Endless clichés are encountered when a dominant culture casts only a vague glance at a dominated culture, and these clichés serve the purpose of keeping a little-understood situation tucked into two convenient dimensions. The current show in the Grand Gallery of the Memorial Art Gallery explores the ways in which contemporary Indigenous artists from the Northeastern and Southeastern regions of the United States and Canada are creating works that interpret or redefine traditional media, blend traditional and contemporary subject matter, and seek to define identity for themselves amid questions of cultural assimilation.
Many voices are represented in the 140 works of "Changing Hands," with various motivations for creating art. The exhibit is divided into three categories by color. Green-coded objects represent examples of where an artist has used natural materials, at times paired with man-made objects, or has represented elements of nature within their work. Blue-coded works indicate the artist created new work based on material, technical, and formal knowledge from cultural heritage. And red-coded works include many politically and socially nuanced works that "contrast the realities of Indigenous history with the mythology of cultural assimilation," per the info card.
Traditional stories may be reinvented symbolically, as in "Birds" by Hannah Claus. In this work, bits of cloudy sky printed on many small oval papers shift gently over one another, suspended from a grid on the ceiling, representing the waterfowl rising to break the fall of Sky Woman, who is part of a Haudenosaunee creation story. The clouds also represent "many possibilities: community, memory, and the transience of time," says the artist in a provided statement.
Skawennati's "Hunter Mega-Figurine (prototype)" is a toy that represents a character from the "TimeTravellerTM" project (represented here in a 10-minute digital animation video of episode 5), which tells the story of an angry young Mohawk man of the 22nd Century who embarks on "technologically enhanced" virtual-reality vision quests and immerses himself in events featuring his ancestors. This fascinating and educational program is a great concept for teaching kids about the complexity of history through the animation medium.
Mixed-media artist Leah Shenandoah calls herself a "radical compassionist in a world filled with suffering," and creates elegant adornments that combine Native American aesthetic and contemporary design which are meant to serve as "tools for healing, manifestation, and enlightenment." Her gorgeously constructed "Haute Couture Hood" of rabbit skin and downy fur, satin, shimmering silver beads covered in rich patterning, pearls, and feathers appears suited for a queen and shows undeniably that beauty is always powerful medicine.
Where it addresses the social issues of Indigenous descendants in contemporary American and Canadian culture, much of the artwork explores the complexity of creating and maintaining a dual Native and modern American/Canadian identity. One of the most playful yet intellectual examples of this struggle is the series of works and video installation by Greg A. Hill. Several traditional articles of clothing and objects are constructed of cereal boxes, cleverly linking the "skins" of what is consumed by the modern consumer with the practical use of skins in the past.
"I first began using this material when I was a university student attempting to create a zero-waste lifestyle as part of an eco-art project," says the artist in a provided statement. Hill proves the usefulness of his constructions in "Portaging Rideah, Paddling the Ottawa to Kanata," a short video that follows him as he carries a full-size cereal-box canoe through buildings and sidewalks, then paddles it down a waterway to plant an altered version of the Canadian flag.
But some of the art serves as the pulsing, oozing memories of old wounds. The intricately beaded "Come, see real flowers of this painful world," by Marguerite Houle, speaks of stolen land that was wasted and polluted by those who seized it. Other works tell the story of forced assimilation, of children being punished for speaking their Native language. Robert Houle's "Sandy Bay Indian Residential School" includes symbolic paintings representing memories of fear and trauma in six Ahnisnabewin words, and his accompanying statement speaks of his personal experience with "confinement, indoctrination, and humiliation," and his "privilege and responsibility" of using those words in this exhibition.
Works by Kent Monkman make fun of the idea, encouraged by photographer and filmmaker Edward Curtis and his ilk, that Natives were incapable of or entirely resistant to modernizing and were fading away into oblivion. His part in the show includes a video installation, "Shooting Geronimo," which spoofs on Hollywood's and Curtis's attempts to direct 20th Century Native people to fit a stereotypical role that both denied the true identity of modern Natives while depicting their alleged disappearance.
Also included are some cheeky adornments by Monkman for his gender-bending alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, through whom the artist "confronts colonized sexuality" and exposes "the colorful, but repressed sexual diversity present in pre-contact North America," per the provided statement.
Two lingering, disturbing themes represented in the show are warnings about issues that impact us all directly — climate change and our increasingly surveillance-dominated culture. The former is represented in works such as "Prophecy II" by Samuel Thomas, a gold-beaded sculpture depicting the waters of Niagara Falls running backward, which touches on profound wrongs being answered by an angry force of Nature.
The latter category is depicted in works such as "Techno-Wiindigo 3.5," a monolithic, binary beast by Stephen Wall, which alludes to the story of a seductive yet murderous spirit, while commenting on how "surveillance technology is seducing people into a false sense of security while taking away their privacy and freedoms," per the provided statement. Take it from the descendants of a dominated people: sometimes "progress" isn't progress at all.