October 16, 2015
To the Editor of Ciel variable:
While I was at first excited to read the review of Rebel Yells: Dress and Political Re-dress in Contemporary Indigenous Art, curated by Rhonda L. Meier and Lori Beavis at the FOFA Gallery, I was soon disappointed with the article and with Ciel Variable’s editorial staff for publishing this text. The curatorial intent is made clear in the title of the exhibition: Dress and Political Re-dress. This infers the addressing of social and political issues inherent to viewing and being viewed as an Aboriginal person by the external society at large, as signified by “dress” or appearance. Punk subculture, which is continuously brought up throughout the article as a comparative mode through which to view the artwork, does not have a place in this analysis. It is misleading and confusing. From the outset, the premise of First Nations cultures as “subculture” is wrong. First Nations peoples may co-exist, be influenced by and adapt within the larger pan-Canadian culture, but Aboriginal cultures themselves are not derivative of the dominant Western/European culture in this country. The use of the word “subculture” upholds a colonial paradigm in which the nation state embraces the fiction of terra nullius: virgin territory, waiting to be claimed, populated and controlled.
As the author compares the Aboriginal woman in Shelley Niro’s photograph, The Rebel, to Johnny Rotten, the lead signer of the punk rock group The Sex Pistols, she disregards the particular content and context of that image, as well as the intent of the artist. Shelley Niro is Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Bay of Quinte. Her work often reflects questions of identity to dismantle the essentializing stereotype of the “imaginary indian”, and specifically, to refer to the place Mohawk women hold within the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture. She does so with humour and intelligence. Niro’s work overall, and The Rebel in particular, have been incredibly influential to successive generations of First Nations artists.
In The Rebel, Niro juxtaposes an image of a mature woman (who happens also to be her mother, Chiquita Doxtator) with the cliché of the flashy female model seen in the 1950s and 60s used to sell cars in advertising. It is a cheeky response and pushing back against the image of an idealized blonde bombshell in a bikini that becomes the possession, along with the car, of the powerful and wealthy in North American societies (so far as 1950s advertising is concerned, anyway). One could also extrapolate by extension that the artist is pushing against the stereotype of the indian princess, as this is the Indigenous equivalent of the blond bombshell. To fully understand the image, however, one must take into consideration its cultural origins. Haudenosaunee societies are matrilineal, in which women are accorded a position of power and respect. As a mature Kanien’kehá:ka woman, Doxtator exudes self-assurance and playfulness as she poses on the trunk of the rez car. She is in on the joke and enjoying it.
One may consider economic and political readings of this work as well, for the overall setting of the photo provides context on these points. Niro intentionally seeks to recreate the look and feel of the 50s through the position of the figure, the choice of the car and its location. The car is clearly not on a beach or the top of a mountain overlooking a valley, or in any other exotic locations that might have been depicted in 50’s advertising when trying to sell the image of power and wealth. The car is slightly dented, dirty and rusty, located in a wooded next to a grey-ish house, most likely on a reserve (those pieces of land set aside for Aboriginal peoples in Canada…). The woman is not in a glamorous gown, but simple everyday wear of t-shirt and pants. The intensified colours in this image made in 2014 for the exhibition (as compared the original from 1987) can be likened to shining up the classic beauty before putting it on display – but I disagree with the interpretation that the “indian” is now becoming Indigenous. The original image did not depict an indian to begin with, but a confident Haudenosaunee woman.
Lori Blondeau’s Lonely Surfer Squaw mimics many of the same particularities and concerns of Niro’s work, passed on and carried forward by the next generation. Blondeau confronts media stereotypes by posing in a beaver skin bikini with a pink surfboard in a snow-covered prairie scene by a river. Lonely Surfer Squaw corresponds to The Rebel in its redress of truth in advertising, as applied to the power of Indigenous truths in colonial nation/states. Terrance Houle works with a similar trope in his wrestling series portraits, National Indian Wrestling League of North America. As performance artists, both Houle and Blondeau set up fabricated situations in order to engage in a position of critique. Perhaps the curators could have clarified this for the viewers, but if anyone actually thinks that indian leg wrestling is a new subcultural movement happening in basements and bingo halls across the country like some kind of Brad Pitt fight club, they will be sorely disappointed.
One point made in the review with which I concur, is that Dana Claxton’s work, Momma has a pony girl…(named History and sets her free) loses its coherence by being displayed out of context from the rest of The Mustang Suite. “Momma” needs her family for the whole message to be communicated. At the same time, I want to respond to the criticism that Blondeau’s work suffers from the same isolation. While Lonely Surfer Squaw may be a part of a larger thematic explored by the artist in her artistic practice, it is an individual work that is usually displayed and sold as such. The artist’s intent was not compromised by its display and appeared perfectly in tune with the curatorial thematic.
Finally, not discussing other works whose images visually accompanied the article, in particular those by Métis artist Dayna Danger and by local Kanien’kehá:ka artist, Skawennati, was a missed opportunity. Goldilocks, a large and arresting photograph by Dayna Danger, explores a dark moonlit world in the woods where desire, eroticism and the “savage” come together, as she questions the nature of Nature, gender and societal constructs. Danger is a new emerging talent, and we will surely see more of her work in Montreal and beyond, as she completes the final stages of her MFA at Concordia University. While Skawennati has been receiving attention for Timetraveller™ since her inclusion in the Montreal Biennale last year, the diptych included in Rebel Yells is a debut, revealed for the first time in this exhibition. In Dancing with Myself, the artist and her avatar are mirrored reflections of the other to bring up issues of identity and self-representation in cyberspace. Unfortunately the left and right images of the diptych as presented in the magazine are reversed, so that the figures are moving away from each other, undercutting the artist’s ideas of approach and transformation.
The exhibition Rebel Yells: Dress and Political Re-dress is not perfect. There is room for criticism, the major one being that the exhibition was a visual overload in such a small space as the FOFA Gallery. If anything, this points to the richness of the topic with which curators Meier and Beavis wished to engage. Shelley Niro’s seminal work, The Rebel, is a classic in Indigenous art, and the exhibition seeks to honour this. The concept of utilizing a single work as the nexus of the curatorial thematic demonstrates to what extent contemporary Indigenous art in Canada is a vital and dynamic phenomenon. It has a history and a discourse that is proper to it. It is not a subculture or a passing fad. Unfortunately, the review that was published simply did not engage with the works or the overall curatorial concept in a way that made sense or that was applicable to the issues of Indigenous identities and political redress through “dress”.
Hannah Claus is an artist and educator whose artwork has been exhibited throughout Canada, as well as in the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Chile and Mexico. She is currently a course lecturer of contemporary Aboriginal art at McGill University. She sits on the board of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective – Collectif des commissaires autochtones, a national arts service organization. She is of mixed heritage (Euro-Canadian and Mohawk), and lives and works in Montreal.