by Sally McKay
Lisa Myers’ latest curatorial project, Carry Forward, presents works by 11 artists, addressing themes of deeds and documents. Myers explains that the title references “passing or transferring something on to the next generation, yet also refers to taking account of gains and loss.” For me, it also suggests momentum; this show has lift under its wings, much like an owl or an airplane.
Myers’ curatorial focus here is on how documents accrue and transmit forms of value “outside of the paradigm of things.” Writing about Mike MacDonald’s video installation, Electronic Totem, for example, she suggests that “Shots of berry picking, fishing, waterways, language, and song together create a document of relationships and bond to territory.”
The didactic information in the show is excellent. Myers provides deeply researched context and gentle suggestions for ways to relate the works to each other. I will describe some connections that particularly stuck out for me.
Works about wampum by Nadia Myre open the exhibition, announcing that documents come in many forms. Monument to Two-Row, Revised (2000– 2002) is made with genuine wampum beads, and represents the diplomatic arrangement of two peoples (Haudenosaunee and Dutch) travelling two parallel paths. In Portrait As A River, Divided (2002), these parallel paths resemble scars burned into the land; the Two Row Wampum Treaty has been eviscerated. These works challenge Canadian colonial complacency by registering the acute, persistent pain and anger of broken treaties. The invocation of wampum also sets an aesthetic precedent, assuring us that documentation can impact the non-linguistic dimensions of lived experience.
Nadia Myre’s wampum thus informs Dana Claxton’s series of magnified documents from FBI surveillance of members of AIM (American Indian Movement). Here, the documents point to a particular kind of language: the cold, bureaucratic voice of government. Yet, sections have been heavily redacted with black marker, and, because each page has been magnified, these black stripes convey the indexical wobbles of the human hand that made them, the impersonal voice of the state expressed by living beings. By claiming and magnifying these documents, Claxton renders them legible as tangible behaviours of violence and erasure.
Other paper documents include Deanna Bowen’s “1911 Anti Creek-Negro Petition” from Immigration of Negroes from the United States to Western Canada 1910– 1911 (2013), which hangs in a grid of 233 pages, bearing the signatures of Canadian racists. Again, the human hand produces indexical evidence – clear, direct and awful – the signatories blatantly stating their prejudice in ways that affirm the experience of those who know that mainstream Canada has been trying to deny a deeply racist past.1
Claxton and Bowen’s pieces recall the language-based aesthetics of conceptual and neo-conceptual art, but without the detachment of modernist formalism or post-modern irony. Here, there is no expectation that written words or concepts could be considered as distinct from politics, emotions and lived experience.
For me, these works by Myre, Claxton and Bowen operated as conceptual touchstones throughout the exhibition. Joining this conversation was Marjorie Beaucage’s 1992 video documentary about Rebecca Belmore’s project Speaking to Their Mother, which was projected in another gallery across the hall. If Claxton and Bowen’s documents seemed pulled from the filing cabinets and office spaces of settler institutions, this video document is firmly located in the voice of the people on the land.
In the video, Belmore describes her decision to create a giant megaphone in response to the Oka crisis. She explains how she initially wanted to direct it, in anger, at the government buildings in Ottawa, “because they don’t listen.” But, instead, she chose to bring the megaphone to the people.
The Cree community recorded by Beaucage are members of the Protectors of Mother Earth Wiggins Bay Blockade, gathered next to a clear-cut. People stand in front of Belmore’s megaphone and speak from the heart – in Cree. There are translations of their words on the wall of the gallery. Myers explains that the decision to provide translations was not an easy choice, but was made at Beaucage’s request. The video has no subtitles, but none are needed: the communicative affects of speakers’ gestures, body language and intonation, combined with the contexts of community gathering, the clear-cut and the land, powerfully convey the transformative aspects of the event, even to the English-speaking settler viewer.
I was struck by the fact that, while the early 1990s still feel like yesterday, they are fast becoming long ago. Beaucage’s video refreshes that moment for viewers who remember it, and perhaps the decision to translate speeches from Cree into English speaks to the continued urgency for action around land claims and resource extraction. As Myers suggests,
“If we think of land as a document that can be read, imbued with meaning and understood, then every change also alters its legibility.”
It is fitting that the show effectively ends with a documentary video, because Myers cites Mike MacDonald’s video documentaries as her initial inspiration for Carry Forward. There are two of his installations in the show. In the label for Seven Sisters, Myers notes, “Considering land as document, MacDonald reminds us that deforestation and other forms of ecological degradation function as a kind of redaction.”
Themes of redaction, or erasure, resonate with Claxton’s AIM series, but also with works by John Hampton and Maika’i Tubbs, while works by Jamelie Hassan and Brenda Draney read as affirmative expressions of situated identity. Objects that buzz with loaded presence include Maria Thereza Alves’ giant bronze jackfruit seeds – referencing Portuguese slavery in Brazil – and Krista Belle Stewart’s reworking of an archival photograph from the Nisga’a museum as a jacquard weaving. When this image of Nisga’a chiefs was displayed at the museum, a figure in Western dress had been cropped out of the frame. That same figure was again cropped out by a technical glitch in the process of weaving, a section that Stewart chose to keep hidden in a mailing tube. The two-sided tapestry hangs next to a red wall, steeped in radiant red light that recalls darkrooms, negatives and the shifts of value that occur in the processes of bringing images forth into the world.
At every turn, these works remind us that history is a living process. Through a thoughtful examination of documents to reveal and reconfigure relationships of power, this exhibition tallies, lifts and carries forward the value of past, present and future acts.