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Category: Photography

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

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Place like home: The art of Arthur Renwick

Arthur Renwick comes from two places in northern B.C. — Kitamaat, the ancestral home of the Haisla people, and Kitimat, an Alcan company town, built in the fifties to house the aluminum smelter’s workers.

To get to Kitamaat, the Haisla village, you have to turn left at the entrance to the company town, and drive 14 kilometres to the other side of the channel. There, you will find the tiny Haisla community, where Arthur spent his childhood summers playing with his cousins, and where he used to sit and listen to his grandmother Ella drum and sing in the Haisla language. She was an important elder in the Haisla village, and played a central role in keeping the community and culture alive.

Now based out of Toronto, Arthur Renwick is an artist, musician and professor who teaches Fine Arts at the University of Guelph.

Arthur’s artistic abilities developed when he was young. He started drawing when he was six, and had a gift for super-realism — he could reproduce almost anything as a drawing. He would create likenesses of his friends, and was often asked to draw pictures for school projects. Art became his vocation when he first studied it formally in high school. When his art teacher saw his work, she announced that he could already draw better than she could. With the help of teachers and the Haisla community, Arthur moved to Vancouver and studied at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design.

By the time Arthur arrived in Montreal in 1990 to begin his MFA at Concordia University, he had already developed an artistic vision, and growing up Haisla meant he understood the political struggles of Aboriginal people.

These elements come together in a provocative way in Arthur’s photography, a recent example being his Mask series, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada this year. The series is a group of larger-than-life portraits of First Nations people who practice varying professions within the arts. Arthur asked each of them to consider the complex relationship between “the lens” and “the Indian,” and then look back through the lens to greet that complicated history with a facial gesture. The results are huge portraits of Aboriginal people looking out at the audience, distorting their faces.

Secure in the knowledge that his family and community are there for him, Arthur has travelled far from home and lived in cities across Canada. “When I came to Montreal, all I had was my guitar, a duffel bag and a 5 x 5 foot painting that a friend rolled up and gave to me as a parting gift. I drove from Vancouver with another Aboriginal artist who was studying at Concordia. When I got to Montreal, I entered the same MFA program.”

After graduating from Concordia, Arthur moved to Ottawa and worked as a curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and then moved to Toronto, where he established his art practice.

The Haisla village of Kitamaat, to which he returns every summer, continues to play a central role in Arthur’s identity and art. “Kitamaat will always be my home. I’m a bit of a nomad, but I will probably be buried there. Even though I live in Toronto, I keep in touch with the politics and land claims that are ongoing. A lot of my work is still based within my identity as a Haisla person. Whenever I give a lecture, I introduce myself as Haisla to give context. Kitamaat plays a huge role in how people perceive my work and how I explain it.”

Arthur began creating art inspired by being Haisla in the late eighties, when Aboriginal art in Canada emerged as a force. An example of this emergence was the 1989 exhibition, Beyond History, which took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It featured mixed media works by important Aboriginal artists like Carl Beam, Jane Ash Poitras and Joan Cardinal Schubert.

Seeing art that was readily identifiable as Aboriginal made Arthur realize that his own work had a place, although at the time, it did not entirely fit in: “Indian identity was really blatant in [the work presented in Beyond History], unlike mine. A lot of my photography was landscape-based. Some people thought photography was not art, and that my art was not Aboriginal because I did not photograph Indians. I have continued to photograph landscapes, but I also began to do sculptural work incorporating totems. I began to make work about my community, even though I was in Montreal or Toronto.”

An early example of art about Kitamaat is Arthur’s 1993 photograph, My Grandfather’s Shoes, also part of the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection. The photograph shows land near Kitamaat, cleared in anticipation of a residential development that never took place. In it, Arthur wears his deceased grandfather’s shoes, which were passed on to his family in a spiritual ceremony intended to continue the circle of life and to emphasize each member’s responsibility to the other. An eagle, dislodged from its nest in the clear cut soars above, in the upper reaches of the photograph, searching for its home.

His 2002 exhibit, stately monuments, reflects on Kitamaat, the Haisla village, and Kitimat, the post-war company town, built by Alcan to house the aluminum smelter’s workers. These two communities face each other across the Douglas Channel. Using black and white photography, cedar, aluminum, copper and traditional Northwest Coast crafts, Arthur’s totemic images explore these two communities, which are opposites in so many ways.

Kitimat, the creation of Alcan, has no history prior to 1950, and no roots in the Haisla territory that it occupies. Kitamaat, the Haisla Nation’s ancestral home, has a history stretching back thousands of years. stately monuments reflects on both places, exploring of the impact of colonialism on the artist, the Haisla people and the land occupied by the smelter and company town.

In his 2004 series, Delegates: Chiefs of Earth and Sky, Arthur’s art turns outward, and studies South Dakota through beautiful black and white photographs of the land where the Fort Laramie Treaty negotiations took place from 1885-1890. Warriors such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse signed this treaty, which promised their people land rights. Once gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the treaty was broken.

Each photo is mounted on a sheet of aluminum that resembles the sky. Punctuation marks are cut through each sheet. “The punctuation marks are the spaces in between the words, the silences in between. They symbolize the language used in the treaty — English — a language the Lakota couldn’t understand or read, yet they were expected to sign it. I named each artwork after one of the warriors, using their traditional Lakota names.”

Alongside Arthur’s evolving landscape photography, is the new theme of portraits in the form of his ongoing Mask series. The series was inspired by the mask carvings of Burton Amos, Arthur’s older brother. “My brother’s masks made me realize that I wanted to do huge portraits of Aboriginal people. These portraits, along with my other work, have extended the boundaries of my community to a more international platform.”

Through recent work like Delegates and Mask, Arthur Renwick’s art has taken on subjects that may seem far removed from the Haisla village of Kitamaat, the central theme in stately monuments and other, earlier exhibits. But appearances can be deceiving. Home and homeland remain the driving force behind Arthur’s work, regardless of how far he may travel, geographically or artistically.

“People of European ancestry often have a psychological homeland back in Europe that gives them a sense of their identity. For First Nations, that homeland is right here. We don’t have another place to go back to. This is it.”
Upcoming showings of Arthur Renwick’s art:
• September:  Unmasking at Canadian Culture Paris, (Canadian Embassy) and at Musée du Quai Branly. Group show with Adrian Stimson and Jeff Thomas.
• October: Group show in Montreal, with Concordia University. Fundraiser.
• November (or January):  Solo show of new work, tentatively called MASK: Curators and Artists. In Toronto at Leo Kamen Art Gallery.
• March (or August): Group show in two parts called Hide. Part 1 opens in March 2010, and Part 2 opens in August 2010. In New York City at the Smithsonian Institute (National Museum of the American Indian).

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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

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