Ave Atque Vale • HAIL TRIBE / Farewell Mendel
by Bart Gazzola
But the great majority of Canadians will not tolerate any theory that this country or its chief founder practiced or countenanced any plausible definition of genocide ever or anywhere1.
We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering2.
When TRIBE, a centre for evolving Aboriginal visual, media and performing arts, presented Dana Claxton’s Buffalo Bone China in 1995 as their inaugural project, the Canadian art world – and the larger world it sometimes inhabited or eschewed – was radically different. Claxton’s Revisited, that was on display in Saskatoon this Spring to mark TRIBE’s twentieth anniversary, had a reception almost concurrent to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation preliminary report. One couldn’t help but become introspective. That another exhibition presented by TRIBE as part of their anniversary, The Fifth World, was the last exhibition at the much loved Mendel Art Gallery before its closure to foster preparations for the Remai Modern, also fed this thoughtfulness.
So let’s look backwards first. The past never really leaves us, and the Prairies are a palimpsest, where unmarked points of history, to quote Scott Benesiinaabandan, are rife.
1995 saw a number of events that factor into the post colonial landscape, if we’re actually “post”: a personal favourite being the James Bay Cree voting 93% in favour of remaining in Canada if the Quebec referendum of that year had gone to the “yes” side. Yitzak Rabin was assassinated in Israel, another site of contested narratives, and Mike Harris became premier of Ontario, setting the stage for Ipperwash and Dudley George. Oka was only five years before: and according to some accounts, Robert Pickton and his brother had just started their reign of terror with an invisibility that seems echoed by the “official” contemporary silence / ignorance regarding missing / murdered Indigenous women. Returning to Saskatoon, Starlight tours3 were yet to be a nationally breaking story but were ongoing in a frigid mute darkness.
That the landscape has shifted is undeniable. The aforementioned Fifth World closing of the Mendel is a significant act, a truly prescient exhibition choice.
Curated by Wanda Nanibush, this included Charlotte Vickers, Jordan Bennett, and Ursula Johnson, with artwork that was as aesthetically seductive as it was insistently political. That this show was concurrent to School Art, the annual showcase of work by students that brings families to the gallery en masse, also spoke to a future of “here” as much as the history that shapes it still. Overhearing a high school teacher expound to students about Skeena Reese’s almost violently frenetic Transmissions from the Raven: On the Colonial Fleet, in a manner considered and knowledgeable, was refreshing and inspiring4. I almost have hope.
That Dana Claxton, Bear Witness, and Edward Poitras occupied all the gallery spaces at 424 20th Street West, including the billboard, was a powerful statement that dominated the artistic community of Saskatoon, and received national attention. But as some things change, (the Saskatoon Police recently commissioned a monument to MMIWs), others fester.5
Ed Poitras’ billboard, Don’t Speak, is perhaps the defining artwork of the triad on display on 20th: you encounter it prior to entering the galleries, and it exists in a public realm, overlooking the community of Riversdale (experiencing positive gentrification to be celebrated or brutal economic displacement with an uncomfortable racial component, depending on where you stand). It has a contemporary relevance in its image of female students (or inmates) of a residential school, and the title suggests a pressure to ignore or underplay this chapter in the cultural genocide of that era.
The grayish image with the coloured “word balloons” contrast each other sharply, and Poitras’ statement expressing an almost despairing concern over what became of these children is heartbreaking.
That this piece remained on display into August, as political hucksters began to preen and plead in the federal election, offered a reminder that we should be frightened. Very frightened. But not immobilized. Voices need to be raised –not silenced.
The gallery spaces of aka artist-run and paved are to your left and directly ahead when you enter 424 20th, respectively. There’s a contrast and incongruity to the works of Claxton and Witness: some of this is attributable to the difference between a more mature artist and an emerging one, but also can be seen as an external, historical point; Witness’s use and “abuse” of pop culture and wider media narratives are the most obvious difference, but more on that to follow.
Claxton’s Revisited is dominatingly simple in the space, quiet and enveloping, creating an environment of prairie grasslands, projected floor to ceiling on the long wall. A figure walks the land, ghostly then solid, appearing and disappearing, a calm dark movement among the vibrant plain. The side-by-side dual projections seem mirrored, but also vary: they loop, and the darkness of the space invites contemplation and encourages a quiet consideration of how history (on the Prairies, especially, but often elsewhere) is melded irrevocably within site / place.
The serene quality of Revisited is a necessity once you’ve experienced the more raucous and exuberant work of Witness in The Ultimate Warriors. This is apt: after all, two of my favourite songs from A Tribe Called Red (of which Witness is part) have been remixes that reconfigure Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Working For the Government, and the more appropriately abrasive – and amusing – Thanksgiving mix that sampled Christina Ricci (as Wednesday, of Addams Family fame) talking about the necessity of “burning your village to the ground.” The characters that appear in the large format digital prints and the video projection on the far wall are equally performative: whether the Ultimate Warrior of WWF / WWE fame or The Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (in his iconic act of escape from the asylum6).
At the panels that happened in Saskatoon as a further celebration – and recognition – of TRIBE’s accomplishments and anniversary, Witness spoke of mixing and matching mainstream narratives to create a new story: it’s a variation on McLuhan’s ideas of hot / cold media, of messages that are interactive and open to not just interpretation but also reconfiguration into something more relevant to the viewer.
It’s like Jeanne Randolph’s notions of the amenable object, but taken even further, splicing and slamming components together to make something unique and specifically relevant. There’s also a child like nature to these works, as Witness seems to be celebrating heroes he remembers watching while young, and is making them the stars of his own stories in the present.
In the past twenty years, TRIBE has presented some of the more incisive and evocative artists and exhibitions in Treaty 6: I’ll always treasure Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin speaking at the Mendel as part of TRIBE’s presentation of his “An Indian Act: An Indian Shooting the Indian Act”, and declaring that he had no use for “hate” disguised under the name “reform.” At the recent multi organizational symposium Stronger Than Stone, individuals like Elwood Jimmy and Rebecca Belmore acknowledged the contributions made by TRIBE on a provincial and national –if not international – level. It’s amusing, this sudden realization by many cultural organizations, of the opportunities and possibilities available to a “nomadic” organization that privileges artists and exhibitions over a “traditional” space, when TRIBE has been doing that for more than two decades.
TRIBE’s history is impressive, but along the way what has been demonstrated is vision and a sense of what is coming. (It’s no accident that the same place that birthed TRIBE is also the genesis of Idle No More.) This is where I’d return to The Fifth World not so much marking the “end” of the Mendel, as acting even moreso as a harbinger of what’s to come, of what is ahead, and the role that TRIBE will play within that in the next decades.
Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for three years), Magenta, PrairieSeen, Galleries West, Omnicity, and Hamilton Arts & Letters. Art critic at Planet S for over a decade, and host & producer of The A Word.