Over the past three decades, Edward Poitras has articulated his generation’s Diaspora as First Nations people in Western Canada. He was the recipient of the 2002 Governor General’s Award in Media and Visual Arts, and representative for Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1995. His recent work discusses the impact of legal and cultural boundaries on ideas of self, nation, and community.

Curated by Michelle Lavallee for the MacKenzie Art Gallery, 13 Coyotes: Edward Poitras is a rich mixture of installation, paintings and sculpture, and includes a re-contextualization of Cell, a piece protesting the on-going incarceration of activist Leonard Peltier. (First shown in Borderzones, UBC Museum of Anthropology) This is the first solo exhibit for Poitras this century. It has a millennial atmosphere, but cautions us on change without benefit of history. These works are like icebergs newly broken from the solid mass of Poitras’ ongoing research, wondrous and enigmatic. Their meaning is centred below the visible surface, with concatenated references, which cannot be unpacked in a few short words.

The key to understanding Poitras’ work is in the title. Coyote is a mythic archetype, similar to Hermes, Loki, Raven, Monkey, Krishna, or Eshu, a Trickster character in teaching stories. He makes us laugh, sometimes painfully. In “Trickster Makes this World”, Lewis Hyde defines the role of the trickster as crossing both physical and social boundaries, offering insight with lies that tell a higher truth: The trickster helps us to see into the heart of things. Hyde finds similar strategies in contemporary artwork, citing Duchamp. Cindy Richmond describes Coyote as, “the outsider who is at the same time crucial to the community. His tricks, practical jokes and disruptive behaviour confound our expectations. Narratives involving the coyote reveal the unexpected, allowing us to look at ourselves and our world differently.” (C Magazine, summer 1995). By invoking the trickster, Poitras invites us to enter his work as we would a Coyote story, to critique the constructed worlds of culture, history and law.

The exhibit is mounted in two gallery sections. The first room, a testament to Poitras’ mastery of scale, creates a luminal space using a spare palate of white, red and black. Bones, rice, cornmeal, white buffalo wool, tree branches, rocks are arranged with a minimalist geometry and a sense of a ritual. Arrow shapes, ladders, doorways, keys: our experience of space and time is not linear. We have access to knowledge outside our lifetime. The second set of rooms winds us through a labyrinth of works based on Poitras’ research. The Métis struggle for recognition is remembered in Platform, with 13 copies of a resistance flag Poitras discovered in researching Batoche, and a podium holding a copy of John Fisher’s letter of 1873, calling for government respect. Cell recreates a jail with two bunks, and a museum vitrine instead of a toilet. Around the cell, numbered PO boxes represent individuals in a community, collectively dehumanized by the tiny repetitive geometry of the doors, a system set up by the bureaucracy that serves them. Poitras quotes elder John Tootoosis, “The reservation is a cell, yet it is sovereign territory.”

“The thirteen coyotes in this exhibition”, Curator Michelle LaVallee writes, “speak to Poitras’ concerns with community and how we define and experience connectedness… nationalism and religious beliefs, simultaneously operate as agents of division. His work questions these structures of community that provide the template of our existence, and asks how we move beyond the continuous construction of division(s).” There are many coyote moments in this exhibition, I’ll leave you with one. A desk with both forms invites us to revoke our citizenship. American or Canadian. The pencils provided are not sharpened: pointless? 

MacKenzie Art Gallery
3475, Albert Street Regina, SK
Tel.: 306 584-4250
January 21 to April 22, 2012