Aesthetic agent provocateur par excellence. That’s the most accurate artistic and spiritual job description that I can ascribe to both the complex interdisciplinary work of Dana Claxton and the multi-layered persona that she shares with us in each new exhibition. She operates passionately in the interstitial zones, travelling the conceptual and emotional crossroads where traditions collide and cultures overlap. Her entire lengthy trajectory as a mixed-media artist has been a celebration of the challenges facing both individuals and societies when they try to express their essence.

As a person of mixed heritage, Claxton is practically a living mirror of the nation superimposed over the nations that existed here in the first place, especially through her unique family history of Indigenous displacement and migration. It could be that her fascination with the hybrid nature of parallel realities comes to her almost as a genealogical birthright. This fact certainly helps to clarify our deep appreciation of her as someone existing at the heart of intersecting forces and in the crucible of competing cultures, and it may explain why she is such an effective ambassador between seemingly disparate dimensions.

When she picked up her first camera at the age of sixteen and began to view the world around her through its lens, it seems only natural, in retrospect, that Claxton would try to bring into focus the many layers that formed her own character. Born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and raised in Moose Jaw, she is descended on her mother’s side from Kangi Tamaheca and Anpetu Wastewin, who were among the large group of Hunkpapa Lakota who followed Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) as he walked from the United States to Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Although the exiled leader and many of his people returned to the U.S. in 1881, some 150 of them, including Claxton’s great-grandparents, remained encamped in the Moose Jaw River Valley. Eventually, in 1930, they were granted land in the form of the small Wood Mountain Reserve by an Order in Council of the Canadian government, with Claxton’s great-grandfather serving as one of the signatories to the agreement.

Headdress–Jeneen (2018)
LED firebox with transmounted chromogenic transparency
Collection of Cathy Zuo

From an early age, the artist was taught how to harvest and preserve food by her paternal Euro-Canadian grandmother at the same time as she was being taught to seek justice by her maternal Lakota grandmother. Eventually gravitating to the alternative music and underground art scenes in Vancouver in the early 1980s, and after studying theatre and art, including a three-year stint in New York, she became involved in curatorial projects connected with the Pitt Gallery and began to explore both her own performance work and film/video as her primary medium. When worldviews collide in her work, they give off sparks from the clash between her formal style as an artist and her personal agenda as a social activist.

A First Survey

Whether we call it a survey show or a retrospective exhibition, the career overview at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube, curated by Grant Arnold, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art, offered an ideal opportunity to delve deep into the ethos of the Hunkpapa Lakota filmmaker, photographer, and installation artist. Claxton’s compelling work focuses our attention on presumed stereotypes, mutually exclusive historical contexts, and challenging presumptions in the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, specifically those of the First Nations.

This richly evocative “curatorial map” that traced the path of three decades of Claxton’s art was also an instructive vehicle for reminding us all that the Vancouver Art Gallery is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the xwməθkwəy̓ əm (Musqueam), Sḵwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) people, and that it is respectful of the Indigenous stewards of the land that it occupies. The selection made by the curator provided a valuable flyover of the emotional and psychological landscapes containing Claxton’s provocative pieces, at an altitude high enough to offer us the first-ever expansive and comprehensive retrospective glimpse of her thoughtfully composed and beautifully crafted explorations of identity, gender, and the nebulous nature of embodiment.

“I’m influenced by my own experience as a Lakota woman, as a Canadian, a mixed blood Canadian, and then my own relationship to the natural and supernatural world. Taking that whole bundle of experiences, it all goes in to the artwork, I think that’s where the multi-layering comes in, because I’ve had a very multi-layered life.”

Archaeology of Memory

What makes Claxton’s works subversive and provocative is not necessarily the use of taboo imagery or disturbing content but the way in which she displaces the viewer’s expectations about Indigenous art and culture by immersing us in a readily accessible pop-culture domain. She also often utilizes beauty itself subversively, and seductively, to unearth difficult truths about colonialism and its lasting impact on both cultures involved. By combining, even mashing up, contemporary technologies and aesthetic strategies with traditional spiritual practices and native motifs, she disrupts the operative and often unconscious stereotypes in both of the cultures that she so ably critiques.

For Claxton, performance is also a key aspect of ceremony, and any public staging of a theatrical act is simultaneously gift giving in the most traditional sense of shared generosity. She uses the sacred motif of the buffalo as a living spirit in several different formats throughout her works, among them Buffalo Woman 1 and 2 (2016), two images, photo-silkscreened onto semi-transparent floating silk sheets, in which a model holds a sandcast glass buffalo skull—made by Kevin McKenzie—aloft in a gesture of both thanksgiving and lament.

Buffalo Bone China (1997)
Mixed media installation with single-channel video, broken china, stanchions and rope Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery
Purchased with financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts
Acquisition Assistance Program
Photo: Don Hall, Courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery

Buffalo Bone China (1997) is a truly profound metaphysical experience. In this installation, almost overwhelming in its simple grandeur, Claxton placed jagged fragments of broken bone china—a luxury item made literally from bone ash—on the floor in a sacred circle surrounded by stanchions and cords appearing to contain buffalo tails, behind which archival black-and-white footage of stampeding bison was projected. The darkened gallery became sanctified in ways that it is difficult to describe: she had transposed Lakota spiritual space into a contemporary museum in a manner that the heart feels long before the mind registers its evocative messages.

Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube also included an Indigenous inflection on the common conceptual format of the LED lightbox. By calling hers “fireboxes,” she effortlessly shifted their meaning between ancient and modern contexts with multiple poetic allusions. Tantaka (Buffalo) (2013)—an almost psychedelic chromogenic print—Paint Up 1 and Paint Up 2 (2009), Headdress (2015), Cultural Belongings (2016), and Headdress- Jeneen (2018) were among the most arresting examples of this uniquely indigenized use of high-tech advertisingmethodology.

Just as psychology reconstructs an original traumatic situation in order to release repressed material among individuals, we can be plunged into the archaeo-psychic past, collectively uncovering hidden histories that whave been either dormant or concealed for epochs. Claxton’s art, often therapeutic, perfectly captures the process of disrobing the collective psyche. As her emblematic works demonstrate, the historical trauma of an entire culture can also be effectively excavated in an ongoing archaeology of memory. It is precisely this phenomenon—being the living representative of a biological kingdom and letting her bloodstream testify to its survival and forward flow—that makes each new installation along the path of her career arc another tree in the forest of her culture’s total memory. 

Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube 
Curator: Grant Arnold
Vancouver Art Gallery 
October 27, 2018—February 3, 2019