Artists know Canadian colonialism should be hard to look at

ART by Gregory Beatty


Moving Forward, Never Forgetting
Mackenzie Gallery
Until April 19

“We don’t have a very happy history between the Canadian government and First Nations people,” said MacKenzie Gallery associate curator Michelle LaVallee during a curatorial tour of Moving Forward, Never Forgetting.

No kidding.

“The overarching idea of the show is looking at colonialism and how it’s impacted everyone, really — but particularly First Nations and Métis people on the Prairies.”

Moving Forward, Never Forgetting, which was co-curated with University of Regina associate visual art professor David Garneau, features work by around a dozen First Nations and Métis artists (and two Euro-Canadians with indigenous ties). In addition to the art — which fills three large galleries — artist residencies by Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Adrian Stimson and Peter Morin are planned.

There’s a room designated as the Gathering Place too, where the public is invited to visit with indigenous story-keepers and gallery facilitators.

“Most of the artists are dealing with themes such as forced or aggressive assimilation, residential and public schools, language loss, land loss, you name it,” said LaVallee during the tour. “But they’re doing it from a personal perspective, and working through their own reconciliation with themselves, their families, neighbours, friends.”

“We’re interested in the idea of reconciliation not just between indigenous communities and the state or government,” Garneau added. “It’s also about relationships between people. If there is such a thing as reconciliation, at least through an art or cultural perspective, it’s going to be through one-on-one relationships rather than through governments and policy alone.”

Like the exhibition title suggests, the artists critique indigenous/settler relations from two angles. Moving Forward, Never Forgetting attests to all the injustices done over the last few centuries, certainly. But there’s also a desire to push past the trauma and build a more positive future for themselves and their communities.

In the latter camp is Amy Malbeuf’s visually stunning kayâs-ago. It’s in a small space of its own, and consists of five frosted white LED screens haloed by tufted caribou fur. On the screens, Malbeuf has spelled out, in sculpted caribou fur letters, quotes from Louis Riel (his famous “my people will sleep for one hundred years” one), the late Anishinaabe artist Norval Morriseau and three other indigenous individuals she admires.

But on balance, the works where artists are still struggling to come to grips with the tragic history and current reality of colonialism outweigh the “Moving Forward” works by a large margin.

Really, though, how could they not? I defy you to look at Jamie Isaac’s light boxes with archival photos from Fort Alexander residential school in Manitoba that her grandparents, mother and other family members attended when they were children, then view Adrian Stimson’s adjacent installation Sick and Tired, and remain unmoved. Isaac’s photos show indigenous girls and boys all starched and pressed as they study, worship, play and work under the stern gaze of nuns and priests. In Stimson’s installation, meanwhile, a trio of backlit windows offer the promise of sunshine. But when you approach you realize any view of the outside world is blocked by chicken feathers stuffed between the panes of glass.

On a rusted metal bed frame beneath the windows, there’s a buffalo hide bundled to resemble a child’s body. Read the accompanying text panel, and you’ll learn that Stimson reclaimed the windows and bed frame from the Old Sun residential school in Alberta that his father attended as a boy.

Rebecca Belmore’s photograph Fringe is typical of the spirit that infuses the exhibition. It depicts the artist as a European-style odalisque, that is, a scantily clad woman of questionable virtue posed seductively on a divan.

It’s a trope in Western art history — especially popular, need I add, with male artists. It’s a trope that Belmore, while echoing, also subverts by lying with her back to the camera. An ugly scar slashes diagonally from her right shoulder to her left hip. Stitches are visible, so the wound is beginning to heal. But the injury, accentuated by strings of red beads dangling down like rivulets of blood, is still very raw.

The most confrontational work is (official denial) trade value in progress. The project was precipitated by an unbelievably ignorant assertion Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, when he declared at a press conference that Canada had no history of colonialism.

Leah Decter started the project in 2010. Decter is of Jewish ancestry, and she’s collaborating with Jamie Isaac on a fabric-based installation that’s been travelling throughout Canada. Harper’s quote is embossed on a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket that hangs from the gallery ceiling alongside other iconic striped-wool Bay blankets — which were a staple of the British fur trade under the royal-chartered HBC, by the way, and thus a potent symbol of colonization.

After viewing the installation, people are invited to record their thoughts in a notebook. Periodically, sewing actions are held where comments from the book are embroidered onto the blankets.

“Wow, this was after he apologized for forcibly taking aboriginal children from their parents and community,” reads one. “If we have no history of colonialism why aren’t white people in the reservation?” says another.

Good question, that. And it’s just one of many about western Canada’s colonial history that’s asked in the exhibition. So check it out if you want.