Joseph Tisiga

Joseph Tisiga
Diaz Contemporary
October 16  to November 22, 2014

A Sacred Game: Escape is Perpetual is the latest exhibition by Whitehorse-based artist Joseph Tisiga, whose sculptures, paintings and collage boldly introduce him as a Canadian artist to look out for. Tisiga’s Indigenous ancestry − Kaska Dene from the Liard River First Nation − informs the breadth of his practice, which grapples with issues of identity, historicism and tropes of representation. This exhibition merged narrative-based works with more arbitrary assemblages – strategies of Tisiga’s practice that notably task viewers with negotiating what looks like abstract and folkloric pictorialism from the very real politicized contexts that underlie his work.

Divided amongst two pristine galleries, A Sacred Game includes three distinct bodies of work created over the past two years. Surprisingly, Tisiga has only selectively shown in Canada, though his reputation far extends his specific geography – Tisiga was a distinguished finalist in the 2009 RBC Painting competition and was long-listed for the Sobey Art Award in 2011. In 2012, Tisiga’s delicately detailed watercolours were one of the highlights of MASS MoCA’s travelling blockbuster exhibition Oh, Canada, positioning Tisiga as an artist whose practice noticeably incorporates both nuance and experimentation – a difficult balance to pull off.

For his Toronto debut, Diaz’s main gallery featured more than a dozen of Tisiga’s framed watercolours that, from afar, read as muted settler landscapes that still populate Canadian institutions and many of their national collections. This museological reference is no coincidence, as Tisiga’s choice of scale, palette and hanging all correspond to a long history of colonial documentation provided by the watercolour, traditionally used by Europeans not only to record their early impressions of Natives across the Americas, but also to depict the landscape as uninhabited, and thus terra nullius. Tisiga uses watercolour here to reinvent his own images of encounter − disparate scenes that combine mythic ideologies of the “vanishing Indian” with obtuse symbols of Western modernity. Contained in the hybrid landscape Imbued with the spirit (2014), for instance, is a red brick wall with formline sculpture on top, masked medicine men in ritual behind a lonesome settler, and a wooden-wheel cart with a hunted buffalo atop.

Within the same work is also reference to Tisiga’s larger-than-life cigarettes that appear as sculpture throughout the exhibition, entitled 25 pack – Totem Special Fraxinus Edition (2014), that consists of roughly carved cigarettes made from ash logs originating from near Tisiga’s partner’s home in Northern Ontario. While their material origins remain obvious as logs, each cigarette is carefully painted and placed throughout the galleries in seeming banality − some sprawled across the cold concrete floor as if personal detritus, while others positioned in ways that resemble Indigenous architecture like tipis, totems and fire ceremony. Since cigarettes represent the sacred relationship between the tobacco plant and Indigenous spiritualism, reserve economies and the right to Indigenous economic sovereignty/jurisdiction, and the degradation of health and life expectancy from a Western perspective, as such they evoke multiple meanings. Yet Tisiga’s work enables other references to be drawn, in particular to west coast artist Liz Magor’s installation of cigarettes entitled The Rules (2012) made from collected logs and sticks, as well as Ligwilda’x_w artist Sonny Assu’s series of Kwakwaka’wakw masks created from the logging refuse of his Vancouver Island reservation.

Located in the more intimate back gallery is the most breathtaking work of the exhibition: Tisiga’s large-scale collage-paintings that feature tiny cutout images mined from anthropology texts and encyclopedias. In the work Untitled IV (2014), the canvas’s bizarre green wash is punctuated with cutouts of cultural artifacts like African masks, Roman and East Asian heads, Vitruvian vases and Indigenous pottery, amongst other things, to create what appears like a nonsensical arrangement of material and visual culture. Yet in this work and others like it, Tisiga subverts the colonial and ethnographic currency of his mined images by amalgamating them into strange and contradictory scenes of encounter, all amidst the backdrop of painting. Both the size and visual chaos of these works confront viewers and require their negotiation, which, in my opinion, enables a productive dialogue to unfold with the works and with ourselves. How do we make sense of these images? What does it mean to juxtapose photographs of regal colonists with images of ancient religious and tribal sculpture? How do we begin to read objects from vastly different cultures, geographies and time periods in ways that resist the normalcy of colonial stereotypes and hegemonic identification?

Canada needs more artists like Tisiga − artists who challenge homogenous perceptions of identity, history and materiality, and whose work embodies the confluence of many rather than one idea or perspective. Of course, mine is particular: that Tisiga’s use of appropriation of the watercolour, of the logs and of the ethnographic image allows him to complicate and call into question the ways in which colonization is represented through past, present and future means. A Sacred Game forced me to think through the ambiguous spectacle of Tisiga’s work, and to ultimately construct my own meaning from his thoughtful yet subtle interventions.