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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

History Lesson

Bart Gazzola
Published Thursday August 7, 05:22 pm
Two aboriginal art exhibits challenge the accepted narrative


Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Saskatoon is Treaty 6 territory: an “agreement between the Crown and the Plain and Wood Cree, Assiniboine, and other Indian tribes at Fort Carlton, Pitt and Battle River. The area agreed upon by the Plain and Wood Cree represents most of the central area of the current provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.”

But to many (like our wonderful prime minister of the moment) the history of Saskatoon excludes this. It’s telling, what’s excised from our social capital narratives (a fancy term for the lies we tell ourselves about where/how we live). People have visited Wanuskewin for thousands of years, and that’s a good thought to hold onto as you visit the two shows I mention here.

It’s a site I should visit more frequently, both in my role as an art critic and as a citizen of Saskatchewan. The gallery spaces are (in a technical and formal sense) excellent, and with the recent run of curated exhibitions by Felicia Gay, we’re seeing significant artists and works in those spaces.

Selected works from the U of S collection, highlighting aboriginal artists, occupies the larger gallery space. There’s also a two-person show, Oksun, featuring Adrian Stimson and Michel Boutin. Stimson’s “Buffalo Boy” persona has offered truth through humour, and Boutin’s work also dances in the political sphere. Being a Métis artist, Boutin is as familiar with the exclusiveness of “official narratives” as Stimson is.

The works in the collections show are from more “traditional” artists, like Norval Morrisseau, but it also doesn’t shy from the political, and several works speak to contemporary issues.

Allen Clarke’s gestural painting is titled “The Way it is — Isn’t It?” It’s the Kelly Block-style stereotype of the wealthy, crooked Chief who dispenses bits and pieces of his largess to the “serfs” on the rest of the reserve. (Block is the local Conservative MP well known for her focus on legislation concerning “accountability” on reserves, while being part of a government whose re-election slogan could be, “RCMP have found no basis to prosecute — yet…”)

Gerald McMaster’s “Making a Buck”, with sports and business logos, reminds viewers of the recent controversy over Bedford Road High School’s “Redmen” name. The double standard brings to mind a project facilitated by Leanne L’hirondelle, with “contemporary” sports logos like the Atlanta White Devils (with KKK garb), Imperial LandGrabbers, Cleveland Honkies and Vatican City’s Pope ‘n’ Pedophiles. Suddenly not so funny when it’s your group that’s being stereotyped, is it?

It’s ironic that in the collections show, the works dealing with contemporary issues are strongest. This paradox continues, as Boutin and Stimson are taking a more introspective, backwards-looking view in Oksun.

In the curator’s words: “Oskun (ĹŚ skun) is Swampy Cree for bone. [The] work is located in the realm of the Plains economy and land, whether it is the utilization of the buffalo or agricultural practices. [The artists] utilize the institution of history relaying it to visual signifiers that point out historical narratives and at the same moment connects to our present socio-political reality.

Oksun explores “bone” from various stances. In “Bones #1” by Stimson, they’re the detritus of shameless plunder. It’s a warning echoed in his small “nuclear” landscapes that speak to current ideas of terra nullius, where resource extraction trumps all, with no eye to the future.

Boutin uses actual bones in several works that possess an almost religious bent, with blistering satire also on display. “Convergent Histories” is an example of this: you could call them landscape, but the sites aren’t a Group-of-Seven, pristine site ready to be raped — ahem, I mean, realized — into a “petro state” ideal.

It’s a history I cited earlier, where people and their nations have lived here for thousands of years. The crosses and the animals — whether living (like the bird) or existing. Markers (like the skull) in “Four Crosses for Four Corners” also speak to an ownership of a place. It’s indicative of a legacy, an older narrative, and that the ancestors are buried here, and their bones are here, to prove this.

Both exhibitions work well in terms of the history that has been written, erased and rewritten, in this contested site of Saskatchewan. The value of the works, to steal Felicia Gay’s words again, “lies within the insistence to be included in the Canadian national imaginary.”

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