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Issue 134

Sovereign Acts II: Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Dayna Danger, Robert Houle, James Luna, Shelley Niro, Adrian Stimson, Jeff Thomas
by Genevieve Flavelle

If you are a settler on this land, as I am, you may not have had to consider the ways in which you personally constitute and perform Canadian sovereignty. Indigenous artists however, often contend with the violent erasure of Indigenous history and culture upon which Canada’s sovereignty is founded. Focusing on performative “acts,” Sovereign Acts II at Concordia University’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery deals with the legacy of colonial representations of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island through the work of seven contemporary artists.

Sovereign Acts II is a revisiting by curator Wanda Nanibush of her 2012 exhibition Sovereign Acts at the University of Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. Opening this iteration of the exhibition is Rebecca Belmore’s In a Wilderness (2012). This three-channel video installation begins with a woman struggling in a pile of leaves in the woods, her hands bound and her feet bare. In the second frame, a person stands facing a tall manicured hedge, a patterned blanket draped over their head and body. In the third frame, someone offscreen is wielding a leaf blower in what looks to be the same environment as depicted in the first video, covering up the evidence of struggle in a seemingly benign clearing. The work conjures the many missing and murdered Indigenous women whose disappearances have failed to be investigated in Canada – a subject to which Belmore returns repeatedly in her work, as little progress is being made in addressing the crisis. In the accompanying wall text, Belmore recounts her memory of reading the story of a Mi’kmaq hunter who was made by French colonizers to perform hunting a deer for the French court, an act he completed with the addition of “easing himself” before the audience. Belmore pays tribute to this defiantly defecating Mi’kmaq man as “one of the first performance artists of the Americas to work internationally.”

In the adjoining room, a small television monitor plays a grainy 20-second loop of Sioux performers dancing an approximation of the Ghost Dance. Captured on film in 1894 by Thomas Edison, the moving snapshot depicts a version of the dance modified for the colonial audiences of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. At the time, the Sioux performers were outlawed from practising cultural dances, songs and ceremonies in their own communities. However, the demand for stereotyped performance by colonial audiences was so great that these men, imprisoned after the Battle of Wounded Knee, were released on the condition that they join the road show. Here, the capitulation to perform for demanding and deathly colonial audiences is an act of survival that can be read against the grain as an act of resistance.

James Luna, considered the godfather of Indigenous performance art, has for decades interrogated the ways in which museums depict Indigenous cultures and bodies as of the past, even when they are living. Luna has made several works that attempt to inhabit and give voice to the spirit of Ishi, a Yahi man who walked into a northern California town in 1911 and was promptly proclaimed to be the last of his tribe and given a home in the Museum of Anthropology on the University of California Berkeley’s campus. In Ishi Speaks (2011), Luna performs Ishi in a series of portraits that imagine what he might have said or done, acts of protest unrecorded by his observers. Mimicking the posture and facial expression of a portrait of Ishi taken by the museum, Luna speaks back to the viewer with a knee-length t-shirt emphatically proclaiming “FUCK YoU.”

Turning the exhibition’s corner, all attention is commanded by the gazes of four larger-than-life femmes. The subjects’ tattooed bodies are visible from the chest up, yet their faces are almost entirely concealed by meticulously beaded black fetish masks. The striking photographs and masks beaded with labrys and knife motifs are by two-spirit artist Dayna Danger. Recalling Catherine Opie’s lush early portraits of unapologetically queer subjects, the work is insistent in its overt expression of sexuality, identity and kink culture. The inclusion of Danger in this second iteration of the exhibition also opens Nanibush’s curatorial premise to an expanded consideration of performativity and a promising generation of emerging Indigenous artists. The work’s placement alongside Adrian Stimson’s campy performances – as Wild West alter ego Buffalo Boy in Buffalo Boy’s Wild West Peep Show (2007) and a fishnet-clad, Bible-wielding residential school priest in Onwards and Upwards (2005) – suggests a strong intergenerational conversation. Creating visibly queer works for decades, Stimson continues to provoke our understanding of settler colonialism as the historical and institutional root of heteronormative binary sex/gender systems.

Lori Blondeau collaborates with Stimson in revisiting the forced performances of the Sioux dancers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, through the gay spectacle of Putting the Wild back into the West (2004–2010). Reinserting Indigenous women into the fabled Wild West and grand narrative of Western history, Blondeau transforms herself into “Indian cowgirl” Belle Sauvage. Buffalo Boy and Belle Sauvage invite would-be spectators to join them in a romp through a culture-appropriating, colonial fantasy exploiting, drag-favouring tickle trunk. The series of black-and- white studio portraits from various public performances of Putting the Wild back into the West illustrate the artists’ career-length investigations of colonial representations of Indigenous identity using humour and camp as strategies of subversion. The photos hang counter to painter Robert Houle’s series of solemnly rendered shamans. Houle’s distinctive visual style has long been challenging the erasure of living Indigenous artists. The inclusion of Houle’s work is not thematically obvious but illustrates Nanibush’s wide-reaching consideration of what constitutes performative acts.

There is a difference in tone between many of the works and some have been placed in direct contrast to each other, seemingly to provoke purposeful tension between their different strategies of representation. Additionally, the works in the exhibition are situated outside of the usual parameters of performance art and its various forms of documentation, encompassing an expansive scale of gestures that examine the role of performativity in constituting culture and identity. Sovereignty in this exhibition does not look like crest-adorned documents and high-flying flags, nor does it look like a return to pre-contact “authenticity.” Instead, the exhibition carves out space to explore what acting through self-determined agency can look like.

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