On Not Walking With Our Sisters
Last November 24th, 2014 in Saskatoon, celebrated Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore declined to enter the “Walking With Our Sisters” exhibition of beaded moccasin vamps which memorialized murdered and missing Indigenous women. Belmore said she was not keen to experience “Walking With Our Sisters” because it meant having to pass through a protocol gauntlet that required women to put on a skirt and all to smudge—or refuse to do so—before entering the exhibition. She explained that she did not participate in ceremony and did not appreciate the gendering of the exhibition space.
Two days earlier, in Calgary, Cree curator and critical writer Richard W Hill challenged the use of clichéd and dubious signifiers of Indigeneity such as dreamcatchers; four sacred colour designs, and some of the teachings around that; and phrases such as “Turtle Island,” “Mother Earth,” “Great Spirit,” and the use of sweat lodges and tipis by people and in places not historically associated with those things. Of the many engaging and moving things said, shown and performed at the “Stronger Than Stone: (Re)Inventing the Indigenous Monument” conference (held in Calgary at ACAD, November 21–22, 2014 and at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon, November 23–24), these refusals were perhaps the most surprising and significant. They reveal perplexing issues in Indigenous cultural politics that are barely discussed in public—the challenge of the secular Native, and Indigenous criticism of Indigenous culture.
Belmore and Hill’s rebuff of contemporary traditionalism was shocking and elating. The pair rejected what most people—Indigenous and not—take as iconic signs and essential qualities of Indigeneity. And each gave principled reasons for doing so. In his talk, Hill asked that people reconsider displays that are either dubious in terms of their exclusively First Nations origins, or that reinforce the notion and practice of Indigenous identity as fixed, as bound to “blind imitation or mechanical ritual,” and instead focus on building on those traditions critically.
I know that Belmore, like many other Indigenous artists and thinkers, is not a traditionalist. But this fact is usually muffled. In public, secular First Nations, Inuit and Métis folks tend to be polite and reticent about their difference so as not to offend the faithful or, perhaps, disturb settler-projected expectations. Belmore’s open refusal and Hill’s public criticism was met with surprise and anxious excitement by many at the two venues.
As a Métis artist, curator and critical writer I, too, was shocked and elated, as much by the depth of feeling and thoughtfulness in these challenges and their reception, as by the fact that they occurred in public. This marks a positive but anxious shift in Indigenous public intellection. The risk is that by talking openly about internal Aboriginal differences we fracture our fragile solidarity. The gain is that these debates will serve to pull down what Hill characterizes as the false “monument” of Indigeneity: the inauthentic “signs of Indianness” that have been piled up and made into seeming “visible strengths that cover for serious cultural loses.” Hill recognizes that Indigenous people and world views do have something to offer, but that these contributions should be evaluated on their merits as sound concepts and ways of being rather than have their shadow forms be exoticized, protected and mummified as mere displays.
Moccasin Vamps, “Walking With Our Sisters,” January 2014. Courtesy G’zaagin Art Gallery/West Parry Sound Museum.
At the base of every contemporary society is a tension between materialism and metaphysics; between those who believe that matter is all that exists and those who believe in a reality immanent in, or exceeding, the physical. Of course, few of us are so exclusive. Believers of both sorts have doubts. The faithful puzzle over the enormous range of competing accounts offered by other religious traditions. And they struggle with the place of personal revelation when it contradicts dogma, and the fact of the confident infidel, and successful secular societies. Materialists are disturbed by how the founding axioms of their deepest knowledge are as fragile and indefensible as religious beliefs. They are also surprised at how language is haunted by metaphysics, how it has them ascribe intentions to entities and forces such as history, the public, the self, the market, works of art and so on; and how the irresistible habit of metaphor resembles magical thinking. Indigenous people are no different.
There are, as Hill is quick to point out, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who know their language, histories and ceremonies, and were raised in their territories. But they are few. And, thanks to generations of aggressive assimilation, even these ways of knowing and being are not innocent of colonial influence. Most Aboriginal people live in cities, many are Christians; some are even Buddhists. Many are not only non-spiritual but also non-traditional. What does it mean to be secular, urban, without your language and traditional culture, and still be Aboriginal? Are we merely the effect of racism? These are the sorts of questions Hill wants us to answer through authentic recovery and innovative performance rather than recourse to generic spectacles of Indianness.
For the most part, the dominant contemporary art world is secular. Participating artists are generally required to either repress their metaphysical beliefs or actually be materialists if they want to signify in that realm. Until recently, the opposite was true of Indigenous art worlds. In these satellite spheres the assumption was that everything was also spiritual. The Modernists (Fauves, Surrealists, Freud, Jung, Picasso, Pollock…) derived pleasure and meaning from Indigenous art by consuming it as if it were unadulterated messages from civilization’s unconscious. They read Indigenous art and people as exotic shadow repositories of Western cultural lack, loss and repression: animism, naturalism, collectivism (tribalism), etc.
So what is a contemporary Indigenous artist to do? If you make art that evokes or embodies the numinous you seem to accept and perform dominant cultural projections and expectations. But avoiding the spiritual may mean turning your back on your cultural traditions and people in order to pass into the secular. There seems to be no tenable position beyond playing the exotic Other, or assimilation.
This paradox is played out most dramatically in Australia. The wildly popular art made by rural, non-degreed Aboriginal artists there—Papunya artists being the most internationally celebrated—is a completely separate enterprise from what the mostly urban, MFA-ed Indigenous artists engage in. Perhaps the most important distinction is that the first group (by far the most numerous) makes lots and lots of art but does not participate in public critical discourse—they don’t write about or curate it. While both groups are almost exclusively managed by settler folks and markets, there are notable recent exceptions in terms of curation (Tess Allas, Brenda Croft, Jonathan Jones, Bruce McLean, Djon Mundine, Hetti Perkins, etc.). Urban artists participate not only in the Indigenous art world but also in the larger international art world and its discourses.
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