‘We are taking control of our own image’
From Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show to Spaghetti Westerns, Indigenous representation in performance has been staunchly stereotypical at best and outright ahistorical at worst.
Giving voice to a misrepresented population is one of the reasons why Michèle Thériault, director of the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, included Sovereign Acts II in this year’s programming. It’s a group show of contemporary Indigenous artists put together by Wanda Nanibush, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s first curator of Indigenous art.
The Ellen Gallery, which seeks to explore issues, tensions and changes that shape the society we live in, is also responding to a growing community at Concordia.
“As we’ve seen with past exhibitions that deal with Indigenous issues, there is an important discussion taking place at the university about authenticity and representation,” Thériault says.
“We’re working to include a greater Indigenous presence in our programming.”
Sovereign Acts was first presented in 2012 at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in Toronto as part of Nanibush's master’s degree program. It has since been augmented to include work by Concordia alumna Dayna Danger (MFA 15) and performance artist James Luna.
The exhibit looks at the history of Indigenous people, drawing on the depiction of the imaginary “Indian” when performing for colonial audiences.
‘We resist every act meant to contain us’
Artists Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Robert Houle, Shelley Niro, Adrian Stimson, Jeff Thomas, as well as Danger and Luna, contend with the legacy of colonial representations. Through images and video installations, they recover and construct new ways of illustrating the complexity of Indigenous cultures for a contemporary art audience.
Nanibush outlines how participating artists draw on the portrayal of “primitivism” in popular culture to recuperate the erased and objectified Indigenous performer as an ancestor and an artist.
“Sovereign Acts shows diversity in practices that take performance as a point of departure,” she says.
“Sovereignty is something performed partially through taking control of the construction and dissemination of our own image.”
As the curator notes, the exhibition’s title has a double meaning — it refers to both the autonomous status of Indigenous people in Canada and the fact that they are using the medium of performance. Their works are “acts” in the theatrical sense.
“We resist every act meant to contain us under the name ‘Indian.’ Performance art has another history in Indigenous performance traditions, ceremony and negotiations of stereotypes.”
Sovereign Act II is on view from January 21 to April 1 at Concordia’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery.
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