Love as an Unbodied Archive: Interview with Niamh Dooley
by Chelsea Rozansky
The following, I’m told, is not an uncommon story. Anishininew and Irish artist Niamh Dooley tells me of a relative of hers visiting the Manitoba Museum and, among the collection of traditional Inuit garments on display, recognizing their family design on one of the coats. Dooley, who grew up in Sioux Lookout (ON) and is a member of Mitheynigaaming, or St. Theresa Point First Nation, one of the Island Lake communities in northern Manitoba, explains: “The specific designs on the coat were symbolic of the person’s life and told a story. Often there would be familial designs that would be carried down through generations. My sisters and I often honour our family designs when we do beadwork of our own.” Typically, in Canadian museums, such objects are accompanied by non-specific descriptions about the regions they came from, and don’t include information on their makers, evincing a colonial eye that reduces all such artworks into a falsely homogenous category of “Indigenous.”
In the “Ownership” issue of C Magazine, Siksika artist Adrian Stimson echoes this: “We know that a lot of our material culture is in collections all over the world, but we don’t know what or where it is, what shape things are in or whether they’re being taken care of.”1 Stimson goes on to describe various initiatives he led while president of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres to track down and reclaim stolen Siksika or Blackfoot cultural objects. It goes without saying that customary2 objects in Western museums were often dubiously acquired. By representing women in her family as portrait subjects, Dooley’s recent works attempt to foreclose their potential anonymity at the hand of colonialist history-making, both by rendering their faces in paint, and by reproducing their beadwork. Responsible, in part, for the style and signature symbols in her work, the women in Dooley’s portraits are not just subjects, but also collaborators.
“Being born First Nations means you’re born into politics,” writes Stimson. It feels as though these words are woven through Dooley’s 3 Sisters Dress Gun Series (2017), which depicts her matriarchal lineage. Suspended from branches bent into the form of clothing hangers, and dangling off hooks, the canvases are shaped like traditional ribbon dresses, which Anishininew women wear for ceremonies and celebrations such as powwows. Each canvas features the image of a woman—Dooley’s mother and two of her aunts, copied from photographs from the ’70s—painted in the centre. Each appears to be holding a beaded gun, stitched onto the canvas. There are no backdrops painted behind the portraits, which gives them a cut-and-paste quality, as if cut out from a family photo album. Based on Dooley’s focused attention to lighting and shade, we get the impression that the primary portraits were taken outside; the sunny gleam drawn out by her oil paint captures the liveliness and joy expressed in each woman’s squinting eyes and sweating skin. Dooley preps her canvases with rabbit-skin glue, which seeps into the folds and crevices, giving them a fleshy, glossy look, rather than the plastic quality of clear gesso. Rabbit-skin glue is a Renaissance-era canvas primer, and Dooley’s artwork evokes the somewhat goofy, somewhat reverential posture often present in the glow of a Renaissance painting. Her painterly style exemplifies David Garneau’s definition of contemporary Indigenous art as “neither fully traditional nor colonized. Indigenous is a third space—sovereign sites within settler territories,” or in the case of Dooley’s canvases, sovereign sites shrewdly moving back in on settler territory.
The first woman, Dooley’s Aunt Margaret Knott, in Bologna and a Gun (2017), points her gun right at you. Her head is cocked, with one eye squinted like she’s aiming to shoot. She looks badass. Still, the gun in front of her face doesn’t hide a creeping grin. Is Bologna and a Gun a threat to settler viewers, or is it teasing play among Anishininew friends, or both? A bologna sandwich on white bread is in her front pocket, the processed food representative of settler interference, of being white-bred. Dooley’s Aunt Annie Harper, in Bannock and a Gun (2017), smiles and holds her gun at her hip in one hand. In the other, she grips a piece of bannock over her head, arm flexed. While bannock, a comfort food made and enjoyed in many Indigenous nations in Western Canada, is commonly thought to be a Scottish import introduced to Indigenous nations by settlers, some historians argue that it was actually a pre-contact recipe modified down the line with European ingredients; even this Anishininew symbol of home bears its trace of European compromising.3 In Blueberries and a Gun (2017), Dooley’s mother, Yvette Monias, looks serene. The gun is present, but it’s in her pocket, and blueberries, which grow wild in Sioux Lookout, are beaded onto the canvas and held in her hand like a bouquet.
Their poses seem to be in conversation with pop culture, whether the “cowboys” of Hollywood Westerns, who imitate real settler violence, or cinema’s go-to girl-and-a-gun formula. In any case, by placing the gun in the hands of her mom and aunts, Dooley relocates romanticized pop representations of violence, upending the fact that the source material for such tableaux is always colonial violence. This is but one way in which the Dress Gun Series enacts a détournement of fictional portraits of Indigenous peoples in pop culture’s settler imagination, which, as Dooley points out, have also been reflected in Western curatorial practice. “Historically, everything in museums was just placed on display, giving that notion of the ‘vanishing Indian’4 type of imagery popularized by photographers who would dress up Indigenous people in garments that were not necessarily from where they’re from. It was just tokenization.”
Symbols weighted by histories of settler-Indigenous politics are present in these artworks but, undoubtedly, so is love. “That Indigeneity births us into a relation of non-sovereignty is not solely coloniality’s dirty work,” writes poet Billy-Ray Belcourt. “No, it [non-sovereignty] is also what emerges from a commitment to forms of sociality that begin from the notion that the body is an assemblage, a collage of everyone who’s ever moved us, for better or for worse.”5 It’s no surprise, then, that Dooley’s work makes use of collage. Because of the branches, the dress-shaped canvases, the beadwork, and the cut-and-paste appearance of the images, Dooley tells me she thinks of her artwork as sculptures, rather than paintings. Her mosaic of cultural symbols, references to colonial violence, and imprints of familial love situate her practice in Garneau’s third-space conception of Indigeneity: a home determined political from the outside, through colonial dirty work, and familial from the inside, through love. I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s description of history as images which flicker and flash up, as memories sometimes do, and threaten to disappear if we don’t grasp hold of them, as memories sometimes do. “The true picture of the past flits by,” Benjamin writes, and so, a counter-history involves piecing together these fragmented, flitting images, again making collage an apt metaphor.6 These messier, more multitudinous attempts offer a productive counterpoint to flattening, anonymizing museological traditions.
Misattributed “cultural treasures,” as Benjamin ironically calls stolen cultural objects, might be said to be marked by a lack of care “whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly,” as he writes of an apathetic attitude toward history that he warns against assuming.7 That this attitude begins in the heart may sound lovelorn, but it is through love that we can imagine an archival and historiographic practice that centres the spirit of collaboration. Building off theorist Lauren Berlant’s claim from a nomorepotlucks interview that “love always means non-sovereignty,”8 Belcourt suggests that “love requires that we violate our own attachments, that we give into instability, that we accept that turbulence is the condition of relationality as such.”9 In short, love is about honouring complexity, and Dooley’s practice corroborates this in the way it conceives of authorship as a sort of diffused network of influence. Thinking of Dooley’s Dress Gun Series as assemblage art rather than painting frees our discussions of this work from the confines of authorship. Each material has its own history and its own origins, independent from its presence in the work, which renders the artwork a site with many authors. As we welcome relationality as a legitimate form of construction for ourselves and our works, we downgrade the reverence for intellectual sovereignty as a colonialist framing device. “Love is a process of becoming unbodied,” Belcourt writes; “at its best and wildest, it works up a poetics of the unbodied.”10 In putting fragments of the past together, and drawing from an artwork’s many co-creators, Dooley offers a collection different from the museum’s—a non-sovereign archive.
In a lecture presented by C Magazine in Autumn 2019, Crystal Migwans outlined two different kinds of care for cultural materials and objects.11 The first, which she calls biopolitical or bureaucratic care, is in her view enacted by the art museum among many cultural institutions, where objects are treated like information to be collected, stored, and preserved. This type of so-called care, Migwans notes, masks its violence, which is enacted not only through its hardcoded acts of erasure, but because its banal custodianship is apathetic toward—if not fundamentally at odds with—the culturally specific methodologies, meaning, and usages of the objects. The second kind of care is familial, “imagistic care,” Migwans says, or “care that is charged with all the strange, indescribable, unable-to-be-put-into-words content of the image,” where “the survivability of the object [is] wrapped up in minute, daily, indescribable ways.” This second description is a pretty good blueprint for how we love.
Kookim (2018), meaning “grandmother,” is a portrait of Dooley’s late grandmother Sarah Jane Monias. Floating like a halo above Monias’s head, a cobalt and baby-blue beaded violet flower is stitched onto the canvas, with two green leaves extending outward in either direction. Ceding room for the sitter’s hand in authorship, Dooley’s considerations of co-authorship and influence are strongest in Kookim; the motif originally decorated the arms of a moosehide leather jacket that Monias stitched for Dooley’s dad when her parents got married. Beadwork, Migwans discusses, is a good example of imagistic care, as it is “a meticulous meditative practice where the hand comes in caring contact with a stand-in for the body,” adding that “beadwork is often something that is worn … something that is made for someone.” In the case of Kookim, this beaded flower represents a constellation of love and care that is maternal, romantic, intergenerational. “The artist and hence the object,” Migwans says, “has entanglements or relations with a lot of different people, places, and things. It has a lot of cousins.” Kookim, which firmly implicates Monias as a collaborator, makes the most resolved case for love as a precondition for this non-sovereign archive.
Dooley is part of two beading groups. One, she leads at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), a mentorship program for women artists in Winnipeg.12 The second is with her three sisters, named Monias Beads after their mother’s maiden name; together, the three of them started learning, practicing, and replicating their family’s beading techniques about five years ago. There’s a kind of tacit learning at work in the sisters’ beading group: learning which is passed down through touch. The beading group is also a space where Dooley and her sisters practice Island Lake Oji-Cree, which her mom speaks, as an effort to learn about and preserve their heritage. Since Kookim, Dooley has started to title her artworks in Island Lake dialect as but a small gesture toward keeping the language alive—yet another way that her work memorializes.
Love “is a category we’ve pieced together to make something like sense or reason out of the body failing living up to the promise of self-sovereignty,” Belcourt writes.13 Perhaps love can be thought of as an opposing pole to sovereignty in its very principle. Reflecting on stolen cultural objects, Dooley tells me she felt loss. Stimson found the custodianship of such objects “horrid.” Migwans noted that it’s a kind of violence. A root sadness is the inspiration for each of these artists’ and thinkers’ projects. Belcourt refers to a passage in Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love (2013): “[M]aybe I should say make love, but maybe not because we didn’t actually make love. it [sic] was sadder than that… I think it was salvation,” Simpson writes. Just as Migwans identifies two kinds of care, Belcourt describes two forms of non-sovereignty produced by colonialism: “The bad non-sovereignty that distributes lethal forms of precarity and the good non-sovereignty that makes us submit to a world-to-come, to the feeling of salvation.” Love, as Dooley’s portrait practice illustrates, lets us imagine ownership, authorship, and historiography as collective, and bolsters against new erasures. This is a way to write history.
For the introduction and previous parts to this series, please visit: Shifting Spotlights