Much has appeared in the news lately about infrastructure on Indigenous reserves in Canada: the degraded water quality; isolation imposed by shoddy planning; rapidly degrading housing structures, about which a 2017 evaluation by the federal government deemed three-quarters of the housing stock on reserves to be merely “adequate.” Examples of careless and oppressive planning abound, if you’re looking: Shoal Lake 40, where residents have until recently been isolated on an archipelago surrounded by water for a century because of an imposed aqueduct system built to transport water to Winnipeg. In the news recently: residents from Wasagamack First Nation falling through thaw ice to get to their grocery store—which was similarly situated but on an actual island.
A road trip along the staggered side roads that hug the Trans Canada west of Ontario will take you through some of the numbered-treaty reserves of the prairies: housing seemingly dropped onto a bald landscape, void of trees, with an odd feeling of isolation resulting from decontextualized planning—communities purged from the busy and central economic artery of Highway 1.
Buildings matter, and can tell a story of either contextual purpose or haphazard malfeasance. Using the raw, off-cast building materials of flawed intent, Caroline Monnet’s works address both but also tell a story of positive responses and of renewed possibilities.
Currently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “Ninga Mìnèh,” Anishinaabemowin for “The Promise,” is a thoughtful exposition on the built environment and its utility as a possible vehicle for spiritual renewal. Ottawa-born, Montreal-based Monnet, of Anishinaabe and French descent, is a multimedia artist and filmmaker. All the works in “Ninga Mìnèh,” recently realized, encompass the language of building and its clashing cultural residues. Expedient contemporary building materials, like foam insulation panels, drywall, moisture barrier, fibreboard—ubiquitous stuff in the building of housing generally—form the physical and psychic substrate of the pieces.
One, The Future Left Behind, 2021, is a relief collage assembled from strips of air barrier membrane. The strips are stitched vertically to the backing to leave the individual vertical strips loose but closely bound, like feathers. The factory printing on the strips is left as is, revealing areas of red and black bunched up in active masses and breathing through the lyrically sculptural relief surface. While the didactic panel on the museum wall states that the strips were meant to move with the wind of passers-by (and one viewer I saw furtively tried to activate the piece by waving his hand across it unsuccessfully, there being no possibility of wind in a museum setting), the incidental imagery, broken up and activated by the gentle wave of forms, evoked the wind by its own static presence.
Another of these pieces using an air barrier (more or less a lighter, synthesized tar paper) had a transportation value of another kind. Strength in Numbers, 2020, a similarly assembled but horizontal and monochromatic piece, bristles in its overall composition, displaying a black, dull sheen and evoking a Resnick-like surface-activated minimalism, while bringing to mind the material itself in its discarded, natural state: the often-seen clumps of black membrane half-buried on a construction site, jerking and swaying with the wind. Bunched crows fluttering.
Monnet’s line from the material to the poetic is simply and effectively realized. In Resilient to the Bones, 2021, three blue polystyrene insulation panels are knit together by laser-cut Anishinaabe designs, creating a sculptural relief that atomizes the printed factory logos and safety instructions, integrating them as a dismembered, murmuring element.
A strident cultural voice merges with and transcends a once-tawdry material: Memories Unravelled, 2021, where a bold embroidered pattern based on these traditional designs neatly and mesmerizingly merges with synthetic roofing felt. Monnet lets the raw material be the material— a nod to the found object—but it is also an acknowledgment of the impact of that material in the lives of the residents of contemporary reserves, and imposes a suggested response.
Structures at the centre of the exhibition, in two parts—Pikogan (Shelter) and It Cracks with Light, both 2021—were made in collaboration with architectural designer Joseph Kalturnyk, who works with Manitoba Indigenous communities. A dome structure is configured with PVC plumbing pipe and copper. In It Cracks with Light a small maze of fibreboard, gypsum and insulating panels is imbued with patterns hewed through the panels. The structures seem like hybrid answers to cookiecutter building displays of model housing, usually seen in passing on a highway on the outskirts of town.
A strange sensation of failure pervades the material used: the photo work Pink Room 01–02, 2021, is an interior two-shot view of a spare bedroom: one with ill-fitted black window blinds, which reflect other black membrane works in the show; and another displaying a shot of pink insulation emerging from unfinished floorboards. A piece additional to the photographs, Havoc, 2021, is an assemblage of square pieces of gypsum-board, each patterned in Anishinaabe designs, infested with black mould and contained individually behind acrylic boxes. We are thankful, again, there is no wind in a museum.
We Shape Our Homes and Then Our Homes Shape Us, 2021, is a work that seems to set the exhibition’s tone. Pink sill gasket—a foam material that comes in strips and is used for insulation and an air/moisture barrier for joints between wood framing—is usually found on a construction site as unravelled and discarded jetsam (what is this stuff?) and is woven as a decorative element and sublimated to motif: a handy pink support for quilt design, with the repeated Anishinaabe patterning embroidered in and with the homey elegy asserting itself through the matrix. “Ninga Mìnèh” impresses the viewer as a promise but also as an assertion of spirit in the relentless, rapacious commercial culture that we have all succumbed to by expediency or circumstance. In an institution that has recently highlighted the historically dominant culture’s reading of Indigenous materials and works— as in the recent Picasso exhibition highlighting an African influence, or the concurrent one examining Riopelle’s absorption of Canadian Indigenous motifs—it’s revealing and creditable to see a museum displaying the mirror image of that approach. It’s an image that speaks back. ❚
“Ninga Mìnèh” was exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from April 21 to August 1, 2021.
Cameron Skene is a Canadian painter and writer based in Montreal.