Joseph Tisiga’s multidisciplinary practice is at once enigmatic and forthright, fantastical and banal. In interviews, he has spoken of giving mythic shape to what might otherwise be too concretely described as the legacy of colonialism—the complex of psychological, social, economic and cultural challenges facing Indigenous people today. He has also said that his work is underlain by a kind of “sublime nothingness” that stems from his experience of Whitehorse, the place he moved to in his youth and where he is still based. “It’s the core of banality, for me,” he told Momus in 2016, “the way it’s been represented by, say, Samuel Beckett.”
A persistent element of surreal banality was certainly evident in Tisiga’s big solo exhibition, “Tales of an Empty Cabin: Somebody Nobody Was …,” at the Audain Art Museum this past winter and spring. So was a deep investment in storytelling. Works included watercolours, oil paintings, performance photographs, collages, assemblages and a large-scale installation composed of a very particular species of found objects. The installation and the most recent assemblages, mounted on large squares of artificial turf, were created on-site at the museum. They represented a new way of working for this artist, who has spoken with regret of an urban childhood estranged from his Kaska Dene heritage. Much of Tisiga’s art appears to investigate that lost heritage and to search out a place for himself in the world while also registering its discontents. In the accompanying catalogue, Tisiga writes, “The exhibition’s themes are consistent with what I’ve been doing: exploring ambivalent identity constructions, spiritual amnesia and the effect of displacement.”
Related to these issues are conflicted notions of authenticity and appropriation. The show’s title is a reference to a book by Grey Owl, a.k.a. Archie Belaney, the English writer and lecturer who immigrated to Canada in 1906 and assumed a First Nations identity and pseudonym. In hindsight, it is easy to deplore his sustained act of cultural and personal duplicity (which, among other things, included bigamy). Still, as Grey Owl, Belaney was also a naturalist and an early conservationist, callings that confuse and complicate our impulse toward outright dismissal. Some of this confusion was conveyed in photographs from Tisiga’s 2009 performance, also titled Tales of an Empty Cabin. Set in an abandoned, cheaply constructed and, yes, banal office building in Whitehorse, the performance suggests a kind of quest. Tisiga, in a First Nations jacket adorned with fur and pearly buttons, is seen peering into cupboards and drawers. He also takes on cleaning tasks, as if he were a janitor, as if he were not only trying on an uncomfortable role but cleaning up after the previous occupants of the space. Perhaps erasing them.
Another series of performance photographs is realized large scale, screened onto panels, hand tinted, and perversely retaining the clear plastic wrapping used in shipping the works to the museum. Collectively titled “No Home in Scorched Earth,” the images in some instances depict Tisiga holding a large ceremonial spoon, a walking stick and a measuring stick while moving through a wooded landscape devastated by wildfire. Such scenes serve as apt metaphors for colonial destruction of Indigenous lands and livelihoods throughout the Americas, along with attempts at territorial reclamation. The large size and staged actions of these pieces allude—seemingly ironically—to the so-called Vancouver school of photography, whose proponents have achieved international fame and fortune.
The Vancouver school is a far cry from Tisiga’s own existence, at least until now, as he has been fitting his art practice around his community work with at-risk Indigenous youth in Whitehorse. The social inequities and intergenerational traumas he has witnessed in his everyday vocation have found impassioned expression in his art, not directly or realistically but, again, reshaped as mysterious and unsettling narratives whose plots, Tisiga tells us, are driven by conflict. Also on view are large collages that reduce images of all kinds of material culture— from contemporary Inuit carvings to baroque European furniture—to a wallpaper-like greyness, flatness and sameness. They are banality itself, drained of life and meaning.
A sense of leftover or depleted cultural significance also characterizes “The Benevolence of Nomadic Ancestors,” the series of assemblages Tisiga created on-site for the show. Foundational here are large squares of artificial turf, which symbolize the land in the guise not only of a patch of denatured land but also of diminished territorial claims. Adhering to these squares are a variety of unexpected found and altered objects, from animal skins and wooden carvings to cigarette lighters, honeycombs and a feathered baseball bat. Most successful of this series are the “maps,” whose lines, circles, step forms and Xs are laid out in strands of what look, from a distance, like bone beads but are, on closer inspection, fake cigarette butts cast in plaster. Funny and unsettling.
Again scrutinizing identity construction, and serving as a kind of bookend to the Grey Owl works, is Tisiga’s installation made in response to the compulsive pseudo- Indigenous output of Oliver Jackson. Born in England in 1899, Jackson moved to the British Columbia city of Kelowna in the late 1920s and lived there until his death in 1982. Throughout this time, his consuming occupation was the making and displaying of “Indigenous” art and artifacts; still, he never pretended that anything he made was authentic.
Tisiga’s installation consisted of a large wall tent, symbolic of settler-mining culture in the Yukon, roughly housing hundreds of Jackson’s works. These are works that reveal a sincere desire to replicate aspects of Indigenous material cultures without fully understanding the diverse nations they supposedly reference. Instead, these objects suggest a homogeneous and stereotypical notion of “Indianness” that ranges across the North Pacific coast to the Plains and the American Southwest. On view was everything from feathered headdresses and embroidered moccasins to feast bowls, masks, rattles, knife sheaths, cradleboards, beaded bags, deerskin clothing and “Kachina” dolls. Particularly alarming were little plastic dolls—children’s toys— outfitted with miniature “Indian” garments, the dolls’ pale skin crudely painted a deep reddish-brown.
Again, it would be easy to condemn Jackson’s pseudo-Indian assumptions and appropriations, but Tisiga’s project is more complex than that. He cites the facts that Jackson was producing all these objects at a time when Indigenous peoples were forbidden to, and that local First Nations borrowed his costumes and accoutrements for regattas and parades. In a very real sense, Jackson was helping to preserve cultural knowledge that might otherwise have been lost. In the exhibition, a statement from the institution that now houses Jackson’s thousands of works, the Snc wips Heritage Museum of the Westbank First Nation, asserts, “Today we are reclaiming our heritage by readdressing the Oliver Jackson collection, not to offend but to utilize as a learning tool to better understand the difference between appropriation and appreciation.”
Tisiga’s watercolours and oil paintings were well represented in all their puzzling and uncomfortable strangeness, their persistent surreality. Many of them depict supernatural narratives, either based on the Kaska story of the culture hero Dzohdié, or on Tisiga’s own imaginative fictions. The historical and the contemporary, the man-made and the mechanistic, the beguiling and the monstrous, the sublime and the banal, all contend for narrative supremacy in the watercolours. These works have received much critical and curatorial acclaim, and remain compelling, possibly because they are so stylistically distinctive while telling symbolically resonant tales. And they are tales, indeed—less from an empty cabin than from a brain teeming with images, ideas and strategies for the making, unmaking and remaking of cultural identity. ❚
“Joseph Tisiga: Tales of an Empty Cabin” was exhibited at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, BC, from February 16 to May 6, 2019.
Robin Laurence is a Vancouver-based writer, curator and contributing editor to Border Crossings.