By Jacques Doyon
Indigenous peoples have been conﬁned to reservations, cut off from their ancestral lands, subjected to forced assimilation in schools, and had their status denied as Métis or urban residents. They have been forbidden to display the signs of their cultures and were long condemned to invisibility. But the situation is changing. Strong, proud voices are speaking out and increasingly being heard. Three artists of different generations, all of whom have expressed themselves primarily through photography, have been among them. Together, they offer a renewed vision of Indigenous identity, drawing on both tradition and contemporary realities, everywhere in the territory.
A group of works by Dana Claxton, brought together here under the title Portraits and Regalia, offer such a renewed vision of the Indigenous figure, staged to give traditional garments and accessories a prominent role. The Mustang Suite, Headdress, Lasso, and NDN Ironworkers offer a series of portraits, all taken in studio, with the subjects in poses that often have a performative dimension (an important part of Claxton’s work) and arrangements of objects, facial paint, and clothing that are often surprising, sometimes comical. From the contemporary Indigenous family to stout-hearted high-rise construction workers, to composite versions of the traditional totemic mask, to lasso manoeuvres by an “Indian” turned cowboy, Claxton joyously and proudly displays the many identities of contemporary Indigeneity.
Jeff Thomas began with an interest in representation of the “Indian” in the dominant culture, from Edward Curtis’s images to urban monuments and archival materials. Early in his career, Thomas searched in vain for photographic voices expressing an Indigenous vision of the world. With the series Indians on Tour, started in 2000, he undertook to make use of his travels to stamp an Indigenous presence in the landscape. With his “Indian” figurine and its traditional garments placed in the foreground of the image, he revisited places colonized by modern culture to mark the Indigenous antecedence. This symbolic reconquest is perhaps most strongly expressed in front of places that, though now silent, were significant to Indigenous history, and Thomas’s travel notes remind us of their importance.
In the project As Immense as the Sky, Meryl McMaster proposes to appropriate a territory – not an urban one, as Jeff Thomas does, but a natural one, the primeval land of Turtle Island. Her approach is based on a return, both symbolic and ritual, both performative and sculptural, to certain foundations of Indigenous culture, which she transmutes into mysterious and disturbing images. Although those not expert in the subject will not discern all the rich details of borrowings from and references to Indigenous traditions and regalia, McMaster nevertheless takes us to a world where natural forces are essential and all things bear signs. From earth to sky, from a blade of grass to the blowing wind, each element contributes to a cosmogony reactivated by a contemporary and idiosyncratic vision of the universe in which Indigenous existence is in osmosis with the world.
Translated by Käthe Roth
[ Complete issue, in print and digital version, available here: Ciel variable 120 – FIGURES OF AFFIRMATION ]