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Issue 151

Archives, Bones, and Polaroids
by Lois Taylor Biggs

The late Cree artist Kimowan Metchewais understood stories through the body. Former Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) curator Liz Park relayed his worldview in a 2014 blog post on the museum website, writing that Metchewais believed some stories are highly visible but “ephemeral and forgettable”—that, like hair, “they grow and are stuck on you, but eventually they’ll fall out and be swept away.”1 Others, however, get “etched into your ribcage” and can never be excised. “They stay with you permanently even if they cannot be seen.”2

  • Kimowan Metchewais, installation view from “Without Ground,” 2002, The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

This haunting formulation reflects Metchewais’s own creative practice. Throughout his career, Metchewais told stories that could not be swept away. He maintained a vast archive of Polaroid images, which he used as material for wall-sized collages, multimedia installations, and other smaller works. These images, which featured places, community members, and the artist himself, enabled him to reflect upon his Cree identity, his relationship to his homelands, and his battle with cancer. Many of Metchewais’s Polaroids archived elements of his body and the bodies of his subjects: hair, hands, bare torsos. He dipped these Polaroids in water dyed tawny brown by tobacco, a sacred substance. In his 2020 Aperture article “Kimowan Metchewais’s Search for Visual Sovereignty,” art historian Christopher Green describes this process as a ceremonial act, citing the artist’s description of well-known collage series Cold Lake (2004–06) as “a kind of prayer.”3 Through such ceremonial, material acts, Metchewais blurred the boundaries of the body and the archive for the purpose of healing.

Given the archive’s historic entanglement with colonial violence, what does it mean—and what else might it look like—for Indigenous artists to draw connections between bodies and archives?

The artist described his Polaroid works as “post-Curtis portraits,” referencing the 20th-century photographer whose ethnographic portraits of Native people fed the “vanishing race” trope.4 Although many contemporary Indigenous artworks critically restage archival representations such as Curtis’s, Metchewais’s use of a personal archive provides an alternate strategy. Rather than an intervention within an existing archive, the artist saw his practice as an imagining of a post-Curtis world, without “ethnographic baggage.”5 Green argues that Metchewais’s approach released him from the “need for intervention, interrogation, and reinscription that typically weighs down some work by contemporary Native photographers who explore the archive as a site of privileged access, subjugation, and colonial violence.”6

As Green’s claim suggests, Metchewais’s personal archival approach opens space for self-determined healing. Photographs taken during the artist’s battle with brain cancer, for instance, document his loss of hair and surgery-induced loss of movement on the left side of his body.7 In a set of images titled Hand Signs (undated), he paired photographs of his still-mobile right hand making gestures with the written words “flight,” “touch,” and “open.”8 These movements, Green observes, recall neither American Sign Language nor Plains Sign Talk, a form of Indigenous sign language widely appropriated by Boy Scouts and summer-camp programs.9 As Metchewais made sense of his changed body, he formed a new language beyond those of appropriation and subjugation.

Indigenous artworks which, like Hand Signs, constitute alternative archives, also reveal the stakes of archival misrepresentation. In his 1998 book Fugitive Poses, White Earth Ojibwe theorist Gerald Vizenor reflects on representations of Indigenous people within and beyond dominant colonial structures including archives. Fugitive Poses articulates a theory of representation in which the “indian” is a mere simulation of the actual “native,” whose presence manifests in traces beyond the grasp of colonialism.10 In the chapter “Penenative Rumors,” Vizenor draws on Derrida to theorize the archive as a structure intent on the “preservation, death, and deconstruction” of the native, making a key equivalence between archival documentation and the disappearance of Indigenous people within the settler-colonial project.11 For Vizenor, the archive undermines Indigenous sovereignty. “The Constitution of the United States has not always protected natives from the violations of their right of privacy by federal agents, archaeologists, and social scientists,” he writes. “Various agencies of the federal government, in fact, continue to encourage and subsidize an ‘archive fever’ of research that countermines the native right to be ‘secure in their persons.’”12

In part because of their role in structuring colonial violence, the archive and archival form have become subjects of interest for contemporary artists. In his 2004 article “An Archival Impulse,” critic Hal Foster locates a “will ‘to connect what cannot be connected’” at the heart of contemporary archival practice, linking this drive with Freudian paranoia in the face of historical trauma.13 Freud understood paranoia as a projection of ideas which threaten the ego onto the external world, a defence mechanism which enables people to make sense of traumatic experience.14 Foster writes that for Freud, “the paranoiac projects meaning onto a world ominously drained of the same.”15 Does the archival turn in art, therefore, operate as projection in a world drained of meaning? Or as Foster asks, “why [would artists seek to] connect so feverishly if things did not appear so frightfully disconnected in the first place?”16

Importantly, within this frame, Foster characterizes archives as spaces for constructive efforts with broad cultural significance. “[The] move to turn ‘excavation sites’ into ‘construction sites,’” he writes, “suggests a shift away from a melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than the traumatic.”17 For Indigenous people, the historical and the traumatic are one within the archive, a structure which has undermined our sovereignty by anticipating our disappearance. Our constructive efforts are thus entangled, sometimes inextricably, with our projects of excavation.

While Foster discusses paranoia in terms of contemporary art practice and as a response to cultural trauma, Vizenor shows us that a paranoid logic undergirds oppressive colonial structures, such as archives themselves. The “indian is an archive,” he writes, “which contains the simulations, discoveries, treaties, documents of ancestry, traditions in translation, museum remains, and the aesthetics of victimry.”18 From Vizenor’s perspective, colonial archives of Indigenous people—such as Curtis’s photographs—are feverish attempts to remove us from land and displace us from history. They simulate and distort our images and, through this misrepresentation, make our simulated bodies into archival repositories.

As Metchewais notes, some stories are etched into our ribcage.

What do we do with the pain of this etching when the engraving is not our own? Do we construct a new body? Do we rip ourselves open to root out history? When we become an archive against our will, do we take on its paranoia?

In her 2002 book Touching Feeling, the theorist Eve Sedgwick attempts to answer a similar set of questions about trauma through a practice she calls “repair.” She positions repair as an alternative to paranoia, a state in which subjects constantly expect the worst. “Because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise,” she writes, “paranoia requires that bad news be always already known.”19 The paranoid subject seeks to expose bad news before they can be caught off guard and vulnerable to the pain of further trauma. When they shift from paranoid anticipation to self-determined creation, they move into the reparative position. From this position, Sedg- wick writes, “it is possible to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’” the fragmented pieces of a paranoid worldview “into something like a whole.”20 By offering its creator “nourishment and comfort,” she suggests, repair aids in healing.

One suggestive Foster footnote speaks to archival paranoia in a manner which recalls Sedgwick’s “bad surprises.” He states, “[P]erhaps, like the Library of Alexandria, any archive is founded on disaster (or its threat), pledged against a ruin that it cannot forestall.”21 Archives, like Sedgwick’s paranoid subjects, anticipate developments that could destroy them—including, as Vizenor suggests, the archive of Indigenous subjugation. This archive seeks to forestall the “ruin” of the colonial project; it pledges itself against the Indigenous presence that threatens to undermine and dismantle it. This dynamic makes reparative archival practice difficult for Indigenous artists. We often find ourselves working against a paranoid medium through paranoid strategies—the “intervention, interrogation, and reinscription” that Green describes in Aperture.22 Our intimate familiarity with the violence of archives primes us not only to anticipate further trauma, but also to wield these strategies against ourselves. We challenge, but remain trapped within, a structure that wounds.

Repair is an appealing exit from the trap of intervention. It offers a healing balm that moves beyond the grain of paranoid structures such as the colonial archive, a chance to create a comforting whole out of historical fragments. It is not, however, without risks. Sedgwick’s juxtapositions—paranoia and repair, good and bad, pain and comfort—suggest to some a world of neat, easily solvable dualities. Understood in this way, repair threatens to act out reconciliation: a pre-emptive tying-up of loose ends that enables continued rending.

Indigenous healing and artistic practice cannot, and should not, be oversimplified. We are constantly making sense of our bodies in relation to the body of the colonial archive, finding the wounds and stemming the blood. These efforts are painful; they are also often transformative.

Perhaps there is a word, or many words, for such a visceral practice. We see its traces in Metchewais’s 2002 installation Without Ground and Duane Linklater’s 2014 response It means it is raining, both of which envision the material body in—and of—the archive as a site for healing.

To create Without Ground, Metchewais transferred self-portraits onto the walls of the ICA.23 In this work, the white walls of the gallery space become a deft visual synecdoche for colonial structures. Metchewais’s self-portraits, coloured and faded to create an illusion of depth, searched the museum walls for clues to a crime: “the theft of Indigenous land evoked by the installation’s title.”24 While its forensic framing carries paranoid echoes, the work’s tactility recalls construction and repair. “Treating the walls of the museum as the ‘ribcage of a living animal,’” Green writes, Metchewais “felt that his photographs were like ‘tattoos etched onto the bones of the beast.’”25 The artist anticipated their burial within the institution’s architectural memory, covered by future layers of accumulated paint. Metchewais intermingled his body with the museum’s to make him- self a permanent Indigenous presence at the ICA, mediating between the paranoid archival impulse to connect and the reparative archival impulse to construct. He etched a story into the bones of an archival body and, in doing so, rewrote the story of absence on his own bones.

Twelve years later, and three years after Metchewais’s 2011 death, the ICA invited Linklater to respond to Without Ground as part of the institution’s 50th-anniversary programming.26 In the project titled It means it is raining, Linklater removed layers of paint from the ICA walls in an effort to recover Metchewais’s self-portraits.27 This excavation is a succinct critique of Indigenous erasure within contemporary art spaces as well as a moving uncovering of the personal “traces left behind” by Metchewais, an artistic gesture with a provocative archival dimension.28 Although Linklater did not succeed in revealing Metchewais’s figures, his efforts are visible on the gallery walls as a series of grey and yellow craters. Linklater’s project, which encompasses elements of excavation, construction, and repair, speaks to an archival healing that moves beyond these practices. Like Metchewais’s Polaroid archive, Linklater broke open the body of the colonial archive to build a connection between Indigenous lives.

The works of Metchewais and Linklater transform our understanding of what an archive is, how it wounds and breathes and heals. The ICA employee who relayed Metchewais’s understanding of stories as hair and bones wrote that “Metchewais’s words make me look at the walls [of the museum] differently—as vessels containing stories that fundamentally structure how we, as curators, artists, administrators, and visitors, are shaped within this living, organic system.”29 For Metchewais and Linklater, the archive is a living body. Through artistic practice, they etched permanent stories into its walls—into its ribcage.

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