Àdisòkàmagan / Nous connaître un peu nous-mêmes / We’ll All Become Stories
by Leah Snyder
Essayist Geoff Martin describes the landscape along the Grand River as a “circuitous route that ties together disparate communities of people who live by the water’s edge.”1 He confronts the area’s history by way of the Haldimand Tract, land granted in 1784 to the Haudenosaunee for their alliance with the British Crown during the American Revolution, the land his Mennonite ancestors settled on.
Each place-name, along the way, evokes a distinct history, a pattern of settlement, a raison d’être. These place-names stock the river with human value and make the waters flow with social, political, economic, and environmental importance. In this respect, the Grand River channels a sort of liquid lineage, an archive we can trace backwards; it’s a watery inheritance that belts together large expanses of time and space.
I grew up along these same banks, my own Mennonite ancestors arriving a few years after the Haudenosaunee, both coming from below the Great Lakes. My familial history has been entwined with the Haudenosaunee of Six Nations of the Grand River for more than 200 years. It is this relationship to a shared historical route that informs how I come to a place. Arriving in Ottawa, the community I now call home, I understood how waterways define space. Here the land is different from the banks of the Grand. Rocky cliffs meet the water at a sharp angle and two rivers – the Kitchissippi (Ottawa) and Pasapkedjinawong (Rideau) – cross each other where Ottawa and Gatineau meet, their presence informing the identity of the area and conforming the population to the boundaries of the water. I have come to know the “liquid lineage” of these rivers, where Algonquin, French and English place names provide clues to “pattern[s] of settlement.” With Indigenous presence stretching back thousands of years and French, by way of Samuel de Champlain, for 400, the “archive we can trace backwards” be- comes tainted at the water’s edge.
Investigating Ottawa’s history requires problematization. The Ottawa Art Gallery’s (OAG) exhibition, in its stunning new facility designed by KPMB Architects, seeks to do just that. To say the exhibition was an immense undertaking is an under- statement. The show’s title(s), Àdisòkàmagan / Nous connaître un peu nous-mêmes / We’ll All Become Stories, and its subtitle of “6500 years of art making in the Ottawa-Gatineau region”2 point to the complexity of this endeavour. Àdisòkàmagan is an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) word, one that “implies that every object tells a story.”3 This idea becomes an anchoring concept for the visitor’s journey through the stories of this place organized into themes: Mapping, Bridges, Bodies and Technology.
Various depictions of the area’s landscape are inserted throughout, from 19th-century architectural renderings to CW Jefferys’ painting First Nations People Paying Homage to the Spirit of the Chaudière (n.d.). In Mind Map Ottawa: Five Cardinal Points (2013), emerging artist Meredith Snider documents her movement 50 kilometres north, south, east and west of the location of her Ottawa home. But it is certain curatorial juxtapositions of landscape which prompt renewed considerations of the region. Farouk Kaspaules’ enigmatic The Return (2007) calls to mind the view of Ottawa as seen from Asinabka, the island that lies below Parliament Hill. The silkscreen print, monumental in size, is positioned in proximity to Greg A. Hill’s Cereal Box Canoe (2005) and its accompanying performance footage, Portaging Rideau, Paddling the Ottawa to Kanata (2005). The Return depicts boats called mashoof and domed communal longhouses called mudhif in Arabic, both traditionally constructed from reeds in the marshlands located in the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The black outlines of the mashoof4 echo the cardboard canoe displayed close by that carried Hill, during his performance, from the Rideau Canal to the shoreline of Asinabka. Like many of us who find ourselves in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, Kaspaules, an Iraq-born Assyrian-Canadian artist, chose to stay. His oeuvre grapples with the endurance of Sumerian culture and the risk it has faced since the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent threat of Daesh (ISIS). His emphasis on cultural resilience is like Hill’s, whose embodied performances ensure that Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) presence endures in the colonial landscape.
This critical discourse around the hegemony of colonialism is sustained in Algonquin artist Claude Latour’s video documentation of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s performance Shooting the Indian Act: Kitigan Zibi 2003 (2003), one of the most salient works in the show. At the performance location, 130 kilometres north of Ottawa, on Latour’s reserve, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members gathered to take turns pulling the trigger on the policy constructed to confine Indigenous peoples and destroy cultures. The footage, commissioned by Galerie SAW Gallery, documents a community assembled around shared values of justice.
However, the show is not without its absences. Although there are several Ottawa-based artists of colour – Rachel Kalpana James, Jinny Yu and Guillermo Trejo – when it comes to visibility through portraiture, Justin Wonnacott’s Canada Day, Sparks Street, Ottawa, July 1, 2015 (2015) is one of only a few. In the photograph, a black woman stands alongside her children, dressed for the celebration. Her perturbed expression calls to mind Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome) (2018), a three-channel video work of 17 black Canadians repeating the “oral gesture” of sucking teeth which Pearson Clarke states is “used to signify a wide range of negative affects, including irritation;”5 in a way, “a coping strategy.”6 Pearson Clarke’s work comments on white Canada’s denial that its dominance persists.
The exhibition would have also benefited from viewpoints provided by artists who explore the inter- sections of decolonization as well as by younger artists like Nigerian-Canadian artist Kosisochukwu Nnebe, whose 2017 exhibition Somatic Satiation added depth to the local dialogue on identity. Using visual repetition of the image of one black woman through a series of photographic and mixed media collages, Nnebe sought to “overwhelm the viewer with representations and depictions of black womanhood until they begin to question their understandings of blackness.”7
In her catalogue essay, Penny McCann refers to “landscape as [a] mnemonic device.” Walking through Àdisòkàmagan, with its emphasis on the topography of the region, relationships are recalled. What is valued in a place where the rivers, for millennia, have drawn people to its banks? How do newcomers contribute and what is at risk of being obscured by their arrivals and contributions? The strength of the exhibition is in its archiving of Ottawa’s arts community – one that has been increasingly open to considering its erasures and demonstrating a commitment to change. Àdisòkàmagan / Nous connaître un peu nous-mêmes / We’ll All Become Stories provides an opportunity for reflection: if we notice what the landscape reveals, it has the potential to expand us as a community.