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Issue 133

Wood Land School: A Brief Report
by Jonah Gray

Over a weekend this past March, a cadre of artists, art historians, critics and curators from across Canada and the US converged at the Or Gallery in Vancouver to consider current “directions in Indigenous contemporary art” from a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. The occasion was a symposium entitled Wood Land School: Critical Anthology organized by artist Duane Linklater, in conjunction with the Or and Simon Fraser University Galleries, in anticipation of a print volume of the same name to be released later this year.1 Like earlier symposia at artist-run centres in Vancouver that became books, Vancouver Anthology (1991) and Vancouver Art and Economies (2007), Wood Land School’s proceedings engaged exhibition histories and artistic strategies, and critiqued both material and discursive institutions. While there was no explicitly stated theme beyond Indigenous contemporary art, the notion of refusal proved to be a shared concern across the board, even if it was taken in radically divergent ways. Throughout the presentations, refusal entailed, variously: a rejection of the role of Native informant for an art world structured by Eurocentric/settler desires; a strategic negation of stable meaning to hold open a space for an inclusive aesthetic reflection; and a rejection of prescriptive performances of Indigeneity.

If refusal is taken to encompass, for example, both a call to withdraw certain forms of expression to Indigenous-only spaces and a negation of traditional categories that seeks instead “to find the Indigenous where it is not,” how useful can the term really be?2 Perhaps most importantly, it helps situate the oscillatory, responsive context in which the presenters uniformly understand Indigenous contemporary art to function. In particular, it highlights the uneven power relations among which Indigenous contemporary art emerges and is always imbricated. Because Indigenous contemporary art, like other forms of art identified with minority or subaltern groups, is usually constructed in relation to a Eurocentric mainstream, the decision to refuse is therefore the strongest possible agency the circumstance allows. Faced with an overwhelming force of othering by the simple choice to take part in contemporary art in the first place, refusal – however this takes shape – can be the Indigenous artist and critic’s surest advantage.

During his talk, artist Raymond Boisjoly invoked the Darby English book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007). In the introduction, English argues that David Hammons resists “prefab readings” of his work in terms of black experience by making art about the very existence of “black art” as a discursive category.3 The idea of a prefab reading – that an audience’s assumptions about an artist’s identity overdetermine the reception of their work – gives a temporal scope to the back and forth to which Indigenous art is subject: such assumptions always precede the emergence of the work and artists have little recourse but to respond to this situation. This observation provides an insight into the constant vigilance and anticipation required of those artists who strive to avoid having their work circumscribed in this way. It is to the crux of this situation – where politics, aesthetics, identity and representation intersect – to which the broader Wood Land School project is addressed.

Critical Anthology was the sixth iteration of Wood Land School that Linklater has staged since its inception in 2011, when he first curated a modest group exhibition in his studio above a store on the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario. Linklater, who is Omaskêko Cree, took the title from the “Woodland School” or “Woodland Style,” a name first given to the work of an older generation of Indigenous artists, including Daphne Odjig and Norval Morrisseau. The first of Linklater’s Wood Land Schools included works by Raymond Boisjoly, David Horvitz, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Walter Scott and the artist himself. While, by his own admission, no one came to see the original show, the project took on a new life when Linklater was invited to lead an Indigenous artist residency at the Banff Centre. That version of the Wood Land School, subtitled What Colour is the Present?, took place in 2013 at the height of the Idle No More movement and the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence over the living conditions of the Attawapiskat First Nation.4 Subsequent iterations have included film screenings and reading groups in various locations across Canada.

Critical Anthology, however, raised this somewhat loose grouping of events and curatorial projects to a new level of institutionalization and undertook a more decisive intervention (in the sense of putting words in print) into the critical discourse around Indigenous contemporary art. There were 10 presentations in total, including those of Linklater, Boisjoly, David Garneau, Candice Hopkins, Amy Kazymerchyk, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Liz Park, Postcommodity, cheyanne turions and Walter Scott, as well as a response from Richard William Hill. What follows is not a comprehensive account of the symposium, a project I will leave to the forthcoming book. Instead, I have sought to draw out some of the broad questions upon which presenters found common ground, overlapped and occasionally disagreed. This thematic approach unfortunately means that I do not address all of the presenters, let alone the full range of ideas, critiques and engagements they shared at the event. It does, however, allow me to present a sense of what I took to be their most pressing concerns.

Three main themes stood out: the notion of simultaneity; the museum and the gallery; and the question of the right to speak. “Simultaneity” was a term used by Linklater and echoed by many others, whether as an extension of discourse around the contemporary, a metaphor of the political and ethical connection of Indigenous artists under the shared circumstance of settler colonialism, or as a kind of injunction against the understanding of Indigenous-themed exhibitions as a stage on the way to assimilation. The anthropology museum was implicated both as a part of the exhibitionary apparatus and for its entanglement with the pseudo-scientific theories of race that have been instrumental in the ongoing stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. Of equal if not greater concern for the context of contemporary art is the gallery, which was identified as a locus for struggles of inclusion and visibility. The gallery was also reimagined outside the confines of the white cube as an experimental space in which Indigenous artists can construct sovereign territories through interventions into the landscape. Finally, the questions of authenticity and the authority to speak subtended many of the event’s discussions. They first arose in the sense of an implied demand for Indigenous artists to demonstrate a connection to land, language and community, and in the notion of preserving Indigenous-only spaces. These same ideas, however, were also critiqued from the standpoint of a radical refusal of authority and through an appeal to an open-ended mode of being and art-making in the face of prescriptive performances of Indigeneity.

In his introductory remarks, Linklater framed the symposium as an effort to achieve a certain kind of simultaneity.5 This approach was informed by a view of history in which chronologically disparate events, people and ideas inform actions in the present. He likened this simultaneity to the mode of existence in pre-contact Indigenous cultures that was attenuated, if never quite destroyed, by European settlers through a genocidal program of territorial, cultural and psychological expropriation. The project of re-establishing simultaneity now, Linklater argued, is hindered by “aggregates” of misrepresentation and grief that have built up over time. Contributing to these aggregates are, among other things, narrative and documentary cinemas, which work to circumscribe Indigenous subjectivities.6 Wood Land School: Critical Anthology was conceived to excavate this aggregate, performing a critical archaeology of what has become an almost “insurmountable pile,” and bringing to the fore perspectives and artistic strategies with which to engage in the present.

Parallels between Linklater’s framing and recent discussions around the contemporary were brought up numerous times, perhaps most directly in artist and critic David Garneau’s unpacking of the very idea of Indigenous contemporary art. Garneau rejected the notion that contemporary art merely denotes art that is contemporaneous or simultaneous with the now.7 Rather, he considers it to be something between a period (i.e. following the modern or postmodern era) and an ideology or worldview that a given artist might adopt. In other words, an Indigenous artist could live now while working entirely in a traditional idiom, just as one might exist within modernity and never identify as a modernist. But Garneau took it further by differentiating between Indigeneity, aboriginality and tribal affiliation. He argued that being aboriginal or belonging to a First Nation does not necessarily enjoin someone to claim Indigeneity, even if that person may be aboriginal and affiliated with a First Nation. For Garneau, who is Métis, identifying as Indigenous involves an implicit acknowledgment of a kind of global solidarity that brings with it a responsibility to community, land and identity. Garneau’s own reckoning with this solidarity meant a growing sense that his role as a critic writing about Indigenous art for a mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience implicated him as a kind of Native informant. As history has amply shown, the Native informant’s words can be used against them and an uneasiness with this fact led Garneau to propose that Indigenous art criticism ought to employ a “critical care,” which may involve the construction and maintenance of spaces for the consideration of art that are exclusively Indigenous.8

Crucially, neither Linklater’s simultaneity nor Garneau’s definition of Indigenous contemporary art are as concerned with the present as they are with the future. Both strive to find the right approach with which to anticipate and shape future discourse and modes of existence. Such futurity was also a key consideration in cheyanne turions’ close reading of the artwork _Seraphine, Seraphine_(2014) by Krista Belle Stewart.9 The work in question juxtaposes two video projections featuring the artist’s mother, Seraphine Stewart – the first aboriginal public health nurse in British Columbia. On one channel is a 1967 CBC docu-drama that loosely portrays Seraphine’s life leading up to and shortly after her nursing studies. In this video, the artist’s mother plays her younger self in a series of scripted scenes shot in grainy black and white and impressionistically montaged over a jazz soundtrack. On the other channel are a series of video excerpts from the elder Stewart’s personal testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).10 turions, who is of settler and Indigenous ancestry, argues that the two videos – one in which Stewart’s mother tells her own story and another where she re-enacts a version of her life according to someone else’s script – combine to create a “third work” that intervenes into the discourse of recognition and reconciliation emphasized by the TRC, imagining instead an indeterminate, decolonizing “way things ought to be.”11 The irresolution of this implied third work is key to turions’ argument that it resists definitive interpretation, staking out a space of decolonized future potentiality by remaining always in excess of meaning.

Curator Candice Hopkins, who is a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, brought the foregoing issues of temporality, the contemporary and indeterminacy into sharp focus in relation to the fraught history of Indigenous group exhibitions.12 The problematic status of the latter phenomenon was crystallized for Hopkins in the words of Globe and Mail art critic Sarah Milroy who asked in a 2009 review, “Are we past the age of an aboriginal art show?”13 As a curator responsible for some of the most challenging and ambitious recent exhibitions to address Indigenous issues (Sakahàn, for example, at the National Gallery of Canada in 2013) Hopkins’ position was clear from the start: No! Neither group shows of aboriginal artists nor exhibitions organized around the themes of aboriginal identity and/or politics represent a mere developmental stage to be overcome. At the same time, she remained alert to the potential for exclusion and ghettoization with which even the most well-intentioned Indigenous group exhibitions have been complicit since the earliest efforts to assimilate Indigenous work into Western art discourse. It is very easy, as it turns out, to inadvertently contribute to the aggregate of reduction and misrepresentation to which Linklater alluded. Hopkins proposed that self-reflexivity must become a methodology for exhibition-making. If the seeming aporia at the heart of such projects is ultimately unresolvable, then curators must strive to acknowledge those contradictions and lay them bare. Simultaneity in this case is a conscious decision not to reconcile, assimilate and move on. It means attending to how past wounds persist in the present and critically scrutinizing not only their effects but also the best-intentioned efforts to ameliorate them.

As Hopkins related, institutional efforts to become more inclusive have often belied the tireless struggle by Indigenous advocates to gain visibility and legitimacy in spaces like the National Gallery of Canada by encouraging the acquisition of works by Indigenous artists. For example, following the precedent of the so-called “Indian Group of Seven,” which included Odjig and Morrisseau, the Society for Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry (SCANA) successfully lobbied the National Gallery to begin collecting work by Carl Beam. Even in the context of the aforementioned Sakahàn, however, Hopkins noted that one form of inclusion can sometimes reveal or incite other forms of exclusion. Institutional anxieties at the National Gallery over the charged politics of Nadia Myre’s contribution to the exhibition led to the posting of a disclaimer to the effect that the views expressed in the work were not those of the Gallery – an unprecedented action that subtly undermined the work’s very inclusion. Hopkins also lamented that the space in the National Gallery devoted to recent acquisitions of Indigenous art, an effort to remedy earlier exclusions, often has the strange effect of presenting such art as a parallel but separate field in which the artists appear to speak only to one another. While Hopkins said she prefers “tearing down” oppressive structures to the rhetoric of “making space.” Stan Douglas put it more bluntly in the question period when he said that merely making space risks recreating the reserve within the National Gallery.

Curator Liz Park’s talk was also invested in rethinking exhibition histories, giving particular consideration to the stakes of historical revisionism. Her talk, entitled “Exhibitions About Exhibitions, Criticism of Criticism,” gave an object lesson in the kind of curatorial approach Hopkins seemed to champion. The self-reflexivity Park described entails two levels of negation: a literal subtraction of material and a meditation on the radical impossibility of representing history. Her focus was It means it is raining, a 2014 exhibition by Linklater that Park curated at ICA Philadelphia, which was itself concerned with an earlier show by the late artist Kimowan McLain, held in the same space 12 years earlier. McLain (who later adopted his mother’s Cree surname Metchewais) had pasted large photographic printouts on a wall that, by 2014, had been painted over many times. Linklater, with the aid of documentation from the earlier show, set out to sand through the accumulated paint to reveal McLain’s original images. Ultimately, the pictures proved unrecoverable or perhaps were destroyed in the process of sanding. The result was a powerful, if deeply ambivalent, statement that troubled Linklater’s own appeal to simultaneity. What if our efforts to call up the past are always bound to erase the very object we seek to recuperate?

But the focus was not solely on such virtuosic acts of negotiating or outsmarting the traditional exhibitionary apparatus. Curator Amy Kazymerchyk drew attention to BUSH Gallery, a collaborative project by the New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society Collective, which includes Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Peter Morin and Tania Willard. Situated in Secwepemc territory in the interior of British Columbia, BUSH Gallery is an artist “rezidency” that comprises performances, ad-hoc art installations and interventions into the landscape and takes inspiration from the Dechinta Centre for Research (aka Bush University), an institution that offers northern people instruction in subsistence and self-governance through an engagement with traditional knowledge. Similarities were noted between BUSH Gallery and the Wood Land School itself. Both are Indigenous-initiated quasi-institutions that propose alternate, anti-colonial, sovereign spaces that are comfortable moving between the museum and the bush. Linklater called them “our own structures” because they both centre Indigeneity.14 Yet, while such structures are gaining wider audiences and naturally provide their own benefits to participants, discussion in the question periods over the weekend challenged the notion that they offer a true alternative to Eurocentric/settler mainstream institutions. Douglas, for example, asked about the imagined audience for Wood Land School and BUSH Gallery: is it the general public or simply other artists? Boisjoly also noted the catch-22 that Indigenous artists still depend on settler-centred institutions to gain visibility. In retrospect, Wood Land School’s unique achievement was in creating the conditions under which these challenges could be articulated and debated. If Milroy’s question about the age of the aboriginal art show implied a potential return to a norm from which such shows are excluded, the Wood Land School participants rejected the suggestion outright, affirming instead that there will be no going back to the way things were before.

The most contentious issue among the presenters at Wood Land School was the question of authority to speak with, for and to Indigeneity and Indigenous art. Is there a privileged combination of access to land, language and community that confers a greater authenticity and therefore more authority to speak?15 This question came to the fore in Linklater’s introduction when he told an anecdote about author Joseph Boyden, criticizing Boyden’s public performance of what Linklater deemed to be a sanitized Indigeneity that plays to settler expectations and desires.16 While he acknowledged that connections to land, language and community can be frayed or lost due to the violence of settler colonialism, it was clear that, for Linklater, Boyden’s apparent lack of such connections called into question his authority to speak as an Indigenous subject. Boyden’s particular case has only been further complicated by the recently published exposé of his family history, which reveals little evidence of aboriginal ancestry.17 It also raises the spectre of non-Indigenous cultural producers appropriating the already marginal space of cultural visibility afforded to Indigenous people, not to mention usurping grants and awards meant for Indigenous artists.18

Counterposed against this refutation of an other’s authority to speak was an argument to negate such authority altogether. Raymond Boisjoly, who is of Haida and Québécois descent, elaborated an artistic stance predicated on what he called a “deferral of authority,” a refusal to be a spokesperson for Indigenous people in general.19 Rather than claiming to hold a privileged understanding or knowledge, Boisjoly insisted that art must hold open a space for others to engage with knowledge based on a personal commitment rather than identity. Artists must refuse the demand imposed upon them to conform to the discursively constructed category of Indigenous art. “I don’t seek to represent here,” Boisjoly stated, but “to find the Indigenous where it is not.” He acknowledged, however, that the open-endedness of this sort of aesthetic exploration makes it less useful as a blunt political instrument. Moreover, he said, “for art to be useful for decolonization it would cease to be art […]” This is not, Boisjoly later clarified, a call for non-political Indigenous art, but rather art that can look beyond issues-based politics to a more complex sense of the political that also encapsulates the capacity to represent.

Hill himself was not one of the originally planned presenters, but was later invited by Linklater to respond to the proceedings. His informal remarks took up the issue of authority and authenticity, framing it as a conflict between “open-endedness” and “who has the right to say what.”20 If critique inherently involves being honest in public, he said, then the conditions for doing so must be carefully cultivated, noting that he often begins to censor himself when faced with imperatives of how to be Indigenous from other Indigenous people. Ad hominem attacks, he argued, are part and parcel with the problem of performing Indigeneity “to each other” in “really prescriptive ways.” In closing, he appealed to the audience to imagine a “non-liberal Indigenous individuality” defined by accountability to community, a horizontal distribution of power and an ethos of leading by example.

Throughout the Wood Land School presentations, refusal was a common posture that connected a wide variety of topics, critical-historical methodologies and artistic strategies. As a response to the present cultural and political context21 – whether it is figured as a form of simultaneity or simply the contemporary – refusal might be understood as a resolve not to forget the traumas of settler colonialism. Recognition is important, but reconciliation will never be desirable as long as it bears the slightest resemblance to recolonization by another means. Likewise, Wood Land School affirmed that the present and future of Indigenous contemporary art is Indigenous-led and self-determined with non-Indigenous allies playing a supporting role, not the other way around.

Critical inquiry into the ideological structures of the museum and the gallery must be re-opened. Institutional critique is not a finished business. The efforts of Hopkins– who, incidentally, is already deploying her critical acumen on a much larger scale as a curator for the upcoming Documenta – and Park, among many others, are proof to this effect; as are unique Indigenous-initiated projects such as BUSH Gallery, Wood Land School and the recent series of exhibitions c’əsna?əm: the city before the city. The latter was held at multiple institutions around Vancouver in 2016 with the lofty goal of rearticulating a space beyond the site of the exhibition itself: that of a Musqueam village that occupied part of what is now Vancouver about 5,000 years earlier. The portion of c’əsna?əm: that took place at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, which was co-curated by Jordan Wilson and Susan Rowley, enacted a complete refusal to display Indigenous belongings stolen from the site of the ancient village. Instead, it focused on first-person accounts of living Musqueam people who voiced their own stories and views regarding their ancestral territory.

While refusal may hint at links between disparate topics and approaches, however, it should not be understood to paper over real differences, especially since it essentially signals a disagreement or withdrawal rather than an implicit consensus. The issues of authority and authenticity are important test cases in this respect. When does speaking as, with or to Indigeneity or Indigenous issues become appropriative and malicious? How can the needs for sovereignty and self-determination be affirmed at the same time as the artistic freedom to pursue forms of aesthetic autonomy (or at least to comment on the potential for autonomy)? Through the range of positions and voices it highlighted, the Wood Land School demonstrated that these fraught questions will likely remain in a state of perpetual contestation.

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