Ghost Dance

Activism. Resistance. Art.

Ghost Dance
Ryerson Image Centre
To December 15, 2013

Ghosts are resurrected in this exhibition curated by national visiting Trudeau fellow, Steve Loft – ghosts of our colonial past and of our colonial present.  However, the artists in the exhibition, including Sonny Assu, Vernon Ah Kee, Scott Benesiinaabandan, Dana Claxton, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Alan Michelson, Theo Sims, Skawennati and Jackson 2bears, intervene when it comes to looking towards the future. Their contemporary artworks, juxtaposed with archival photographs from the Black Star Collection, make visible resistance and the inspiring notion of artist as activist.

Of Mohawk and Jewish descent, Loft bases his curatorial trajectory on the role of the Ghost Dance in Native culture, which was brought to Canada by Paiute Jack Wilson (Wovoka) in the beginning of the 2oth Century, following the events at Wounded Knee.  The Ghost Dance represents a symbol of resistance – historically, to the US Indian policy, and presently, as a persevering Indigenous practice.  Artists in the exhibition reflect on the enduring struggle for Indigenous and cultural sovereignty through powerful artworks that posit both agency and action, as does the Ghost Dance.

Loft’s arrangement of artworks propose multiple entry points for engaging issues of Indigenous sovereignty, oppression and representation.  He does so by creating a dialogue between our nation’s haunting cultural histories and today’s growing international grassroots movement like Idle No More and others around the globe. Viewers immediately confront the pulsing sounds of Mohawk artist Jackson 2bears’ digital media installation of re-appropriated cultural materials Mythologies of an [Un]dead Indian (2013).  For such a powerful installation that interrogates representations of what Haida/Tsimpshian writer Marcia Crosby termed “the imaginary Indian” almost two decades ago, its location is unfortunate, as it sits in direct sunlight most of the day and thus, its striking visuals are significantly flushed out.

As the question of global Indigeneity grows, so too does the unsettling of colonial histories. We see evidence of this in the dialogic tensions between past and present set up by Loft, such as with the prominent mezzanine vitrines that contain archival images of the Alcatraz Occupation (1969), Wounded Knee (1973) and the Oka Crisis (1990) in conversation with New York-based Mohawk artist Alan Michelson’s south RoundDance (2013) video installation that also continues in the main gallery. While the temporal comparison between the archive and the contemporary here is interesting, the separation of one of Michelson’s four-channel videos disconnects the powerful unity that his work has the potential to achieve.  The installation by Toronto-based Cree/Metis artist Cherly L’Hirondelle exemplifies this harmony in her multimedia piece, Here I Am (2013). Based on a composition by L’Hirondelle,  her producer and a group of incarcerated women in Saskatchewan, each song is reenacted by a friend of the artist’s to symbolize the women inside. Ten audio/video stations depict scenes of unidentifiable women singing into what looks like a prison phonebooth, and make visible the beautiful voices that exist inside.

Dana Claxton is a Vancouver-based artist of Hunkpapa Lakota ancestry whose larger-than-life silver gelatin prints of censored American Indian Movement (AIM) documents recall important political and art histories.  Founded in 1968 in Minnesota on the premise of sovereignty, AIM was an organization of Native activists who participated in the standoff at Wounded Knee. With this series of work, AIM #1-4 (2010), Claxton makes visible the corruption of policy, and evokes images of American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s more recent works that similarly interrogate the archive of war.  Like Holzer, Claxton’s overwhelming visuals of purposely blacked-out information posits a sense of aggression, violence and loss, surprisingly not that different from the history of Indigenous peoples on this land.

An important site for this exhibition, the Ryerson Image Centre specializes in photography and image-based practices, and houses The Black Star Collection – an catalogue of iconic photographs produced by the New York news agency Black Star.  The exhibitions preceding this one have created an arc of imagery that illustrate questions of democracy, human rights and activism to date.  Ghost Dance builds upon this trajectory, taking up specific histories of colonization and cultural autonomy through both still and moving images.  Loft’s ability to animate a historic archive with a repertoire of contemporary artworks reflects on how we can look at our past to better understand our present and future. Ghost Dance contains a heavy history in its space, one we must engage with rather than let haunt us.


Laurie Kang