A bucketful of sweat

Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

Recently, I posted a question on Facebook about doing art, whether it be writing, visual arts, music, theatre–anything creative. My question was, how do people deal with feelings of intimidation, discouragement or even paralysis when it comes to their art?

I was humbled by the thoughtful responses I received from musicians, fellow writers, photographers, actors and other artists. If I didn’t know before, now I am certain that being an artist is the same struggle for everybody, with minor variations. Some folks don’t feel worthy, others find it hard connecting to an audience–but we’re all the same.

I should have known this, since there is struggle mixed into the joys of every other area of life. Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

When I was younger I wrote poetry and put together a chapbook called Gathering Medicine which I launched at the Tree Reading series here in Ottawa, and gave away to many friends. But I stopped writing poetry, because I found it was so much work, done in isolation, and in the end, only a few hundred people (at most) would ever read any of the poems. As Chris Bose, a multi-media artist and writer says, in this country, you’re a hit if you sell a 1000 copies of a poetry book.

My biggest thrill was getting a single poem published in Prairie Fire magazine and one in Arc poetry magazine. I found it depressing.  I thrive on social interaction, and I have political activism in my nature, and poetry didn’t fulfill either.

So, instead I wrote reviews of poetry books, including some by Indigenous poets, for a couple of journals. I enjoyed doing it. I wrote art and book reviews for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. My favourite is a review of Gail Valiskakis’ book Healing Traditions. It’s a collection of essays on Aboriginal mental health, and I was so happy to profile it for medical doctors, since I am sure at least some of them went on to read the book, and perhaps improved their practices as a result.

I have also written a series of profiles of Indigenous artists for Rabble.ca, as well as a review of an exhibit at the National Gallery on Indigenous identity. Then I forayed into online privacy, because I was inspired by Ed Snowden’s actions. I ended up writing two articles for Rabble.ca, while exploring the issue through reading and learning about technologies for encryption and privacy. I asked a question when Glenn Greenwald spoke in Ottawa, and he retweeted the video recording of the question and answer, because he liked it. That was really a thrill! He has over 700,000 followers. That moment, the question and answer, fit perfectly with the sociable activist within me.

Last year, I reviewed The Red Post exhibit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. Then a year of relative silence, until I wrote a stream of consciousness essay inspired, among other things, by driving through southern Ontario on the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, swimming in Lake Huron and reading Downie’s lyrics, which are also poetry.

Writing “On the adventure” was special for me, because it was so liberating to write. Words, images and joy poured forth. It was also gratifying to have a close friend and editor make it better by working on it with me.

It hasn’t been published anywhere except my blog, and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. It’s not an essay or a poem, but something in between. I’ve had maybe a hundred viewers for it and a few nice comments. It’s a quiet piece, not a quick read, and not topical. But writing it led me to ask that online question of other artists, and come to the conclusion that like all artists, I need to maintain a quiet, warm corner in my heart; a place welcoming enough that I can write in stillness and feel inspiration when it passes through me; see it surfacing among the words.

I am not prolific, and I am often frustrated by the lack of an audience and feedback. I write mostly for free, and only outside of working full time, having a family and maintaining a martial arts practice, which is another kind of creative endeavour–one that plays a big role in maintaining mental, emotional and physical balance.

But whether I write in obscurity, or have a big audience–I don’t know how much it matters. Nobody does art for others. We need some feedback and community, but it doesn’t have to be a stadium full of people.

I now see that if you cultivate your creativity, and respond to your readers, both will grow. It’s as simple as that.

Powerful reflections on the Oka Crisis at Red Post Art Exhibit

Here is an article I wrote for Rabble.ca on the exhibit that took place in Kanehsatake earlier this month. I made the trip out and visited the exhibit at the elementary school in Kanehsatake. I chatted with Ellen Gabriel, the show’s curator as well.

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Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – the Red Post Art Exhibit, curated by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatà:ke and Jolene Rickard of Tuscarora, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Crisis of 1990, also known as the Oka Crisis, by demonstrating its impacts through art.

This exhibit brings together the work of 16 artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have reflected on their experience of the Crisis of 1990. In some cases, artworks reflect first-hand experiences of Kanehsatà:ke residents, and in other cases artworks reflect on the long-term impacts of the Crisis.

The Crisis of 1990 began with a peaceful protest against plans by the town of Oka, Quebec to expand a private nine-hole golf course. The expansion would destroy part of a mature pine forest in Kanehsatà:ke and required the destruction of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community graveyard. The peaceful protest escalated when the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke were surrounded by the Quebec provincial police on July 11, 1990.

Many of the artists represented in the exhibit are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehá:ka community which was also involved in the Crisis.

The exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the conflict on the people who were personally involved, as well as the impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies and politics across the continent.

In the centre of the exhibit is the red post itself, an installation piece created by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The red post refers to the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) practice of erecting a red post in communities during times of conflict or war.

Gabriel’s installation, a post painted red, a colour signifying power and war, reminds us of the Kanien’kehá:ka people’s long history, one that began long before European settlement and continues into the present. The symbols depicted on the post include wampum beads, corn, a war club and the tree of life.

At the top is a circle of people holding hands, united in protecting the land. These symbols emphasize the richness and longevity of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and calls into question the settler notion that Indigenous people belong only to the past, or that their cultures and political systems have no role to play in the modern world.

The red post also reminds those entering the exhibit of the long-standing and unresolved conflict over land rights that grew into the Crisis of 1990 and remains unresolved today. The pine forest where the conflict took place is considered by the municipality of Oka to belong to the town. However, the Kanien’kehá:ka never ceded the land that is now Kanehsatà:ke (includes the Pines).

Photos used with permission from the artists

Among the artworks contributed by artists from Kanehsatà:ke is Douglas Tehonietathe Beaver’s  backpack called “Pelt and Pine, Armed with Healing.” This work alludes to a soldier’s pack, and reminds viewers of the Canadian Army soldiers who surrounded Kanien’kehá:ka s in 1990. But instead of being filled with ammunition, grenades and guns, this backpack is “armed” with an eagle feather, a sweet grass braid, a cedar smudge stick and pot, and other items related to spiritual healing, presenting an alternative response to land conflict both in Kanehsatà:ke and elsewhere.

Another artwork emphasizing the importance of Haudenosaunee culture is a quilt called “Sky Woman’s Descent” by Carla Hemlock, a Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake. The story of Sky Woman is the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people — Sky Woman descends into our world and lands on the back of a turtle that transforms, with the help of various animals, into North America. In this blue, gold and black beaded quilt, we see the back of the turtle from the perspective of Sky Woman as she descends.

Elizabeth Saccà, a non-Indigenous artist and retired Concordia University professor who lives near Kanehsatà:ke, contributed an abstract monotype called “Maelstrom.” For this viewer, this print evokes the confusion and disorientation that must have reigned in the Pines when the Quebec police first attacked Kanehsatà:ke with tear gas and smoke bombs. It also represents the ever-present potential for violence that Indigenous people face when they protest land development on their territories.

Nadia Myre, an Algonquin artist based in Montreal, contributed “Still Life,” an ink print depicting two protesters in silhouette with flags. The image connects the Red Post exhibit to the broader history of Indigenous social and land justice issues and brings to life the widespread support for Indigenous sovereignty manifested nation-wide in the form of demonstrations, blockades and flash mobs, as well as Idle No More.

Photos used with permission from the artists

Along with these artworks, pieces include Patrycja Walton‘s “Dress for Amicee,” a sculpture of a dress made of animal hide, wire and stain glass, and dedicated to missing Aboriginal women and girls, including her friend Amicee. Julie Otsi’tsaonwe Gaspé’s created her untitled graphite drawing of the Pines before the protests against development turned into an armed conflict. Her prophetic drawing depicts a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Pines, while above them in the trees, faces look down, watching the conflict unfold.

Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – The Red Post exhibit moves from Kanehsatà:ke to Kahnawake, Quebec. Visitors are invited to reflect on these works and on the impact of the Crisis of 1990 at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre from August 24 to September 4. The Vernissage is on August 24 at 6 PM.

To learn more about the impacts of the Oka Crisis, and to hear a discussion by the exhibit’s curators and some of its featured artists, check out the webinar: 25 Years Later, Impacts of the Oka Crisis.

Facebook privacy is a joke: How Edward Snowden changed my online habits

Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.

Image: ubuntubook2.wordpress.com

For the last few years, my routine has been to wake early, make coffee and spend time on social media networks — reading articles, commenting on friend’s photos, discussing my favourite subjects on blogs, and occasionally writing commentary here. This routine coincided with the purchase of my first Mac laptop, which gave me the option of being online while propped up on the couch, with my coffee steaming on the table next to me.

By the time  Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras was released, I had embraced social media completely: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedinGmail, tumblr and Skype. I probably clicked on the link to his interview from my FB or Twitter feed.

Of course, I knew from early on that these platforms were not really free, that we pay for them by giving online advertisers access to our personal information. And we all know that governments spy on us. But learning the extent of this spying from someone who had seen it up close and personal really jarred me. Knowing the details of how the spying is done made me start thinking a lot more about corporate surveillance too.

All of a sudden I was keenly aware of how my actions were being monitored whenever I was online, and how much personal detail I had made public: the names and details of my husband, son, a great many relatives and most of my friends, where I am in time and space, the name of my bank, my favourite coffee, my birth date, blood type, eye colour, favourite writers, political views, religious preferences or lack thereof — almost everything.

Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to  be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.

I should be able to share my personal life online according to my own wishes, and not those of corporations and governments. Constant surveillance and data collection have consequences. These activities threaten our freedom and degrade our public spaces and dialogue. They undermine our humanity. They make a joke out of civil rights.

As a left-leaning writer with an activist past, I have always doubted that I would be given top-secret clearance, even if I applied. I do have a couple of friends with top-secret clearance, so I realize that working for the government in that capacity does not have to mean you defer entirely to authority. But I very much doubt you could openly protest the activities of the spy agency or department you work for and keep your clearance for very long.

I suppose a weakness of spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment Canadaor the National Security Agency in the digital age is that they need computer experts who are on the cutting edge to hack technologies for them, and most of those folks are young guys who may not have completely worked out their moral and political life yet. The danger is that some of them will have an awakening and turn on their masters, which brings us to Edward Snowden.

Ed Snowden joined the NSA when he was very young and over the course of eight years gained access to some of the Agency’s  more sensitive information. Snowden’s inner moral and political awakening to the NSA’s abuse of power was gradual:

When you’re in positions of privileged access…you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances.

When you see everything, and you see it on a more frequent basis, you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses…

…[O]ver time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about. And the more you talk about the more you’re ignored. The more you’re told it’s not a problem until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

Unlike Snowden, my moral and political life has continued on its early trajectory. I have never trusted spy organizations, and would never accept a position working with CSEC or CSIS, even if it were offered.

Just the same, Snowden’s revelations have given me the chance to deepen my own moral and political perspective. I have woken up to the reality that I have, effectively, no privacy, and even though I have left Facebook, dumped gmail and encrypted my hard-drive, the genie is out of the bottle and my actions now are just damage control.

To illustrate what I mean by this loss of privacy, consider Facebook. We all know it’s free because the company makes its money selling advertising on the site. So we accept that in exchange for the ability to use this platform that lets us connect with friends, relatives and others around the world, we will have to put up with a certain amount of advertising.

And if that were the case, I would be okay with it. It would be a fair exchange, perhaps. But that is not what is going on.

Richard Stallman says Facebook is a surveillance machine, and most of the technology created by big corporations is designed to track and surveil its users. At first, I thought he was paranoid, or extreme. But the more I think about it, this conclusion seems inescapable. As Bruce Stirling puts it:

“Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all…intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.”

When you set up camp on Facebook and build your virtual apartment there, you become part of a community that is inside a transparent bubble. You create a profile to represent yourself to, and connect with, people you have chosen to have in your network – your audience, in a sense.  But in reality, your Facebook profile is actually transmitting information about your desires, interests, habits, work activities, location, family relationships, political and spiritual views to advertisers, third-party applications, data miners and governments.

On Facebook, my network is not my audience. My network and I are on stage together. The audience is made up of organizations, positioned outside the observation bubble, that analyze everything about us in order to better sell us products and services and predict all our preferences and behaviour. And lurking in that audience are spies, quietly collecting information about our friends and family, our political views, our connections and affiliations and all our movements from day to day and year to year, on behalf of powerful  governments.

Facebook’s so-called privacy is a setup whereby you create your own password key, which you use to enter into your compartment within the transparent bubble in order to visit your carefully selected network of people and organizations. This network mostly shares your views, or at a minimum, doesn’t disrupt your worldview too much.

Privacy in this sense means that you get to choose which inhabitants of the bubble can view the contents of your compartment. But you have no control over what the watchers on the outside of the bubble are able to see. In this sense, Facebook privacy (and most likely online privacy in general) is a joke.

But unfortunately, the joke doesn’t end there. We started laughing at the absurdity of our situation a bit too soon. According the Guardian:

“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.”

Given the extent of NSA access to user information stored on servers by Google, Facebook, AppleSkype, etc., we can assume that the NSA and its partners have the keys to some of our online spaces too. It was not enough to watch through the  observation bubble along with the corporations and the data miners. The spies have entered our rooms and secretly taken up residence under the bed. It is thanks to Edward Snowden that we now know the depth and breadth of our exposure online.

If you are an American, you have at least a chance of reining in the NSA. But if you are from outside the U.S., as I am, you can’t expel these spies. You have to close down the rooms where they lurk.  Stop using these “free” social media and email services — close down your Facebook and cloud accounts, switch to a paid email service that respects privacy, and use other social media platforms with caution, if at all.

If we decide to maintain a presence in the virtual spaces of social media, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are safe and won’t be targeted by our governments’ spy agencies as long as we do and say nothing wrong — the notion that you don’t need to worry if you have nothing to hide.

We have revealed so much online that all our essential details and connections are known. If an agency decides I am a person of interest (as Greenwald and Poitras are), or that I am connected to one, that organization already has everything it needs to portray my innocent, innocuous activities and friendships as nefarious, dishonest and questionable.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could connect with each other online using platforms that allow us to privately and freely befriend each other and exchange ideas, dreams and interests. Our governments have an obligation to protect the freedom of these online spaces because these spaces are essential to freedom of expression and freedom of movement, liberties that underpin democracy.

Our defence against surveillance and the invasion of privacy lies offline, in the parliaments of our countries where policies about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are determined.

Image: ubuntubook2.wordpress.com

Originally published in Rabble.ca

Cathy Mattes: Art as engagement

It is Feb. 15th, Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, and Métis curator and writer Cathy Mattes is talking about two of her favourite subjects — art and Louis Riel. She is telling a story about two very different monuments to Louis Riel that were created for the Manitoba Legislature.

“In 1971, a statue depicting Louis Riel as a naked, tormented figure was erected on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature as part of Manitoba’s centennial celebrations,” Mattes explains.

“This original monument was created in the late 60s. Métis people found it offensive and for many years there was a lot of debate and anger about the statue. In the early 90s it was finally removed and relocated. Some non-Aboriginal people objected to it as well, because it portrayed Riel as a Native hero.”

The public reaction to the Riel monument controversy was complex. While many Métis people objected to the portrayal of Riel as tormented, when the original monument was finally removed, Jean Allard, a Métis leader and former MLA, along with the artist who created the statue, chained themselves to the monument in protest.

“The decision to replace the original Riel statue with a monument that depicts Riel as a statesman epitomizes changing attitudes towards public art,” said Mattes.

An event like the conflict over the removal of the Riel monument from the legislature is the sort of art as engagement that inspires Cathy Mattes. In fact, she even wrote her Master’s thesis on the subject at Concordia University in Montreal.

Mattes is an independent curator who is now based in rural southwest Manitoba. She has curated exhibitions at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Southwest Manitoba, and the Urban Shaman Gallery, a Winnipeg-based artist-run Aboriginal art centre.

Although Mattes now makes her home in Spruce Woods, Manitoba, near the Shilo Canadian Forces Base, she spent most of her childhood on the move, living on bases across Canada and at a base in Germany because her father was in the military.

Mattes loves creating exhibits that get audiences to interact with artworks. According to Mattes, “engagement with art is a conversation. The engagement continues beyond the time you are at an art exhibit.”

Mattes continued her exploration of Riel as an historical and mythical figure by mounting an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2001 called Rielisms.

The show asked “just whose hero Louis Riel was” and addressed how Riel is depicted in history, myth and culture. A central feature of the exhibit was a scale model of the controversial Riel monument, and it included the work of 10 artists, who engaged the history and myths of Riel through their art.

Another example of how Mattes’ curatorial practice offers audiences the chance to be engaged by art was the 2005 exhibition Super Phat Nish.

The exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, featured the work of Anishinaabe artist Barry Ace. The show presented artworks depicting Super Phat Nish, an iconic character developed by Ace.

Super Phat Nish represents the longstanding fusion of Aboriginal and African-American pop culture that emerged from inner-city neighbourhoods and Indian reservations in the 1960s and developed into vibrant urban-Aboriginal pop culture.

The show opened to a full house, with a DJ providing entertainment, allowing the audience to participate in some of the urban culture represented by the exhibit.

Mattes not only encourages audiences to think about art, she also encourages them to talk about it. Mattes often incorporates chalkboards or paper into her exhibits so audience members can write comments about the art. At Ace’s show, audience members wrote comments and drew graffiti on paper she put up for that purpose.

“Because Barry Ace’s show was held at a public gallery, the audience who came to see the show was really diverse, and even included people from a Hutterite community.”

Besides working as a freelance contemporary art curator, Mattes also teaches African, European, Aboriginal and contemporary art history at Brandon University.
As a teacher, Mattes explores how art is affected by social and political events, while at the same time artists themselves are often agents of social change through their work.

“In my Aboriginal art history class I teach a section called ‘Art after Oka.’ In the years immediately following the Oka Crisis, a lot of important art shows took place, and the Aboriginal art world really evolved.”

The Oka Crisis, a 78-day armed stand-off between the Mohawk people of Kanehsatake in Quebec and the Canadian army, took place in 1990. The conflict started when the town council attempted to expand a golf course onto Mohawk burial grounds.

“To help my students understand how artists can be agents of social change, I talk about the idea of artists as warriors, because many of those behind the barricades in 1990 were artists and warriors, including Ellen Gabriel and Joe David.”

In her class, Mattes talks to students about some of the important art shows that took place in the years following Oka. These include Indigena (1992, Canadian Museum of Civilization), which marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in the Americas, and included artwork by Joe David.

Another important show was Solidarity: Art after Oka at the Saw Gallery in 1991. It also included Joe David’s work, as well as the work of Carl Beam (the first indigenous artist to sell contemporary art to the National Gallery of Canada), Arthur Renwick and David Neel, among others.

Mattes’ next project is called Frontrunners, and will explore the impact of Professional National Indian Artists Inc. on the Winnipeg art scene. This organization, which was founded in the 70s, became known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” a term coined by the media, and its membership included Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig and Alex Janvier. Professional National Indian Artists Inc. helped to create the Canadian woodland art style.

“The Indian Group of Seven had a big impact on contemporary Aboriginal art practice in Winnipeg, and laid a foundation for Urban Shaman Gallery to exist,” said Mattes. “They were our frontrunners here in Manitoba.”

The exhibition will be a collaboration between the Urban Shaman Gallery and Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, and will recognize their contributions, with a particular emphasis on artists who produced work that is overtly political.

This article appears in Rabble.ca

Steven Loft: A curator with chutzpah

Steven Loft has a lot of chutzpah. This Mohawk-Jewish curator, writer and media artist is the first to hold the two-year position of curator-in-residence, Indigenous art, at the National Gallery of Canada. His overall career goal is impressively ambitious: “I want to change the way mainstream Canada thinks about Aboriginal art.”

During his stint at the Gallery, Steve has created two new and challenging exhibits that exemplify his willingness to push boundaries and help to make his goal a reality: Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists and Rethinking Abstraction from an Indigenous Perspective. These exhibits present highly contemporary First Nations art that incorporates abstraction, photography and multi-media, and break with notions that Aboriginal art must be based on traditional Native art forms.

“With Steeling the Gaze, we want to turn the gaze back to the audience. We want the viewer to say, ‘Wow this is how Aboriginals look at themselves and at the rest of society.’ This exhibit is important aesthetically (it presents beautiful works of art) and culturally, because it explains partially what it is to be an Aboriginal person in this country. Politically it says we are here; we need to be heard and be seen on every level.”

The curator-in-residence position is funded by the Canada Council of the Arts. During the two-year term, the resident curator creates an exhibition for the National Gallery’s On Tour program. Steven Loft’s contribution is Steeling the Gaze, created in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Steve’s career includes many examples of his willingness to break new ground in his field. When he started working in the Aboriginal art field, very little was written on the subject, and there were very few Native curators—exceptions being Tom Hill, director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, and Gerald McMaster, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“I read everything I could, but it was hard to learn about Aboriginal art, because there was not much available at that time. I more or less taught myself. I attended conferences where I got to talk to Aboriginal artists, and then started writing about Aboriginal art.”

In the 1990s, Steve was one of the few people writing on Native art, so he received many requests to write articles. “I was even asked to write the essay for Alanis Obomsawin’s Governor General’s Award. When I got the call, I thought it was some sort of prank. I couldn’t believe it. I had to pinch myself.”

After several years at NIIPA, Steve spent two years at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the 1990s, as First Nations Curator. He worked closely with Shirley Madill, a curator who has been instrumental in promoting Aboriginal art in Canada. They co-curated Alt.Shift.Control: Musings on Digital Identity, the first exhibit to feature contemporary Aboriginal artists at the Hamilton gallery. Steve then relocated to Winnipeg, where he became director of the Urban Shaman Gallery, Canada’s largest Aboriginal artist-run centre.

Loft is the child of a Jewish mother who escaped Nazi Germany as a young girl, and a Mohawk father from the Iroquois community of Six Nations in Ontario. Steve grew up in Hamilton, Ont., but despite the proximity of Six Nations, he did not meet his Mohawk family until he was an adult.

“My mother met a dashing Mohawk man when she was quite young, and had me when she was 17. My parents split up when I was very young. My father had his demons to deal with—he struggled with serious alcoholism for many years.”

Steve’s chutzpah extends beyond his career in the arts. He has a friendly, open manner that becomes evident as soon as you meet him, but it belies a certain toughness that has allowed him to survive serious health problems.

His arms are intricately decorated with tattoos (including one depicting his Indian status number), and rings draw attention to his fingers, which appear stiff and curled. As a survivor of Progressive Systemic Sclerosis, a rheumatic disease, Loft has lost full use of his hands.

“I had a rare invasive disease that affects the tissue that skin and cartilage is made of. It starts at the extremities and changes their form. It can also go into your vital organs and once that happens, you die. I had a fifty-fifty chance for quite a while. My internal organs were affected.

“But then I went into remission. The doctors say the disease spontaneously burned itself out, because it hit me so hard. I’ve been in remission for over 20 years.  It was nasty, but we all have the things we bear. I have found my joys and they are many more than my sorrows.”

Before becoming ill, Steve had planned on being a chef, but the damage to his hands made it impossible. Instead he studied sociology at McMaster University, learning more about his Mohawk heritage and developing his writing skills. He continued to work as a restaurant manager.

“When my son’s mother was pregnant, I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. So I made a deal with her: I would spend the months of her pregnancy looking for work as a writer or in the arts. If I couldn’t find a job, I would go back to managing a restaurant.

“I got a few freelance gigs and even wrote for an Aboriginal newspaper out of Manitoba, but I didn’t find anything that paid any real money.  Then I applied to an artist-run centre called the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association [NIIPA]. They were hiring artists for a video arts training and mentorship program. I got an interview near the end of the pregnancy. When I got a call for a second interview, my girlfriend went into labour.

“We went to the hospital. I was going to postpone the interview, but the nurse assured us that the labour was progressing slowly and we had lots of time, so I went. I told the director of NIIPA that I might get a call because my partner was in labour. She said ‘What? What are you doing here? The only reason I called you is because I don’t like to tell people they got the job over the phone!’

“Then, as I was leaving the centre to go back to the hospital, she introduced me to another employee, whose name was also Loft. It turned out that he was my uncle from Six Nations.”

Steve got to know his uncle, and learned that his father had stopped drinking and become an addictions counsellor. “My father had taken back his life, so we met. It was very awkward and emotional. When he got his life back together, he tried to find me, but he didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. It is typical of a lot of Aboriginal people who are separated from their heritage – that loss. It was difficult. It was a turning point to meet my Dad. It helped me prove to myself that I am Aboriginal. I never felt I had to prove it to others.”

Steven Loft’s term at the National Gallery wraps up in January 2010. He is still mulling over what he wants to do next.

“Part of me would like to go back to artist-run centres like the Urban Shaman, but part of me wants to be in another big institution. When I started at the National Gallery I didn’t think it could ever be at the forefront when it comes to Aboriginal art. Now I am more hopeful. One day it could become a world leader in Indigenous a

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 Rabble.ca