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

Landmarks of time and place: The art of Mary Longman

In Saskatchewan, long-present landmarks and sacred objects can be found alongside the trappings of contemporary life: buffalo rubbing stones, tipi rings and medicine caches reside a few kilometres from recently-built cities. The interplay of past and present, on the land and within people, is the subject of Saskatchewan-based artist and art history professor Mary Longman‘s art and research.

Longman is from the Saulteaux nation, and was born in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. As a young child, she lived with her family on the Gordon First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan and in a Métis community near Lebret. Between the ages of five and sixteen, Longman and her sister were placed in permanent foster care. At sixteen she reconnected with her biological family and spent 10 more years locating her other five siblings, who had also been put into foster care.

In her most recent work, on display at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Longman uses digital technology to create 3-D lenticular images that present Aboriginal and colonial narratives. As the viewer walks past, the artworks flip back and forth between Aboriginal and colonial images from the past and present.

In this exhibit, Longman uses the lenticular image technology, probably best known from Crackerjack box pictures, to ingeniously transform still images into dual worlds in which colonial and Aboriginal narratives are contrasted and co-exist. As the viewer experiences the images flipping back and forth in these artworks, Aboriginal representations begin to emerge from under the shadow of the colonial master narrative.

Longman’s passion for art began at a young age, and she excelled in it from the time she started school. In 1989, she graduated from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and then completed an MFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, followed by a Ph.D. in art education at the University of Victoria, which she completed in 2006.

Longman is primarily a sculptor, and uses naturally-shaped stones in her sculptures. Her use of stone reflects her extensive knowledge of the Aboriginal cultural and art history of the plains region, where stone played a central role until this century.

“My people used to make small sculptures using rock, and they painted on stone as well. People also had tiny stones that were like amulets. Some were carved while others were chosen because of their special shape. I use stone as is — in its natural form. I want to revive the use of stone through my art, for means of communication and as land marks of a time and place.”

The sculpture Ancestors Rising, commissioned by the MacKenzie Art Gallery and found in its sculpture garden, is an example of how Longman uses natural stone in her art. The sculpture consists of a circle of four huge bronze bison horns, each positioned in one of the four directions: north, south, east and west.

From these horns extends braided rope made of copper patina. The copper rope forms a basket that cradles stones, which allude to the burial sites of plains people, and the use of stones in the cultural and practical activities of Aboriginal plains life, up until this century.

As an historian of Aboriginal art, Longman specializes in digital restoration and dating of pictographs, especially those from British Columbia.

Rock art, in the form of pictographs (rock paintings) and petroglyphs (rock carvings), can be found all over Canada. The drawings and carvings date back thousands of years.

Longman travels to remote areas, such as British Columbia’s Stein Valley, to photograph pictographs. She then processes her digital photos using de-correlation software, and uncovers details in faded pigments that have been hidden for hundreds of years.

The details that are once again visible provide the First Nations descendants of those who created the paintings, as well as other rock art experts, with a deeper understanding of the ancient cultures and stories of the region, many of which live on in contemporary Aboriginal communities.

“The next step is to use a method that x-rays the pictographs — I am trying to figure out how to use x-ray technology on rocks. This technology is currently used to determine if old paintings have other paintings under them.”

Along with photographing and digitally restoring pictographs, Longman is writing a book about the art of the Interior Salish people of British Columbia, which include the Secwepemc (Shuswap), Lilouet and Nlaka’pamux nations.

Longman also encourages dialogue about Aboriginal art through her role as professor of contemporary and historical Aboriginal art history at the University of Saskatchewan.

She is currently developing eight new aboriginal art history courses for the University of Saskatchewan. Her objective is to create the first minor in Aboriginal art history in Canada.

“By teaching Aboriginal art, and teaching through my own art, I hope to provide this generation with foundational knowledge of the Aboriginal peoples of this land, and of art history in general.”

Longman’s exhibit of new work will be on display at the Mendel Art Gallery from September 25, 2009 to January 10, 2010.

This article appeared 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

Trickster art: The digital storytelling of Chris Bose

In Nlaka’pamux (pronounced ng-khla-kap-mh) country in south-central British Columbia, you can hear coyotes howling in the canyon at night, and glimpse them disappearing into the woods. For the Nlaka’pamux people, coyote is a trickster, using his creativity to transform the world, while rebelling against and disrupting established order.

As a scavenger, coyote is the ultimate survivor, constantly adapting to changing times.
Chris Bose, a photographer, filmmaker, digital storyteller, poet and musician, has a lot in common with coyote.

Living in Kamloops, B.C., Chris is also a creator, rebel, disruptor of the established order and, most of all, a survivor. Chris is from the Nlaka’pamux nation, which means “People of the Canyon,” referring to the B.C. region where the Fraser and Thompson Rivers join.

Through his artwork, Chris wrestles with demons in the form of the traumatic effects of residential school on his parents, aunts and uncles, and how that trauma has rebounded on his generation.

He also criticizes Canada’s policies of forced assimilation, and reflects on issues ranging from Duncan Campbell Scott’s proposal to “kill the Indian in the child,” to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s official apology for the residential school system.

Until recently, Chris followed in the footsteps of Aboriginal artists like Jane Ash Poitras and Carl Beam, masters of mixed-media collage. He made art by scavenging: collecting objects, photographs, fabric, etc., and transforming them with paint and glue.

In present tense, Chris’ most provocative storytelling medium is digital — he is a self-taught expert in image manipulation technologies. Using Photoshop, First Cut and other applications, he recreates the effects of the mixed-media collage on a computer screen.

“I’ve collected thousands of images, many of them from archives, of residential schools — photos of Indian children in uniform, photos of Indians being measured with rulers. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve worked in the buildings where residential schools used to be. I’ve explored these places and found secret passages, heard ghosts. I’m fascinated and traumatized by them. Residential school is our hidden holocaust. The residential school is always going to be in my art and in what I do until I figure out a way to destroy it.”

“Because my parents grew up in residential school, they never learned how to be parents. So I never learned either. I grew up in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.  My mother moved us a lot so child welfare wouldn’t take me away. It was during the sixties scoop.”

During the “sixties scoop” Aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in non-Native adoptive homes. Most adoptions took place in the sixties. Children were often literally scooped from their homes by the child welfare representatives without the consent of their families.

“I think about the idea of home a lot. It’s a funny place, I guess. A place I can never go back to. Home is not really tied to one place for me, because we moved so much. I guess home for me is a comforting memory of the past — being on the rez at Granny and Grampa’s.”

Though Chris spent his childhood on the move, he returned home to visit his grandparents in the summer. While trapping with his grandfather, Chris heard Nlaka’pamux stories, including stories about coyote.  Chris carries on this tradition, telling his grandfather’s stories at cultural events, and teaching digital storytelling, painting, stencil graffiti and filmmaking to Aboriginal youth in B.C.

In January 2009, Chris launched the Urban Coyote TeeVee blog as part of a project that involves developing a new piece of digital art or film every day for a year.

As the blog’s title suggests, Urban Coyote TeeVee delivers a contemporary urban Aboriginal viewpoint to its audience, fusing Nlaka’pamux culture with historical and urban imagery, using a digital online medium.

These digital art and film postings give his audience insight into Chris’ dynamic and adaptable artistry, reflecting his experimentation with film and imagery as well as his thoughts and feelings on the day he created each image or film clip.

The blog reflects its creator’s sense of humour, anger and versatility, ranging from a humorous critique of B.C. premier, Gordon Campbell, to reflections on the impact of violence in society, to poetry combined with archival images.

One of the most compelling of Chris’ blog images is a postcard-sized digital piece combining two black and white archival photos of an Aboriginal child named Thomas Moore. The digital image juxtaposes Thomas before and after his entrance into the Regina Indian Industrial School in the late 1800s. In the “before” picture, he has long hair and is dressed in traditional Plains clothing, and in the “after” picture, he is wearing a high-collared military-style suit. These before-and-after photos were no doubt staged to demonstrate the “civilizing” effect of residential schools on their subjects.

Over the two images of Thomas, Chris layers his own words: “…the ones in power….ask childlike questions about my race about why my people seem so lost so timid revealing something so sad about themselves …they just want to empathize and feel it for half an hour not even to understand it but to hold it for a little while to study it and they will go back and write a grant about it to get some money to study it further and perpetuate the dumb.”

The blog has resulted in another powerful digital creation: Jesus Coyote, a heretical, humorous character, whom Chris uses to “Aboriginalize” Christianity, while at the same time defusing the power of the church and school system.  “Jesus Coyote is a trickster — the ultimate trickster.  He is holy, but he’s also a rapscallion. Who’s to say Jesus wasn’t a bit of a trickster? He turned water into wine. He walked on water!  Jesus Coyote’s always got something up his sleeve. He is an ordinary guy with a little too much power. But he is not going to moralize.”

Much of the subject matter in Chris’ blog is also present in his films, which can be viewed at the Urban Coyote Television web site, including three short films that Chris created last year as part of a collaborative project at the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Chris has been invited to send films to the ImagiNative Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto.  One of these films, called ‘at the heart of it all,’ focuses on the Canadian government’s apology to First Nations.

Chris has a book of poetry forthcoming in the fall of 2009, published by Kegedonce Press and he has just finished recording a spoken word CD called 31 Confessions.  His digital art will be featured in an exhibition this winter at the Arnica Courthouse Gallery in Kamloops.

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).

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

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