Jaime Black: Conversations with the Land
by Kendra Place
Jaime Black’s Conversations with the Land first reached an audience at Actual Gallery, a commercial space that has since closed. Black’s process engages with the histories, materialities and relations of specific sites, both on the land where she and her ancestors have lived and as a guest on other people’s territories (this is work with the more-than-human that does not “free” anyone from cultural distinctions and responsibilities). Recalling her grandfather’s ways of living with the land, she gathers things that happen to be nearby – stones, fabric, remains of past living – and creates allusive mise-en-scènes that also incorporate herself.
Photographs mediate the ongoing project, yet both the title and the work suggest that conventional discourses of photography – as technical apparatus, documentation or art – are limiting with respect to the work’s dimensions. I imagine the photographs as life-stills: although they are presented in the gallery as rectangular, printed formats excerpted from the subjective lives of the artist and her relations, they nonetheless convey movement, time, voice and space at several paces, volumes and scales.
For the land remembers (2016), the artist has composed animal bones around and beside herself on the lichenous (back)ground. The remnants of hunting from years or generations past cycle through the wide photo, a skeletal aura changing depending on where (or when) it is: scattered, as found; arranged, as left; glowing like a sun-bleached halo of someone (once) present. Also on the tundra, for breath of the land I-IV (2016), Black stands on a shore beside tall rock formations. She has draped herself in found tent fabric secured to the ground around her with heavy stones. In four stills, wind gusts around and through her temporary shelter, animating the series while placing geological time in dialogue with the erosive daily weather. Black (who’s Métis) and I (of settler cultures) talked a few times about this review; she told me that she is considering her relationship with the land as ceremony, a tentative approach encouraged by visits with Inuit of Pangnirtung, where these works were made.
Several stills are from performances near her family’s southern-Manitoba home, where the land is flat, tilled or forested. Fallow (2016) is a deceptively simple composition, as the Prairies sometimes are when the sky is calm. The artist stands on a leaf-covered field with a grey wool blanket covering her head and upper body. The effect is almost static, a hauntology but not a paradox, as though recalling a quiet or whispered conversation. Black’s performances often begin in half-sleep – the imagery of her dreaming. For uniform (2016), Black lies on the ground partially covered with patches of grass; it is as though a horizon line has collapsed into the land, the land now almost indistinguishable from her body. This image recalls Edward Poitras’ Offensive/ Defensive (1988), an unforgettable conceptual-material work in which he moved a rectangle of grass from a reserve to an urban gallery lawn and vice versa: while the disparity between sovereignty and carcerality is most pronounced in colonial contexts, each artist also contends with several intersections, whether of gender, location or class.
Black’s exhibition also includes an earlier inter-media photo series, Contested Territories (2012). Anticipating uniform, the work intends to foreground the body as land and the subject of knowledge practices. Red lines screen-printed or embroidered across ink-jet prints of the artist’s abdomen depict Indigenous maps of waterways, colonial survey maps for land privatization, or medical “maps” as cuts or scars of expedient C-section birthing. Although there are many ways to (dis)identify with these images, I worry their important truths might be obscured by photographic surfaces, the black-and-white photos yet to disinherit the camera’s gaze as an objectifying apparatus insofar as they replicate commercial or advertising strategies.
With untitled (2016), Black negotiates vulnerability and resilience, as established through the ongoing REDress project for which she is known. Whereas the REDress project contributes to the necessary, melancholic labour of addressing settler publics, often in institutional spaces – campuses or legislatures – the momentum of untitled performs a more vivid conversation about Indigenous two-spirit, women and girls’ survivance under colonial patriarchy. Embodying a red garment as a transformative and hopeful gesture, this pivotal work offers an imaginary of refusal and freedom.
Lean to (2016) is displayed as two photos on either side of untitled. In the first still, the artist stands in a field with tree poles leaning against her blanketed shoulders; whether this is a precarious or reinforcing structure, she is bearing its weight. In the second image, she sits with the trees radiating on the ground around her. Lean to is perhaps most audible live: Black recently performed the work during Duane Linklater’s roaming Wood Land School, co-curated in this iteration with Jaimie Isaac at Plug In ICA. After painting her legs and arms with riverbank clay, Black moved from the gallery to the rooftop, where those present carefully built the structure around and with her. Artist Lita Fontaine then led its peaceful dismantling, following the performance with a smudge. This reclamation of relational, embodied and land-based autonomy, owing something to the inimitable practices of Rebecca Belmore and Peter Morin, is unaffected by a gallery’s claim to aesthetic autonomy.
Unlike the Eurowestern tradition of land art, which imagines most viewers to leave “civilization” physically or conceptually in order to experience the art, with Black’s practice the land is present with her, meeting the viewer wherever they are. Black’s work invites other diffractive readings: among them, perhaps, a resonance with the multi-territory #call-response project (2016) based at Vancouver’s grunt gallery; and a challenge (to whom it may concern) to pay less attention to Bruno Latour or the so-called ontological turn and more to the land and its relations (echoing Indigenous feminist and anthropologist Zoë Todd). It also compels me to continue an unapologetic critique of the (bio)political economy.