The sculpture is striking. A life-size, kneeling, suppliant figure in a black hooded sweatshirt, jet black hair spilling out, obscuring the face and body, spreading like a vast cloak around it. White hands, with palms turned upward further impress the notion of supplication and reverence. Yet the lettering on the back of the garment speaks of defiance, and the figure suddenly resembles a crouching tiger in an instant before pouncing. “Fucking Artist, Fucking Indian” read the criss-crossing letters, and the mood turns…
This untitled work by Rebecca Belmore, part of a group exhibition of aboriginal contemporary artists, speaks for all of them by incorporating the many seminal elements that make up the message of A Stake in the Ground. Curated by Nadia Myre, a Quebec artist and an Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg, it features contemporary native artists from across Canada and the United States, seeking expression in myriad mediums, linking modernity with the inevitable traditional element that is the eponymous stake that guarantees their cultural survival.
The issue is not new, albeit still unresolved, as aboriginal peoples world over fight for recognition and respect. For the artists among them the battle is fought on two fronts, the creative and the societal, and it is to their credit and innate dignity, that these works move and provoke without ever offending.
Language and the land, are the two threads weaving through this exhibition, and the curator chose the artists along those expansive lines. Inevitably eclectic, the selection resulted in works that although didactically connected, each spoke of a distinct individuality, both in the form of expression and the choice of medium. From painting to video, the many artists – and one must not forget the intricacies of each separate cultural group – have woven a tale of dancing against the many restraints and attempts at assimilation that have been the lot of aboriginal nations.
Some of the works speak in a voice so quiet as to be overwhelmed by the powerful expression of such pieces as Belmore’s. Yet each holds true to the heart of the exhibition, and to that of the artist.
Vanessa Dion Fletcher brings the land into her studio, literally. Referred to as a “nomadic printmaker”, she collects her material by walking her ancestral territory in custom made shoes with copper soles, gathering imprints of the land, which she later transfers into topographic “maps”. The images are delicate and ethereal, resembling Zen drawings. Magical.
Diné photographer William (Will) Wilson offers a strikingly different view in his multiple landscapes with dramatic skies and a sentinel figure in a gas mask. Powerful and contemporary, his large-scale colour photographs are at once romantic and menacing.
There is little to read between the lines in Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds’ installation Dead Indian Stories, which consists simply of a frieze of 50 red monoprints on rag paper with hand written, graffito style, “headlines” of the type: Find People Kill People Washita River, Indian Still Target Obama Bin Laden Geronimo, Dead Indian Run Over by Cars, and so on. Reality hits home. As it does at the sight of a skinned wolf on the floor, part of its body already lined and bordered for a rug or a trophy, the upper half eerily alive, struggling to rise up. Macabre and grotesque, but nevertheless powerful, this piece by Nicholas Galanin speaks of our relationship to the natural world, especially that of animals.
Nature finds expression in a more gentle, even elegant manner in Sonny Assu’a sculptures, and photographic prints of the pieces. As part of his Longing Series, he presents heads with barely accentuated features, some with a promise of a face, all formed from raw cedar blocks, that by their innate form inspire and invest each work. They are at once contemporary in their unforgiving minimalism, and intrinsically linked to the world of nature of which they were born.
The inclusion of iconic artist Rita Letendre in this exhibition can only be seen as a means of raising the show’s merit, for her hard edge, abstract canvases are in stark contrast to the rest of the works and ultimately do both a disservice. Her only link with the theme is her native heritage – her father was of Aboriginal origin -, her art having gone beyond the message at the heart of A Stake in the Ground. She has set hers firmly in a long time ago.
A STAKE IN THE GROUND
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