The visitor arriving at Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture is greeted by a glowing red neon sign, Tautology, by Duane Linklater, an Omushkego Cree artist. The resulting nightclub mood is further enhanced by the corridor’s scarlet glow. The sign, a stylized thunderbird, is based on a Norval Morrisseau painting, Androgyny, symbolizing an Ojibway view of harmony in the world. Using neon as his medium, Linklater transforms this symbol, linking it to the urban world of advertising. Thus, with this juxtaposition of cultures, one enters the beat nation world.

The exhibition is about change. It shows the transformation of hip hop by a generation of artists who have used images from urban culture and integrated them with those of Aboriginal identity. The resulting creations are nothing short of spectacular. The original forms of hip hop – graffiti art, rap music, and break dancing – are reinterpreted. Fun and fantastic cultural hybrids are the result.

The hip hop world exploded in New York suburbs in the 1970s. It crossed many disciplines: dance, music and art. Originally a form of activism, today hip hop has become main stream to the point that product placement can be noted in rap songs and videos. Aboriginal artists have borrowed from this street mood and made it their own.

Cultural icons from borrowed sources such as popular magazines are used by artist Hoka Skenandore, an Oneida /Oglala Lakota / Luiseno painter. Using old vinyl records to layer his collage- like works, he views his work as ‘‘a weaving together of graffiti and fine art.’’ In the middle of one room, a stunning fashion creature adorned with a fur and feather headdress and bold black and red cape catches the eye. The work of multidisciplinary Tsimshian/Gitksan and Cree artist Skeena Reece, Raven: On the Colonial Fleet, it is related to her performance of the same name. The corset, skirt and blanket refer to traditional Northwest Coast Aboriginal art, and the headdress recalls the Plains cultures. Borrowing the regalia from different traditions, the artist transforms them into what she envisions as a contemporary fe/male warrior. The figure wears over-the-knee leather boots: a current fashionista ‘it’ accessory: a tongue-in-cheek touch.

Eagle, one of the most striking pieces in the show, is by Aime Milot and Corey Bulpitt, whose Haida name is T’aak’eit G’aayaa. The artists used a readily recognizable totem pole image and created a large site-specific mural, combining Haida visual language with wall graffiti. Bulpitt has a ‘double identity’: his street name is Akos. Re-working and re-presenting a traditional art form in a new way, the duo communicates the exhibition’s theme of transformation. A salmon’s head can be seen within the body of the eagle, and human faces, considered ancestors of the eagles, can be noted in the wings. An off-the-wall metamorphosis on the wall.

There is also wit in the show; a sense of humour that echoes the fun in original hip hop. Simple pairings induce a smile. Some presentations are slyly ironic. An Aboriginal man dressed in urban Adidas pants sits astride a pinto pony. Iconic ‘street pants’ meet Western movies’ symbol of a prairie horse. Michael Jackson-like white gloves bear traditional ceremonial bells: transient celebrity worship meets deep-rooted respectful tradition.

Turning Tables by Jordan Bennett, a record player / turntable made of oak, plays a revolving tree ring with an oak needle. There is a fun allegory in the suggestion of ‘turning tables’. There is also more than meets the eye in this multi-levelled piece; a sound-sculpture which produces a kind of static which is in turn overlaid with words spoken in Mi’kmaq, the artist’s native language.

The aboriginal artists in this exhibition resemble today’s DJs. They have taken seemingly disparate themes and re-designed them in a remix. And while individual pieces remain recognizable, the creativity behind their appropriation of cultures, both old and new, makes this show a fascinating fable that speaks to all generations and all cultures. It shows how the beat goes on. 

Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture
Musée d’art contemporain
Until January 5, 2014