In the Flesh: Four Aboriginal Artists Examine Our Relationship with Nature
This summer’s indigenisation of Ottawa’s cultural stage seems perfectly in step with the centennial celebrations for the first Canadian Arctic Expedition. One hundred years ago, with the mission to explore its northern boundaries, Canada embarked on a voyage of discovery not only of new lands, flora, and fauna, but also of indigenous peoples and cultures that have ultimately shaped the country’s identity. Through a century-long osmotic process, it is obvious that Canada is now ready to proudly show off its multifaceted cultural profile, while confidently staging the largest global survey of contemporary Indigenous art ever.
Our relationship with our environment is at the heart of Indigenous artistic output; the monumental installation by Greenlandic artist Inuk Silis Høegh entitled Illuliaq (Iceberg) that caps the National Gallery’s Great Hall—a whimsical addition to Ottawa’s summer skyline—very powerfully sets the tone for the impressively massive exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art within. On a more intimate scale, the Ottawa Art Gallery joins this theme with In the Flesh, showcasing the work of four Canadian artists of Indigenous heritage, who, according to exhibition curator Ola Wlusek, deal with the ‘hierarchical relationship between humans and animals’.
Most literally in holding with the title of the exhibition is the work of Meryl McMaster, whose large format photographic self-portraits feature her in various natural landscapes, dressed in costumes inspired by her mixed Indigenous and European heritage. In two instances within the series In-Between Worlds, the artist is portrayed in a garment elaborately ornamented with pinecone seeds; in Victoria, the red splatters on the pristine whiteness of fresh snow unmistakably allude to the end of a bloody hunt, whereas in Brumal Tattoo the subtext of the drum is somewhat more ambiguous. Spiritual, ceremonial dances might come to mind, with the drum being played in the middle of the circle as the heartbeat of the tribe, while in a European military context its beat serves to set the tempo of battle. As ‘identities collide and mix’, McMaster allows the lens to capture the essence of her performances, with the hunting ground always as the backdrop. By creating ‘sculptural extensions of her body’, she animates dreamlike settings that spark recollections of mythological creatures from distant lands (Wingeds Calling) or poignantly address current issues and practices (Aphoristic Currents), with equal ease.
While McMaster’s camera captures fictitious tableaux set in the outdoors, Brad Isaacs infiltrates the cold storage rooms of natural history museums to expose the changing institutional priorities with regard to animal specimens. While, in all likelihood, highly treasured at the time of their acquisition, these collections of hides have, for the most part, remained in obscurity for an entire century, until Isaacs requested permission to photograph them. With these still-life images—reminiscent of Rembrandt or Caravaggio—the artist calls to our attention the shifting landscape of museological practices, namely, the avarice with which these pelts were once collected, the minimum attention they receive from researchers and visitors alike, and yet, the continued sense of reverence with which they are treated. Camera in hand, Isaacs assumes the role of ‘hunter’ inside museums’ storage rooms and challenges this ‘quintessential cultivator of manliness’ by sharing with the public the decidedly ‘fleshless’ and bizarre ‘trophies’ of his hunt. In juxtaposition to the animal hides captured behind the scenes of Canada’s Nature Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum is a set of diorama images taken at the American Museum of Natural History, highlighting the disparity between exhibitable and non-exhibitable objects in museum collections more generally, as well as the accessibility of such objects to researchers and the public. In the cleverly titled piece Tell Me Your Name, the viewer/exhibit roles are challenged, allowing the animals, of which only the legs and part of their bodies are visible, to initiate a guessing game as to the viewer’s identity.
The two ends of the exhibition’s longitudinal axis feature works by Dana Claxton and Lance Belanger respectively; both artists question western ‘luxury’ practices, though each through distinctly different approaches. Claxton’s mixed media installation Buffalo Bone China links the decimation of the buffalo to British production of fine bone china during colonial times. The two components of her installation, a video projection and a mass of broken china arranged in a circle on the floor, are in a compelling dialogue with one another, the most powerful aspect of which is the emotion-provoking contrast between the brunt of the buffalo herd stampede—made all the more poignant by the black-and-white footage that easily overtakes the empty space of the dark room—and the delicacy and finesse of the lustrous surface and floral patterns of the brightly lit china fragments piled on the floor. Yet, from a technical standpoint, the ceiling-mounted spotlights far from accentuate the characteristic translucency of bone china; conversely, an internally lit base would have communicated this quality much more effectively. Nevertheless, the allusion to an altar—on which the buffalo-for-china sacrifice is, albeit conceptually, reversed—bears a most powerful symbolism. While the fragments are the aftermath of a previous performance piece by the same title, the circle itself is evocative of the Lakota Ghost Dance, bringing peace to this disconcerting part of the artist’s tribe history. Ironically, the very practice of mass killing buffalo, for which the artist accuses the colonists, was also an integral part of Plains People’s way of life for nearly 6,000 years, as memorialised at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta, Canada.
Finally, Lance Belanger’s work is aptly mounted at the ‘antipode’ of this exhibition; not only is it physically positioned opposite Claxton’s black box gallery, but it is further set apart from the other participants by a dark purple accent wall. However intentionally, this subtle curatorial intervention effectively underscores an elemental difference between Belanger’s approach and the other three artists, who engage in self-identity exploration, institutional critique, and ritual healing of traumas past. His untitled polar bear fur, stretched within a dark wood frame with ornate bronze faux-gilt trimmings, leaves the viewer suspended between perceiving it as a mockery—of both the hunting trophy and its significance as an object of Western culture, and the opulence associated with gilding—and a crucifix of sorts. The martyric position of the bearskin, coupled with the cross formed by the ornamental carvings in the middle of each of the frame’s four sides, not only echoes the crucifix formally, but also transforms the museum experience into a pilgrimage. Imposing by nature in scale, the bear fur converts the narrow wall of the gallery into another altarpiece.
Overall, In the Flesh conveys an aboriginal perspective that is decidedly contemporary. With the footprint of human endeavor bearing down heavily on the environment and irreversibly disturbing the natural order, the artists tap into these contemporary concerns, addressing them with unmistakable confidence and originality, and effectively conveying their viewpoints by employing distinctly Western codes. The result is both a characteristically Canadian approach to constructive criticism and a celebration of the convergence of Indigenous and Western aesthetic vocabularies; the Ottawa Art Gallery is both the venue and the avenue for this stimulating cultural dialogue.
In the Flesh conveys an aboriginal perspective that is decidedly contemporary. With the footprint of human endeavor bearing down heavily on the environment and irreversibly disturbing the natural order, the artists tap into these contemporary concerns, addressing them with unmistakable confidence and originality, and effectively conveying their viewpoints by employing distinctly Western codes. The result is both a characteristically Canadian approach to constructive criticism and a celebration of the convergence of Indigenous and Western aesthetic vocabularies; the Ottawa Art Gallery is both the venue and the avenue for this stimulating cultural dialogue.
By Kelley Tialiou