Conflicting Heroes: Sonny Assu, Natalie Ball, Dayna Danger, David Garneau, Leonard Getinthecar (Nicholas & Jerrod Galanin) in collaboration with Nep Sidhu, Kent Monkman, Caroline Monnet, Jessie Ray Short, Skawennati
by Dagmara Genda
Just as Europe buttresses its defences against the dispossessed families arriving at its shores, Berlin opened its 10th Biennale. We Don’t Need Another Hero lifted not only the title from Tina Turner’s theme song for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) but also its defiant revolutionary charge. Conflicting Heroes, the Berlin extension of Canada’s Contemporary Native Art Biennial hosted by Art Mûr, brought a North American perspective to the larger event’s post-colonial discourse, though it forwent the adrenaline of the rock anthem for a more ambivalent approach. For curator Michael Patten, the heroic role model is both necessary and problematic, poised at a point of contradiction that can either uplift or oppress. The cross-section of real and imagined heroes in the show are a case in point: Alanis Obomsawin, Louis Riel, Spiderman and even Napoleon. As its title suggests, the exhibition outlines ways in which role models may be celebrated, appropriated or rejected. The most nuanced works in the nine-artist show make use of cultural hybridity, in which conflict is also inherent, to emphasize different levels of meaning.
Filling the entire street-level window is David Garneau’s Louis David Riel (after Jacques Louis David) (2009), which depicts the Métis leader, Christian cross in hand, triumphantly and absurdly posed as David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801). Upon entering the gallery, one discovers another painting by Garneau behind it, Noose/Fist (Métis Flag) (2003) in which the insignia of Canada’s Métis—also the symbol for infinity—becomes a noose, presumably the one used in Riel’s execution for treason. The juxtaposition highlights the conflicting symbolism associated with Riel—for some, he is the defender of Métis rights, for others a Catholic nationalist. Caroline Monnet’s eye-catching group portrait of six influential Indigenous women, Renaissance (2018), is hung opposite, placing it in direct dialogue with Garneau’s dry irony. Monnet also employs European tropes in the form of monarchic regalia, but rather than tackling the history of oil painting, she uses the glamour of fashion photography. The women, among whom is visionary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, are part of the contemporary cultural vanguard and are nothing short of queens. They wear Elizabethan ruffs and corsets combined with beadwork, moccasins and fur. Contrary to Garneau, Monnet’s use of regal imagery seems a straightforward celebration. Media representation of Indigenous women has too long been biased by the lens of Eurocentric racism. However, incorporating classical European tropes of power and beauty can give with one hand, while taking with the other. Is it possible to represent without the tools of oppression or is representation a matter of manipulating what’s available, no matter how faulty that may be?
It is this clash of perspectives in which many of the works in Conflicting Heroes operate, and as such, they invite different readings depending on who’s looking. Inaccessibly titled for a white audience, Dayna Danger’s Gi zhaa goo tha mik (2016–17) consists of three large-format portraits of a young woman in a black beaded bondage mask. Though her conventional beauty and the studio photography prompt the spectator’s look to linger, it’s only a ploy to let one know she doesn’t need the (presumably white) viewer’s gaze. Her pose is not so much defiant, which can also be a provocative tease, but self-sufficient, even judging. For an Anishinaabemowin speaker, this image will carry yet other layers of meaning. The mask—popularly prefixed with “gimp” (with regretful thanks to Quentin Tarantino), is a mark of submission—though here it is subverted by the addition of beadwork, and thereby invested with a dignity that also renders it a shield. In an interview with Canadian Art,  Danger notes that BDSM is fundamentally consent-based; in play, the submissive holds the reins.
Sonny Assu also benefits from the layering of cultural symbols to invite different avenues of access. Assu discovered his Kwakwaka’wakw roots at the age of seven and the experience has informed his life and thinking ever since. The three works from The Treasury Edition (2018) series are amalgamations of Spiderman comics he read as a child and formline, a stylistic feature of Indigenous art from the Northwest Coast. The effect of combining these two forms of highly coded illustration emphasizes their aesthetic similarity and breaks down their distinctions; the comic loses its narrative to become a series of malleable gestures while the drawn lines start to bear cross-cultural meaning.
Another highlight of the showis Skawennati’s sci-fi “edu-tainment” series Timetraveller (2007–14). The nine episodes, which can also be viewed online, are an introduction to Indigenous history using mass-entertainment models—namely Second Life visuals and soap-operatic narrative hooks—to keep their audiences glued to the screen. The artist weaves a relatable narrative and an impressive first-person account of key moments in Indigenous history, from the canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha to the Oka Crisis. Though presumably aimed at a white audience with little knowledge of pre-European cultures in what is now known as the Americas, the work also depicts a journey of self-discovery by the futuristic Indigenous protagonist. The concept behind the series is that Indigenous people must be envisioned in the future in order to ensure they will be part of it. Interestingly, the story primarily focuses on the past, while the future never diverges from the expected hyper-urban jet-pack scenarios— one of the limitations of Second Life’s imaginative potential.
It is undeniable that an alternative, better future is remarkably hard to imagine, especially as one observes the grim irony of a European continent feeling itself besieged by impoverished people literally dying to reach its shores. Conflicting Heroes is a humbling reminder that European colonialism is an ongoing siege whose effects are felt worldwide. At the same time, Conflicting Heroes is a testament to how blurry the line between cultural influence and colonial tool of oppression can be. The ambiguity with which the younger generation of artists mixes cultural symbols speaks to a radical openness that is remarkably future-oriented, even as it simultaneously deepens Canada’s history beyond its European import. In addition to critique in the form of ironic appropriation, hybridity and receptivity are an integral part of the younger artists’ work. They embrace culture not as a static ideal to be defended with fortress walls, but as a living entity whose roots nurture it through changing conditions. This is a vitally important perspective, and it may represent the only path into an uncertain future that demands drastic and irrevocable change from us all.