Truth to Material: Krista Belle Stewart
by Hamish Hardie
The walls of the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s exhibition space were left bare during Krista Belle Stewart’s recent solo show, Truth to Material. The viewer’s attention was drawn instead to the large photographs that completely covered the gallery floor. Printed on vinyl, these images coated the concrete so tightly that many of its minute cracks and indents remained visible up close, evidence of an imperfect foundation below the flat representations on the surface. Two objects, an engraved silver arm band and a decorated deerskin dress, were displayed in glass vitrines. Along with a short video playing in a separate room, these components comprise an exhibition that portrays and explores the vexed relationships surrounding objects of cultural study, attraction and appropriation.
Truth to Material documents Stewart’s encounter with a European subculture, known in Germany as Indianer, of recreational enthusiasts of a mythologized, hyper-essentialist version of North American Indigenous cultures. Earnestly recreating the customs and costumes of particular tribes (as depicted in Western literary and anthropological accounts from decades past), they dress up as “Indigenous people” at large outdoor gatherings that last for days at a time, finding pleasure and escape in pre-modern roleplay. Many of Stewart’s floor-bound photographs show Indianers dressed in regalia and among tipis, though a stray T-shirt or electronic device often disrupts the attempted verisimilitude of the scene.
The hobby’s survival in Germany is partly due to the enduring popularity of German writer Karl May, whose 19th-century adventure novels set in the American West invigorated countless German childhoods and shaped perceptions of North American Indigenous peoples. Stewart’s interdisciplinary practice often considers how archives and their materials inform historical narratives. Photos from her visit to the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany, show ghoulish mannequins in faux tribal garb and a stony, ghostlike bust of Winnetou, the Apache hero of May’s fiction. In Truth to Material, these lifeless avatars of the museum appear alongside the images of white hobbyists in costume, both functioning as emblems of the shallow and reductive ways in which Indigenous cultures have been represented, their complexities smoothed over and histories of colonial displacement erased or depoliticized.
The individual motivations behind the Indianer hobby appear as an indistinct morass of social, cultural and libidinal desires, though such a description runs the risk of depicting them as overly mysterious. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that in some ways the Indianer performances are familiar iterations, part of a long history, of racial costuming for the purpose of white enjoyment. But it is worth exploring, as the artist does, what is particular about this German hobby, how the attachments that sustain it exceed the fleeting pleasures of a costume party. The two objects, displayed and rarified in vitrines, are suggestive starting points. The title of the engraved silver arm band, Give’r Indianer (2019), resembles both an expression of hearty encouragement and the imperative phrase “give her.” Spontaneously gifted to Stewart in a bizarre interaction captured by the video, the band is visibly smeared with the reddish body paint used by its previous owner to darken his skin. It thus epitomizes the way in which hobbyists’ recreational commitment to detail and immersion—perhaps endearingly eccentric in the context of something like cosplay—be- comes sinister when incited by racial fantasies. To its wearer, the physicality of the body paint may reflect the desire for a sensuous and liberated “noble savage” subjectivity, but the pathos of that figure, derived from the tragic state of being oppressed or out of place in modernity, is arguably the even more sinister aspect of this multifarious attraction to Indigeneity. A view of Indigenous peoples as terminally victimized and relegated to the past, as representable by time-frozen mannequins in a museum, proves to be a necessary condition of Indianer identification.
The intricate deerskin dress, titled The Gift (2019), decorated with beads, shells, deer tails and acrylic paint, was handmade for Stewart specifically by an Indianer friend she made during her early encounters with the group around 2007. The giving of a gift, far from being a one-sided expression of generosity, calls up the web of relations between the giver and the recipient in the same moment that it produces new ones. The experience can be an uneasy one, bearing the traces of past, present and future attachments and obligations. It is easy to see why, when history, violence and the politics of representation enter into the exchange, a gift could be a source of pain and confusion. As the literary critic J. Hillis Miller once noted, gift in German translates to “poison.” By titling the garment this way, calling it what it is, Stewart invites the viewer to stay with ambivalence and mine the connotations of the word.
The museological display of the two objects invites a reading of the exhibition as a kind of anthropological exhibit. In this figuration, Stewart, a member of the Syilx/Okanagan Nation, would be the intrigued ethnographer, bringing home the results of her study of a niche subculture, the arm band and dress the “authentic” artifacts called upon to metonymically represent the milieu to which they belong: in this case, a community founded on imitation. In the video titled Nine ∞ (2019), Stewart moves through an Indianer gathering, holding the camera at a low, arguably furtive angle. She does not appear in the footage, but her voice is heard in conversation with participants, asking how they came to be involved with the hobby and, in one instance, if they had ever considered the effect that their re-enactments might have on the people whose cultures and appearances they imitate. The video invites the viewer to experience Stewart’s difficult object of study from her point of view, with her personal concerns, productively disrupting any pose of objectivity that the exhibition might otherwise have assumed. In a similar disorientation of the ethnographic gaze, the photo-covered floor is given the emotional German title Die Angst (2019), which translates to “the fear,” and immerses the viewer in its milieu just as it destabilizes them. Navigating it forces you to move shiftily around, lifting your feet and contorting your body in order to see more clearly what your own position obscures. The top-down power dynamic implied by having the photos under one’s feet, where the figures depicted are stepped on and demeaned, is undercut by one’s eyes needing to be downcast in what, to an onlooker, might resemble a state of gloom.
Truth to Material is only one iteration in what Stewart anticipates will be an ongoing engagement with the Indianers and the questions raised by their activities. Their community, like any other, is no inert object of study but a lively group of subjects that powerfully affect those who set out to understand or rep- resent them. The exhibition does not stage an exposé, and any didacticism that the viewer identifies must be tempered at least partly by the artist’s closeness to her subject: why spend time cultivating a relationship with this group—over a period of about 12 years—if one only intended to condemn them? Truth to Material refuses an easy dismissal of the phenomenon, preferring to investigate the questions and contradictions of cultural, artistic and anthropological representation that it raises, even if it means drawing the viewer uncomfortably close to these dark and intolerable fantasies.