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Issue 147

Bureau of Aesthetics: Native Art Department International
by Emma Steen

Walking into the Native Art Department International (NADI) Bureau of Aesthetics, I am immediately greeted by the rhythmic sound of jingles. They are coming from There is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not (2018), a projection of Bronx-based artist Dennis RedMoon Darkeem dancing in an empty theatre in his powwow regalia. At the end of each loop, his statement reads across a black screen, “I feel like everyone has had a hand in defining Native people, except ourselves.”

  • Native Art Department International, installation view of Bureau of Aesthetics, 2020, Mercer Union, Toronto PHOTO: TONI HAFKENSCHEID; COURTESY OF MERCER UNION

When Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan began planning for the first Canadian solo exhibition of their long-term collaborative project, they could not have imagined that just as it was set to open, the world would shut down. How bizarre it feels to be in a gallery right now; its rules of engagement (where we can and cannot sit, stand, or lean while considering work that we can or cannot touch) feel heightened with the presence of COVID-19, but are also elements of the kind of curatorial rigidity that NADI turns a spotlight on. Bureau of Aesthetics has been closed to the general public since its opening in March, and there is something strangely familiar about entering a room full of Indigenous creative excellence that has been silenced. This is of course through no fault of Mercer Union— who had expected to run the show until the end of May and host a full month of performances by Hupfield— but being in an empty gallery reminds me of entering archives and seeing shelves of carvings, paintings, and masks that have been left mostly on their own. It is that exact culture of curating—one that projects reductionist assumptions onto the work of Indigenous cultural producers—that NADI does so well at satirizing and dismantling. The show emphasizes kinship, relationality, and methods of disruption, all of which seek to liberate the confines of so called authenticity and classification that are so ingrained in a colonial approach to art history and exhibition.

Working across various media, NADI’s artworks actively aim to upend essentialist expectations of Indigenous aesthetics in their viewers and decentre aestheticism in their
work. In Untitled (Carl Beam) (2017), a “No U-turn” neon sign is overlaid on a print of Carl Beam’s Traffic (1997), which depicts a lithograph of a raven above a traffic sign. It was inspired by Lujan and Hupfield’s visit to a Beam retrospective, the artists observing that major institutions, galleries, and private collectors were only interested in purchasing artwork with traditional Indigenous imagery. The artists’ response was to problematize the notion of an “Indigenous aesthetics,” deciding to honour Beam’s work here by intentionally obstructing the view with unconventional materials that seek to decouple Beam’s aesthetics from any supposed such thing. With the sign, NADI is directing how we now approach and value Beam’s work—directed by Indigenous artists themselves and not, as RedMoon Darkeem cautioned against, by others. In a similar vein is the structural sculptural work Maintaining Good Relations (2017), a neon-pink Plexiglass light box with a mirrored floor, originally installed in Artists Space (New York), illuminated to signify when NADI’s independent FM radio broadcast was on air. The broadcast, which spanned a full day, hosted conversations with an array of guests which sought to prioritize intersectionality between artists and arts communities. In these works and others, Hupfield and Lujan consistently poke and prod at the ways in which art, especially art made by non-white artists, is categorized and contained within rigid boundaries. In turn, they create works and spaces that negate colonial art-historical structures and instead promote anti-colonial discourse and strategies to enact reciprocity, care, and knowledge sharing.

Exhibited at the back of the gallery is Everything Sacred is Far Away (2019), a video series of public access television–style satirical scenes which feature Hupfield, Lujan, and a cast of characters from their network of peers, discussing authorship, anthropology, and the invisibility of Indigenous agency in art in pseudocientific fashion. At one point Lujan, clad in a lab coat, holds up a print of Southern Cheyenne multidisciplinary artist Edgar Heap of Bird’s Point Of Sword Who Owns History (2004) as well as a crudely done painted copy and asks another cast member, “Which is more authentic?” Everything Sacred is Far Away embodies NADI’s approach to collaboration, focusing on humour to create non-competitive structures that include many different participants with the shared goal of solidarity and relationality. This collaborative practice seemingly extends to the viewer as well, asking us all to consider how to use non-competitiveness to foster care within communities and interrogate the capitalist structures within art that focuses on individual success, a concept which NADI can be seen actively resisting.

As their collective’s title suggests, Hupfield and Lujan draw upon academic and administrative language to cheekily push back against the limitations many Indigenous artists face as their work in placed in a box of what is and isn’t considered Indigenous; they quite literally build their own box in the case of Maintaining Good Relations. Their approach to addressing the double standard in art, which seeks uniqueness while punishing Indigenous artists for stepping away from traditional cultural signifiers, is to laugh openly, in the case of Everything Sacred is Far Away —at the ways in which art historians, curators, and critics have been trained to use academic language to engage with Indigenous art but ultimately fail to understand the complexities of its practitioners’ self representations. It is because of this active energy to disrupt the expected that Bureau of Aesthetics still accomplishes what it has set out to do, despite a global pandemic getting in its way.

NADI’s Bureau of Aesthetics promotes an understanding of Indigenous lived experience and identity as complex and ever-changing. As the audience, we are clearly expected to take time and care to challenge our own preconceived ideas around Indigenous art and aesthetics, and to leave feeling implicated in their project. I consider RedMoon Darkeem’s words as I watch him dance in an empty theatre, as I stand in an empty gallery. Keeping each other company in our isolation, a new form of kinship rises. With each step and jingle, I feel a bit lighter. I expect the unexpected with NADI and was thrilled by the bright colours, humour, and moments of pause that this show offered.

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