October 27, 2015
Re: L’habit fait-il le moine/ Do the clothes make the man?
Thank you for setting up a situation through the September 2015 review of The Rebel Yells: Dress and Political Re-dress in Contemporary Indigenous Art/ Le cri rebelle: habillement et redressement politique dans l’art autochtone actuel to continue the conversation started by this exhibition.
From the beginning of this project it was our intention that the work be seen and discussed by Montréalais. We felt that it was essential to bring these works to Concordia and to Québec for many of the reasons as raised and framed by the review. By this I mean the categorization of Indigenous people as a sub-culture, the notion that creative elements in the work are regressive, that the comparison of this exhibition with another is colonialist and that the notion of dress as mischevious rather than seeing it as parodic, political or a site of strength. In particular it was our intention to address issues of seeing and being seen and the significance of self-representation on one’s own terms in our presentation of the work by these eleven artists.
There are four elements of the review, L’habit fait-il la moine/ Do the clothes make the man? by Benedicte Ramade that I feel require a response. I must begin with the equation of Indigenous peoples to a sub-group such as punks. Punk culture is raised repeatedly through the article as a comparison and as a cultural form which readers will be aware of, however, the problem is that there is no comparison! First Nation, Metis, Inuit people are not a subculture and to situate them in this way is wrongheaded and dismissive.
First Nation, Metis and Inuit culture is strong and certainly not derivative of any European popular cultural paradigms. The artists in this exhibition were posing weighty questions around self-representation and cultural construction. It was our intention to situate the works in such a way as to put them in conversation with the viewer and one another and across the generations. We believe that we were mostly successful in this, through the placement of the work in the gallery space, in the round table with the artists, Intergenerational Photography: Community, Representation, and Rebellion, in Blondeau’s creation of a new performance work My Sister…My Love, curatorial walk-through and in the catalogue essays.
It was little noted in the review but the work of the eleven artists was cross-generational, as we were very intrigued to see the ways in which the younger artists born in or around 1987 were addressing the notion of self-representation. Assu, Patton, McMaster, and Danger all produce work that is bold and thought-provoking and carries the dialogue forward as they reveal the tensions of living as Indigenous people in a continuingly colonized space. Their work in response to our query of the way/s that Niro’s work speaks to their practice appeared to be an affirmation of cultural and political strength.
In addition to a cross-generational approach we also felt that it was important to bring artists from across the country. First because some of these artists are rarely seen in Montreal and because we believed that the artists themselves represent themselves as members of strong nations and not as members of a sub-culture (despite years of assimilationist governmental policies). The artists in the exhibition are members of the Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk, Cree, Hunkpapa Lakota, Saulteaux, Cree, Kainai (Blood), Kwakwaka’wakw, and Métis nations. Each artist draws upon their cultural heritage and reflects through their work their own particular experiences of colonization. Each artist responded enthusiastically to our invitation to be a part of this exhibition.
As Meier’s states in her catalogue essay, Niro’s 1987 work, The Rebel is the touchstone or staring point for this exhibition. We have known and appreciated the strength and wit exhibited in this work and knew that this image was a work that has resonated across the country and across the decades. The artists responded without hesitation to contribute work to the exhibition because of the impact this work has had on the way they think about self-representation, their own practice and as a tribute to a respected senior artist.
Niro is a master storyteller with an objective to create images that speak to her audience – Native and non-Native, as she represents people and a life she herself recognizes. I feel it must be clarified that The Rebel has been hand-tinted from its first incarnation in 1987. This work is not regressive or a feeble attempt to be current. This element is more than Gunthert’s declared intention that colourizing is a way to “increase the repertoire of symbols.” For Niro her work confronts issues of stereotyping and the erasure of culture. Niro in her own way uses the process of documentation as a form of history making. In this image she is commenting on both visual and literary representations of the Mohawk woman and revealing the fallacy of the ethnographer or more generally the white man and ultimately the image is about taking back control of the woman’s image and simply having fun! The hand tinting is subtly innocuous as it provides an opportunity for correction for the above stated reasons and it is another form for the artist to take back and control the image on her own terms.
As Niro respond “As for hand tinting, this was a technique I learned from two artists,… in 1986, or thereabouts. It is a fascinating technique as the photo becomes animated. It is very much like painting. Also at the time … I wanted to explore colour in the work. I couldn’t afford to go to colour developers and so I used my own hand to make colour on the photo itself. Of course now I don’t have to do that. I enjoyed being able to sit with a photograph and add those layers in giving it a sculptural effect.”
There are two other disputes that I have with Ramade’s review. These are, the references to Blondeau’s and Claxton’s works, and the fact that as curators we did not bring in a larger representation of the artist’s work. I believe that the work stands on its’ own and I personally have never thought of Blondeau’s work in particular as part of a series.
As Blondeau’s herself states, “ I don’t see the Cosmosquaw and the Lonely Surfer Squaw as a series. They are related to the narrative I have created for Betty Daybird but I never saw them as a series. I feel they are pieces that can stand on their own.” 1
To be truthful it is unfortunate that we did not bring in more works by each of these artists. It would have been extraordinary to be able to bring Claxton’s The Mustang Series, Lori Blondeau’s Cosmosquaw, Betty Daybird and Belle Sauvage, as well as McMaster’s entire In-between Worlds or Danger’s Bad Girls series, however the logistics of cost and exhibition space meant that this was an impossible dream. We felt that a sample of the artist’s work as well as the intelligence and research capabilities of the viewer would be such that they could learn more of the artists’ oeuvre on their own.
Additionally I believe that it is disingenuous to compare an exhibition at one institution to another. There are two aspect of the MAC exhibition of Beat Nation that need to be raised. The first is that the MAC exhibition was housed in a space that has 3700 square feet available overall. In comparison the FOFA Gallery at Concordia University is well under 1000 square feet. Thus making it impossible to bring in more than the 12 works shown at the FOFA.
Secondly The MAC inherited an exhibition that was rich and similarly drew on artists working across the country.2 The point must also be made that this exhibition came to the MAC as a unit, as a travelling exhibition with a great deal of funding and the local curators did not curator the exhibition per se but took it as a piece from the other exhibition sites. They did a commendable job of hanging the exhibition and I personally appreciated the opportunity to see the breadth of individual works and the series of works by various artists.
We believe the exhibition at the FOFA Gallery was rich in its own way and viewers understood that the intention was to situate one work as a catalyst to talk, create and think about self-representation from the various vantage points of the other ten artists.
I also must take exception to the comparison of two exhibitions of work by Indigenous artists within the same milieu or locale. I do not believe that such a comparison would ever be made between the work and exhibition of Euro-Western artists. In making such a comparison the reviewer does a disservice to the artists in each of these exhibitions.
Indigenous art in this country has a powerful history. Contemporary Indigenous art in Canada is rich and dynamic there should not be any reason to create divisive situations.
In closing our intention was to situate Niro’s work from 1987 as an important work that has engaged artists creatively and acted as a catalyst for them to make their own decisions on how they represent themselves and their community members. How they dress, address and re-dress the issue of self-representation is an on-going conversation.
1 Email conversation with Lori Blondeau October 22, 2015.
2 Beat Nation was originally generated by grunt gallery in Vancouver as a website project in 2008, it moved to the SAW Gallery, Ottawa where it evolved into an exhibition in 2009, and the expanded exhibition then travelled back to the grunt galleryin 2009. The exhibition then went to Vancouver Art Gallery (2012), The Power Plant in Toronto (2012-2013), to Kamloops (2013) and then to the MAC (2013-2014).