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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Perfect Goodbye

Bart Gazzola
Published Thursday April 30, 07:07 pm
The Fifth World exemplifies everything excellent about the Mendel

Runs to June 7

The Fifth World, an exhibition curated by Wanda Nanibush celebrating TRIBE’s 20th anniversary (the first of a series of commemorative shows and events), is wonderfully prescient as the last major Mendel exhibition. TRIBE, a centre for evolving aboriginal media, visual and performing arts, has redefined the artistic landscape here in Treaty 6 territory, and, quoting Nanibush, has served as a model for aboriginal organizations and actions — and especially artists — across Canada, and beyond.

Nanibush’s use of the term “Fifth World” plays upon that idea of change and growth — whether that be in the formation of “separate” spaces, or in demanding space within established organizations like the Mendel. “Our artists already live in the Fifth World…honouring the change already underway”: the continuing influence of Idle No More pervades this show, as it does the space outside the gallery.

But while it resonates with political intent and the weight of history, The Fifth World is also one of the more beautiful exhibitions ever to inhabit this space. Nicholas Galanin’s “I Dreamt I Could Fly” is that rare work that breaks expectations in its installation and makes the entire space stronger and more nuanced. Nanibush spoke of it exemplifying, in its fragility, a frustration with the bureaucracy of Canada as a colonial project, dealing with rules defined by others for the benefit of the same. These are arrows that would shatter when they hit the wall, and in their destruction speak of a politics of recognition around the futility of some “acts.”

Meryl McMaster’s “Murmur” and “Aphoristic Currents” are both fine examples of performative photography. In the former, “birds” cut out of history books form a murmuration around the artist, enveloping and circling, like a mist or a restraint. In “Currents”,she seems more likely to drown in the ragged circling of newspapers (perhaps an allegory for the less-than-rigorous or -truthful narratives constructed around aboriginal history, or aboriginal women, put forth by the dominant social narrative). An aphorism, incidentally, is defined as a “pithy observation that contains a general truth”…

Galanin’s floor work (contrasting his delicate ceramic arrows overhead) is “The American Dream is Alive and Well”. The “bearskin” rug, with “claws” made of 50-calibre bullets and golden teeth, with flags in lieu of fur, is all about how this place was / is seen as a thing to own, to exploit or to make a few rich. Jordan Bennett’s exquisite “Artifact Bags”, emblazoned with logos from Giant Tiger to The Bay, are made of elk, moose or deer hides, and roughed up to be made “appropriate” for museum display. Nanibush’s words: “Consumerism has consumed Indigenous people and the earth for centuries. Our culture is treated as a commodity while the West may leave behind only plastic bags and consumer product trash.”

After attending Stronger Than Stone: (Re) Inventing the Indigenous Monument last fall, certain ideas have been percolating, offering clear and concise thought to the situations at play in Treaty 6, or the halls of power that birthed Bill C-51. One of these is an idea put forth by James (Sakej) Youngblood Henderson in the panel discussion “Mother Tongues: How does language shape public space?” He spoke of the fracture between written and oral narratives (in a non-aboriginal / aboriginal frame) being about ownership. The Western fetishization of written deeds is about who owns or controls, and thus is as much about who doesn’t and whose voice is silenced.

The exhibition occupies the back gallery space, as well as the hallway space preceding it. Skeena Reece’s “Transmissions from Raven: On the Colonial Fleet” is what you encounter first before you loop through the back gallery. But her “aesthetic of resistance” also stretches along the interstitial hallway to Scott Benesiinaabandan’s “Mii Omaa Ayaad / Oshiki Inendemowin (someone was here / new thoughts)”.

Both illustrate the universality of “Empire” in the colonial project, here or Australia, and how this is not new or an isolated event. These acts of resistance have been happening for 500 years, restaging a struggle manifest in border crossings, blockades and various sites of contested narratives. Language is everything: whether spoken of as a “terrorist” or as someone protecting their community from external invasion, the words are not neutral. During my visits, it’s been fascinating to watch the denizens of School Art move through and interact with World: this juxtaposition is also appropriate to the Mendel’s final set of exhibitions. I encountered a teacher and student, enraptured by “Raven”, with the former speaking of Oka.

There’s a diversity of geography when it comes to the artists here, with a loose focus on emerging / mid-career artists, many of them new to a prairie audience. Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ “Marrow Curl”are “talismans of identity” both inviting and repulsive in their tactile teasing. Ursula Johnson’s “L’nuwelti’k (We Are Indian)”continues her insightful investigations we saw with Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember) at the College Gallery, about the implicit yet implacable politics of the colonial state that is Canada. Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, in a poem commissioned for the exhibition also brings a personal narrative (besides demonstrating the diversity of media at play): “I realize that the stories / that flit up and down my street / over the snow and through all our houses / they only belong to us if we tell them.”

Nanibush also mentions how “Fifth World also refers to the Hopi prophecy of an impending choice between violence and destruction or thinking with our hearts in harmony with nature.” This is what the show leaves you with, requiring repeat visits and consideration of which world we inhabit, and our own hand in that choice. That the show is political is a given, as art is inseparable from these struggles.

Nor should it be: The Fifth World is, in many ways, a perfect final show for the Mendel, as it asks where we’re going more than considers where we’ve been.


In the midst of writing this, I realized I’d never write another review of a Mendel exhibition; it was an obvious fact, but it hit me like a hammer.

Many exhibitions defined the MAG as one of Canada’s finest public galleries: some looked elsewhere (Attila Lukacs or Eric Fischl), while others built upon “here” (Ruth Cuthand, Clint Neufeld).

Two anecdotes that illustrate the Mendel’s invaluable legacy: when Ed Poitras was Canada’s first aboriginal representative to the Venice Biennale, the Mendel already possessed many of his works — while the National Gallery didn’t. At its best, the Mendel manifested this sense of place, vision and value. Hell, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s solo Mendel show An Indian Act: An Indian Shooting the Indian Act wouldn’t have happened even at most artist-run centres.

Second, a personal joy was being a part of the ReWilding Modernity panel: argumentative and incisive in the best ways, and very much about the Mendel’s own history and relevance. It felt like being a part of that was truly being part of this place.

So ave atque vale (hail and farewell), Mendel: we sometimes disagreed (oh, the karaoke modernism…): but I’ve (rarely) regretted calling Saskatoon home with your rare, brave position in this site of contested narratives.

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