Beat Nation packs in a ton of great arts and ideas

by Gregory Beatty


art-2Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture
MacKenzie Gallery
Until Sept. 7

The “beat” in the title has three meanings, said Tania Willard.

As Willard explained in a curatorial talk to open this exhibition by 18 youngish (and largely urban) indigenous artists that’s on display at the MacKenzie until Sept. 7, first is “heart beat”, which is pretty much the on-off switch in our world that separates the living from the dead. Second is “drum beat” — drums being a big part of traditional indigenous culture, although really they’re prominent in most historic cultures (perhaps as an echo of the heart beat).

The final meaning is tied to the slang “beat” or “beats” that’s used in rap/hip hop to describe the percussive music that artists rhyme to. And now that I think of it, you could probably tack on a fourth allusion, at least in a political sense, to the “Beat generation” who were in the vanguard of the counterculture movement in the 1950s and early ’60s.

The rap/hip hop reference is the stronger one though. And in the context of this exhibition, it includes other aspects of urban youth culture such as skateboarding, graffiti and break dancing.

Co-curated by Willard and Kathleen Ritter, Beat Nation debuted at the Vancouver Art Gallery in February 2012. It’s since travelled to Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Regina is the final stop on the tour, and given our province’s large and growing indigenous population it’s a fitting end point.

One standout work for me is Jordan Bennett’s Turning Tables (2010). It consists of two functioning turntables set up like a rig DJs use to scratch records as part of their act. The records Bennett has playing aren’t made of vinyl, though — they’re thin slices from hardwood trees.

How neat is that? The growth rings totally recall the grooves in a record. With trees, the rings function as a chronicle of life. Lean years are marked by thin bands indicating little growth, while rings in years of abundance are thicker. There’s even cracks in the wood that resemble scratches in records.

Record hiss is audible from one turntable, while on the other Bennett practices (and sometimes struggles) to pronounce words such as “beaver”, “shovel”, “eagle” and “Europeans” in his East Coast Mi’kmaq language. Language, of course, is another chronicler of life and history, just like tree rings.

Music is a huge part of Beat Nation. And except for two or three instances where headphones are employed, works that incorporate sound generally play at moderately loud volume. Some viewers might find it distracting, but it does allow people in different parts of the gallery to have a shared listening experience (and even get down a bit together) like they would at a concert or festival.

Right beside Bennett’s turntables, for instance, is Nicholas Galanin’s video Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan Pt. 1 & 2 (2008). It encapsulates another aspect of this exhibition tied to the artists’ backgrounds. While most are urban-based and fit easily into the contemporary art world, they also have a strong grounding in their traditional culture.

In Pt. I, Galanin depicts a man in a studio performing a contemporary “robot dance” to a soundtrack of drums and vocals from the artist’s Pacific coast Tlingit Nation. Then in Pt. II, a man in traditional Tlingit regalia does a Raven Dance to a modern electronic beat in front of a wood screen carved and painted by Galanin under the tutelage of his uncle.

There are many great works in this show that space won’t allow me to mention, but I found Maria Hupfield’s video installation Survival and Other Acts of Defiance (2012) very moving.

The central image shows Hupfield wearing a pair of homemade jingle boots. The Anishnaabe artist isn’t doing the jingle dress dance like she would at a powwow though. Instead, she’s jumping up and down. I don’t know how long the video goes before it loops, but the work does recall endurance performance art where an activity is done over and over to demonstrate a point. Maybe it’s the futility of life. Or the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Or in Hupfield’s case, the resistance of indigenous people to colonization and assimilation.

To the left, Hupfield’s boots are on display. To the right is a wall covered with mylar emergency blankets. The text panel speaks of wilderness survival and our need as humans to protect ourselves from the elements. But I was also reminded of the practice in urban centres of handing out the heat-trapping blankets to the homeless to help them survive cold snaps.

If you need a laugh after Hupfield’s work, check out Kent Monkman’s video, Dance to Miss Chief (2010). Playing through headphones is an electronic dance track, while on screen there’s clips from a German “western” based on the Old West adventure stories of Karl May. The stories were published in the late 19th century, and sparked a massive fascination in Germany that continues to this day with indigenous people.

The western, which is in colour and dates from the 1960s, employs all the tropes of Hollywood westerns — most notably, non-indigenous actors playing indigenous roles. Interspersed are clips of Monkman in the guise of his transvestite character Miss Chief Eagle Testicle dancing seductively to the music and flirting with the hero of May’s tale — the warrior Winnetou.