Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art
Curated by Betty Julian
September 19 – November 23, 2013
Working primarily in photography, video and sound, the four Indigenous artists featured here – Keesic Douglas, Meryl McMaster, Nigit’stil Norbert and Bear Witness – interrogate the residual signifiers of colonialism. The Hudson’s Bay Company is targeted, as is the built environment, and rightly so; each has, in their own way, contributed to Indigenous suffering and diaspora in Canada. What Trade Marks does is reconcile contemporary Indigenous identity within the prevailing European aesthetic model. It’s a compelling act of subterfuge, one that heightens the exhibition’s sinuous conceptual engagement with beauty, form and politics.
One such example is Meryl McMaster’s recent series Murmur, which finds the artist ensnarled in a mumuration – a whirling flock of starlings. The starlings are crafted out of paper found in history books about North America, a subtle reproach to the construction of individual and collective identity, specifically Indigenous identity, through written language. Each starling is affixed to a headdress constructed by McMaster. As she moves, so too do the paper birds, which generates a dynamic sense of energy and movement. In an exhibition that utilizes forms of fashion, studio and street photography, it’s refreshing to see work that incorporates a photography-based performance. However, it should not be overlooked that removing pages from books is a symbolic action with a complicated history, so there is something in that mumuration that is wonderfully sinister.
In a different photographic series, Toronto-based photographer Nigit’stil Norbert documents the uncanny encounters between the natural world and the built environment. Norbert has installed tapestries inspired by her grandmother’s Gwich’in needlework adjacent to green vegetation, which shoots out from cracks in the grey concrete. In bridging traditional Indigenous craftwork with the modern city, Norbert’s work is conceptually transhistorical. Often, the photographs are full of feeling, but their subject matter is, on the one hand, rather ominous. Here, life itself is made vulnerable and exposed. On the other hand, the work may be a powerful metaphor for rejuvenation and the value of tradition.
Norbert’s work finds a fitting compliment in Keesic Douglas’s photographic series “Trade Me”. In the photographs, Douglas uses the iconic four-striped Hudson’s Bay point blanket to interrogate the company’s historical relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada. The photographs assume some prior knowledge, in particular, HBC’s introduction of alcohol to Indigenous communities, their monopoly on the northern economy, and the controversy surrounding the blanket as a purveyor of small pox in the Western Plains. To these ends, the work presents a robust challenge to HBC’s misguided rebranding strategy, which now uses the green, red, yellow and indigo stripes of the original point blanket as a corporate trademark. Douglas pushes this idea further in his accompanying video work to “Trade Me” of the same name. In effect, the work joins durational performance with video art. Douglas and a friend portage between rivers, creeks and streams transporting an HBC point blanket to the company’s flagship store in downtown Toronto, following the same trade route taken by Indigenous traders two-hundred years earlier. Now, soaring condominiums, houses and highways dot the landscape. Clearly, this is no ordinary return of a product. By returning the point blanket to its source, Douglas suggests that trade with HBC was a dubious one for Indigenous peoples; it’s a profound gesture of total dissatisfaction.
The title of the exhibition, Trade Marks, seems particularly apt for Douglas’s work, yet in comparison to other works in the show, including Bear Witness’s audio piece re-indigenize (everyone), the title remains a curious one. In the work, Bear Witness has appropriated sounds taken from Indigenous gatherings with overdubbed spoken word and verse to create a sonic topography of contemporary Indigenous experience. Against a pounding backbeat of traditional song, the work exemplifies the pervasive influence of hip hop culture on Indigenous urban youth in Canada. Like black urban youth in the United States, Indigenous urban youth in Canada have usurped the philosophy of hip hop to express their own conditions of marginalization and disenfranchisement. re-indigenize (everyone) is a strong contribution to this evolving political and aesthetic synthesis.
At issue in Trade Marks, which was mounted in association with the imagineNATIVE film + media festival, is a further attempt to locate and define a contemporary Indigenous style in Canada, something which has become ubiquitous in recent years—Beat Nation (Vancouver), Decolonize Me (Windsor), Ghost Dance (Toronto, also reviewed in this issue), In the Flesh (Ottawa), Indigenous and Urban (Gatineau), among several others. What becomes clear is that decolonization, identity and tradition are at the forefront of this ongoing exploration. The question is whether such categorization by curators and institutions alike will stymie or enrich the work being made.
Matthew Ryan Smith, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and educator based in London, Ontario, as well as the curator of the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant. He received his Ph.D. in Art and Visual Culture (Curatorial Stream) from the University of Western Ontario in 2012. He is a Sessional Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, Mississauga and the University of Western Ontario. Matthew has published extensively in exhibition catalogues, art publications and academic journals, most recently “Relational Maneouvres in Autobiographical Video Art” in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and “Performative Appropriation of Video Art on YouTube, Vimeo and Dailymotion” in the Journal of Curatorial Studies. He also recently completed a book chapter on unsanctioned graffiti interventions in post-apartheid Johannesburg to be published by the University of Indiana Press.