In 1992, the world celebrated--or at least acknowledged--the quincentennial of America's discovery by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. During that glorious year, open season was declared on good ol' Chris and on those who followed in his wake. European conquerors were enthusiastically pressed into service for target practice by artists who aimed at (and, for the most part, missed) memorializing the devastation European colonization wrought. Deluged by unremitting waves of rapacious Europeans, Native Americans suffered and are still suffering the consequences of this encounter, as even those of us with only one neuron still firing willingly concede.
And so, unfortunately, is the museumgoing public.
Don't be seduced by the slick, four-color, hardbound catalogue that accompanies "Indigena: Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples on Five Hundred Years," Heard Museum's latest exhibition of contemporary work, this one by Canadian artists "of aboriginal ancestry."
And don't be influenced by the fact that the show was created especially for the Canadian Museum of Civilization and sponsored by the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry, the Visual Arts Section of the Canadian Council, the Indian Art Centre, and the Inuit Art Section.
The Canadian artists whose work appears in "Indigena" fare no better than their American predecessors in grappling with this tired subject. Most of their work falls as flat as all the other stuff with which we were unmercifully besieged two years ago, stuff dutifully cranked out to appease the insatiable gods of political correctness and historical revisionism. It's not just that this exhibition is as stale as a two-year-old Triscuit in its subject matter. It's so rabidly didactic that it goes beyond the merely irritating. And most of it is painfully predictable.
The exhibition's heavily credentialed Native American curators, Gerald McMaster and Lee-Ann Martin, beat us about the head and shoulders with self-evident historical fact masquerading unsuccessfully as art. McMaster and Martin apparently haven't figured out that just because something is painted on canvas, it isn't necessarily art.
Themes of domination, exploitation and cultural spoliation are intoned ad nauseam. We quickly become habituated to these smugly moralizing indictments, and what may have been meant to be elucidating and elevating ultimately becomes meaningless.
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Four acrylics on canvas by Rick Rivet are typical of the show's approach. According to an artist's statement, which sounds vaguely like something left over from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Rivet ". . . confronts the idea of colonial history as a 'common lie' perpetrated by colonial capitalist imperialists with the idea of dominating and subjugating aboriginal people everywhere." What that really means is that Rivet has painted all the historical bad guys responsible for all the horrible things that have happened to indigenous people. In "Custer #1," the target is George Armstrong Custer, (1839-1876), the American general who, with his troops, was killed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In "Legacy," it's a boar-faced Spanish conquistador wending his way through a field of skulls. In "Wounded Knee #2," Rivet has rounded up an assortment of villains and gathered them around an open grave beside a pile of dead bodies. Adolf Hitler, a hooded Ku Klux Klan member, Joseph Stalin (maybe--I can't really tell), more conquistadors and a Canadian Mountie stand around, planning their next genocidal act, I suppose. While this may be a comprehensive history lesson, it isn't art. One of the most annoying things about the work in "Indigena" is the tedious overuse of words and text. The artists employing this overwrought device apparently believe the viewer is incapable of supplying meaning to their work without verbal signposts. Kenny and Rebecca Baird's "Heartland" is one of the worst offenders in the word-and-text department. This semiarc of tall, patinated monoliths set in sand against a star-spangled backdrop was stripped of any mystery by the artists' branding these potentially preternatural monuments with the words "thirst," "storm," "turn," "home," "share," "heal," "honour" and "spirit." What could have been a thought-provoking piece ended up reeking of New Age hocus-pocus.
Bob Boyer really muddies the water by marking each of the three large canvases in his "Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto" with the German word verdrangung. According to the curators, this means ". . . displacement and repression as a form of psychological warfare against minorities [used] to refer to the oppression of the native peoples of the Americas." Like the majority of my fellow countrymen, I barely get by in English, so why confuse me with German?
And Joane Cardinal-Schubert apparently can't make up her mind whether she wants to be a visual artist (Alexis Smith, she ain't) or a writer when she grows up. An inordinate amount of verbiage and mediocre poetry is incorporated into her mixed-media installation. I would suggest she find an editor with a very sharp blue pencil. The most successful pieces in this show avoid the conspicuous, relying instead on the unspoken and the obscure. But they still convey thought-provoking impressions about European concepts of boundaries, both physical and spiritual, imposed on native peoples. Eric Robertson's "Bearings and Demeanours" contains an ambiguous, yet powerful, collection of objects of copper, brass and steel displayed in spare elegance. Inverted, funnel-shaped copper objects, we are told, represent hats worn by Northwest Coast tribes for potlatches, lavish ceremonial events during which the designated host was required by custom to give valuable gifts to attendees. (Interestingly, by the end of the 19th century, this ritualistic practice was used to bankrupt enemies.) Beneath these funnels hang steel boxes on which are mounted metal ravens' beaks holding shiny steel spheres; under these, the artist has placed a precise row of steel collars from which surveying chains hang, like prison irons. Even without any awareness of the historical context to which the artist is alluding, we can appreciate the forceful beauty and intent of Robertson's piece.
Lance Belanger's two mixed-media pieces, "Taino Memorial" and "Lithic Spheres," are tributes to the Tainos, an extinct tribe of Arawak people that once lived in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. Within 50 years of the arrival of the Spanish, the tribe had been wiped from the face of the Earth. In Belanger's "Spheres," a mound of gold and silver spheres is bounded by pieces of a massive gold frame which appears to be bursting apart. The work makes reference to the Tainos' practice of being buried with mysterious stone spheres, the significance of which is still a matter of conjecture among scientists. As a general rule, Heard Museum's ethnographic exhibitions far outshine its contemporary shows, including this one. The Heard's sensitive display of traditional and contemporary ethnographic objects lends dignity and historical continuity to the arts of native peoples who have created and continue to create objects of great beauty and spiritual meaning. Clumsy shows like "Indigena," liberally laced with moldy political rhetoric, are unworthy of the native peoples they purport to celebrate.