C Magazine


Issue 133

by Dory Nason

As a scholar who focuses on Indigenous feminisms, I am drawn to visual and performance art by contemporary Indigenous women in Canada because of the potent challenge their art poses to colonial expectations of Indigenous women, our politics and our intellect. In viewing their work, I am often reminded of Leanne Simpson’s description of Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore as a person whose performances embody sovereignty and remind us as Indigenous peoples about our power to do the same. Simpson describes Belmore’s art as “the very best of Indigenous storytelling grounded in the very same process that have [sic] brought meaning to the lives of our Ancestors– multi-dimensionality, repetition, abstraction, metaphor and multiple sites of perception.”1 As a literature scholar, I look to the stories generated by women artists, such as Belmore, and to the many layers of conversation that generate and are generated by the subject of this review: the multi-faceted and dynamic project #callresponse. The project’s organizers commissioned works from five artists whose home territories stretch across Canada, with a focus on performance and action and local community networks. #callresponse includes a touring exhibition, a website and a social media presence, which serves as a hub for ongoing collaboration and dialogue.

The #callresponse project is a collection of multiple stories drawn from five artists – Christi Belcourt, Maria Hupfield, Ursula Johnson, Tania Willard and Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory – and their invited respondents. Despite my lack of art experience, I am emboldened by the reminder that the co-organizers Tarah Hogue, Tania Willard and Maria Hupfield – want each of us to begin our engagement with #callresponse and its many elements, from our own positions, emphasizing context, place and history. To begin, we might consider our role in the stories we encounter online, at performances and in the exhibition space of #callresponse. Who we are impacts how we move among the exhibition’s objects, its cacophonous voices, soundscapes and images, and the emotions each artist or set of artists brings to their stories. Indeed, this kind of exhibition impels us to ask, as we move amongst these spaces, if we are responding to the artists’ calls for critical reflection on our responsibilities in building a decolonial future and enacting a vision of reconciliation more expansive than forgiveness. Or, as so many have done in the past, are we replicating colonial relationality, ignoring Indigenous voices and stories of the land in order to construct a narrative of reconciliation that is palpable and easy to consume? For me, these questions foreground the ethical imperative of any single engagement with Indigenous story, whether you are Indigenous or not. What I think makes this particular exhibition so impactful is that it challenges and redirects the discourse of reconciliation through art by presenting a call to “stand together across sovereign territories as accomplices in awakened solidarity with all our relations both human and non.”2 In this way, the artists bring into the conversation commitments to the land, non-human kin, language and cosmologies that have been covered over by a discourse of apology and moving beyond without a reckoning with our collective histories as Indigenous and settler peoples. In addition, the call specifically looked to support women artists in their communities, a distinction that counters the domination of male voices in either political or artistic discourses on reconciliation.

My visit to grunt gallery, which housed the opening exhibition in Vancouver, was prompted by a conversation I had in November 2016 with the co-organizer and curator-in-residence at the gallery, Tarah Hogue. Hogue encouraged me to visit the gallery with students from my Indigenous feminisms course for a guided tour. What stood out for my students and me was more the methodology than the theory. What we encountered was not necessarily Indigenous feminist statements on reconciliation, but an Indigenous feminist methodology that carried through each of Hogue’s descriptions of the artworks. Each piece represents a much larger story of collaboration, grounded in ethical commitments to seek out and bring in those bodies, voices and kin marginalized by the colonial story and contemporary reconciliation efforts. As such, objects like the toolbox co-created by Maria Hupfield and her respondents, IV Castellanos and Esther Neff, stand in for multiple performances that brought together audience members and the artists to imagine a decolonial future using tools that seem unfit or way too small for such an enormous task. Yet in the co-creation of the final piece on display, the audience and artists built upon each other’s ideas to make the toolbox bigger and more meaningful for the next group that picks up its contents.

The impressive amount of media generated online and in print by the project speaks to the co-organizers’ insistence that the artworks on display are not the sum total of the artistic process or simply representative of the five artists’ and their respondents’ contributions. The works in the exhibition instead evoke community contexts and connections that are often at the heart of Indigenous women’s art practice, as well as the artists’ activism. As Maria Hupfield said in a podcast interview about the project, “artwork isn’t something that happens on its own, we need people,”3 and the artworks created for #callresponse make that very clear. Contributions from two of the artists, Christi Belcourt and Tania Willard, come out of collectives that feature land-based art practices– the Onaman Collective and the Bush Gallery, respectively. Their work thus emphasizes community ceremonial practice, Indigenous historiography and an ethical commitment to land-based pedagogies as imperative to an Indigenous response to this age of state-based reconciliation efforts.

Beyond the artists of #callresponse, the works also invoke the publics engaged in the performances, in the making of objects and in the gallery space itself. Yet this statement, too, does not capture the project’s most important contributors: the non-human kin and the land itself that are often left out of political conversations about so-called reconciliation. Not simply a name, #callresponse references the dialogue that is generated between viewer and artwork, community and artist, land and sound, Indigenous and non-Indigenous in the space of the gallery or the online iterations of the project. Through these dialogues, the creators challenge the notion that reconciliation could ever really be made tangible in the ongoing present of settler colonialism: each piece seems to reference a fleeting moment of a conversation, one that is not yet finished (or even started). As a whole, the project suggests that the word “reconciliation” cannot capture what justice looks like to Indigenous peoples. As such, the contributions to #callresponse refuse the call of reconciliation promoted by the Canadian government by responding with their own series of calls and responses, conversations that are started on the collaborators’ own terms, in their own artistic languages, from their own territories, bodies and spaces