, berry picking connects mother and son across generations, as they share knowledge of Saanich culture and language, as well as the sweetness of life: “…. Feeling silly enough to allow/ the edges of our mouths to become purple all around,/ she taught me the proper uses of the harvest words.”

The series of three poems, “What We Call Life” are important not just because they convey deep experiences of family love and cultural learning, but also because they pierce through the grief of cultural loss and fragmentation that pervades this book. Throughout the collection, Paul refers to the “old people” as possessing a wisdom lost to the younger generation of Saanich people. In the poem “Grandma and Sina,” Paul writes that the young people have been born “within the girth /of uncertainties,” while the older generation are still blessed with a wiser, more magical perspective on life:

Look she is growing old

and is not at all concerned.

She is from those fortunate days

and looks oddly at our sadness

for her, for ourselves.

Without diminishing the very real sense of loss experienced by the Saanich people (a familiar story to all indigenous people), Paul realizes that his people’s grief for, and idealization of, a lost way of life risk obscuring a culture that is still alive. In the book’s title poem, “Taking the Names Down from the Hill,” Paul writes: “Sorrow was pathetic and laden/ with a silence so vast that/ the drummer could not wake us…The mourning must break at last.” In this same poem, Paul casts aside his idealizations and puts his grief over cultural and spiritual loss into perspective:

I’m glad, finally,

to have shrunk down Saanich

—what I imagined to be Saanich–

and put it away.

What I imagined was my only home

lost forever under tons of concrete

and vulgar electric houses humming

the sickness into us.

What I imagined to be the only rightness

worth striving and dying for and making

their deaths right.

Paul’s shrinking down of what is Saanich does not diminish it. Rather, it is Paul’s way of clearing away the detritus of loss so that he can start anew. In this same poem, Paul portrays himself dancing on a paved road in front of a stranger’s house “…at least as foolishly as a Scotsman /gone Indian and naked in the woods!” This carefree act marks Paul’s breaking-free from grief. It is a kind of reclamation of Saanich culture in the here and now. Paul sums up what he has learned:

…I will tell you

what they really left us.

They left us

magic in everything,

the beautiful way

in everything. But what

we truly own has never left us…

As Paul sweeps aside the idealization of his culture, he is able to connect with the much deeper Saanich (and human) reality depicted in “What We Call Life:”

…In the hallways

of this very house, when I was eighteen,

I felt the presence of ancient beings all around me,

Breathing shallow breaths. I understand now

their crease is in the pages of my unwritten poems
and along the centre of my secret aches, the kind
reserved for journal entries. At the moment
of quiet and calm, the older people say you are
feeling your S’HELI.

This collection of poems is filled with the whisperings of these beings. Their power and mystery inform Paul’s vision, lending a gravity and universality to poems about common human experiences, casting them a special light so that we, as readers, know them anew.

Neal McLeod, a Saskatchewan-based Cree poet, offers readers a much more performance-oriented and urban style of poetry with his first collection of poems, Songs to Kill a Wihtikow. McLeod, who is also a painter, academic and comedian, has performed his work at poetry slams, and honed his poetic craft through the Crow Hop Café, a Regina-based showcase for First Nations artists. McLeod’s background as a performance poet is evident in many of the poems his book, which have a beat rhythm and are filled with vibrant imagery bringing to life characters that people a tough urban landscape.

Like Philip Kevin Paul, McLeod feels keenly a sense of cultural loss and fragmentation, which he frames through the myth of wihtikow, also called “Wendigo” in popular lore. The wihtikow is usually understood as a spirit that possesses people and drives them to commit cannibalism, but McLeod focuses on wihtikow as a metaphor for greed, as he explains in the introduction to his book: “wihtikow turns on others in its society, concerned only with its own well-being…for me, wihtikow is also a powerful metaphor for greed, the attempt to swallow the light from the sky of the world….”

Greed, so often associated with western capitalist society, is clearly a force that threatens the characters that people McLeod’s book. McLeod uses his visual art to explore and critique greed (four colour plates from his wihtikow series are included in the book). As a poet, he brings to his writing humour, earthiness and passion to counterbalance social and political forces that threatens his ability to remember where he comes from and who his relations are—both of which are fundamental to his understanding of self as a Cree person.

McLeod explores this sense of self in many poems in the book, including his more joyous and raucous poems, which no doubt make great performance pieces. One such poem is “The Last Great Hunting Trip,” where McLeod relates the family story of how his father and uncles went on a hunting trip 1973:

this all happened in 1973 before my time

while I was alive but not old enough to go

my dad and uncles lived to hunt

I heard how one of my uncles covered ground

moved fast, but did not run

they gathered west of kistapinanihk

or Prince Albert as the cowboys say

drove his station wagon with wood paneling

seemed fitting

as we were really from the bush

McLeod, who was not on this hunting trip, brings it to life through stories he no doubt heard about it and by using his considerable gift for creating vibrant and earthy imagery. By committing this story or other such stories to print and telling them again and again at live performances, McLeod helps to turn the tide of forgetfulness imposed by government policies that have attempted to force indigenous peoples to forget where they come from.

In this book, McLeod also explores his Cree spiritual tradition in shorter, dream-like, lyrical poems, like the one called “Fire Walks the Sky.” In this poem, McLeod writes of his family as a part of the Cree tradition. This poem talks about the origins of the poet’s family name “McLeod” and the family’s place within his nation’s history:

McLeod, mahkiyoc, nikan-isi

the foremost one, thunderbird

that is where our name comes from

sleeping beings in clay vessels

stories, and parts of stories

come back when I sat with nicapan

This poem, like many in the book, was inspired by a dream. In this case, the poet dreamt of a woman who tells him to write down the story of his family’s origin. This story is that of the thunderbird, told to him by his great-grandfather (nicapan).

Besides poems about his family, McLeod’s book also contains a number of poems that capture life on the streets, like his poem “Ghetto Love,” written in a rap tradition, where African American culture is replaced by an urban indigenous one: “…young men pass through the streets/ black handkerchiefs/ in the place of headdresses/ gold chains in the place of breastplates…” McLeod even has a hip-hop girlfriend: “my iskwew, my gangster girlfriend/ my bannock maker, my hip shaker/ my love taster”.

This poem, and many others are humour-filled, earthy and openly sexual, as in his “Indian Love Poem”: “her skin was golden brown/ like KFC chicken/ she was fertile/ had more eggs than a Hutterite/ selling them to me/ with a twist of her hips.” Poems like these are affirmations of both the light and dark sides of life, and help to weave the stories and culture of urban indigenous peoples into that of the broader urban youth culture.

McLeod also writes about love in many shorter lyrical poems. These poems convey the poet’s perspective much more abstractly. Often, women are portrayed using earth metaphors. McLeod expresses his love for both woman and the earth in quiet, graceful tones: “your body, dreaming earth/ your lips, dreaming sky/ entwined our bodies emerge in new creations.” These poems feel almost like small paintings meant to capture a mood or an image rather than tell a story or explore a concept. While these pieces work well as bridges between some of the longer narrative poems, in some cases, they are too abstract and disjointed, and it becomes difficult to follow the images from beginning to end.

McLeod’s book encompasses an impressive range of material, including urban beat rhythms of his narrative poems, well-informed explorations of Cree culture and language, and more personal, lyrical poems that explore the poet’s place in the world as an individual.

This book review appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine in 2006