On one side of the Art Gallery of Alberta are some of the national treasures of Canadian art history. Painted by the Russian-born Nicholas deGrandmaison, early 20th century scenes of Southern Alberta ranchers and cowboys along with intimate portraits of Blackfoot and Peigan people are primary documents of Alberta’s visual cultural history. Grandmaison’s oeuvre leaves a cherished legacy of raw romanticism that at once aggrandizes and encapsulates Aboriginal identity politics that persist into contemporary times.
In direct dialogue with their summer deGrandmaison show, and exhibiting on the other side of the Art Gallery of Alberta, Face the Nation gathers eight contemporary Aboriginal artists from across Canada for their take on the history and (mis)representation of myths, stereotypes, and culture. Featuring works by K.C. Adams, Lori Blondeau, Dana Claxton, Terrance Houle, Maria Hupfield, Kent Monkman, Adrian Stimson and Jeff Thomas, Face the Nation explores the ways that young, urban Aboriginal people are representing themselves in visual art.
Terrance Houle, Urban Indian #7, digital print, 2007.
“The artists are rooting the formations of their identities in a common past history — and in a common art history,” says Catherine Crowston, the AGA’s deputy director and chief curator. “They’re not just addressing present-day identities, but commenting on historical representations.”
While Toronto-based painter Kent Monkman has been known for his historical revisioning of classic painting styles —referencing the work of artists ike Paul Kane and George Catlin — Ottawa-based artist Jeff Thomas is working directly with the AGA’s collection of Edward Curtis historical photographs, and incorporating them into the institution’s modern photographic portraits as a method to archive, engage, and recover lost histories.
Many of the artists in Face the Nation use themes of sexuality and performance to confront the past and evaluate the present. “Many of the artists are rewriting the history of what has been left out, and often with many subjugated people, the issue of sexuality comes up,” Crowston says. “The animalistic man and the Indian princess – some of these artists are exploring an inversion of colonial relationships.”
Highlighting the body’s transformative identity, themes of imitation, mimicry and reference emerge through performative enactment of masquerade. Challenging the authority of history in both its documentary and artistic representations, new works and collaborative works by Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson assume the alter egos of Belle Sauvage and The Buffalo Boy. New media work by Dana Claxton, and new pieces by Calgary-based artist Terrance Houle play off gender roles. Houle’s work presents Native men in loin cloths setting up a tipi, with obvious erections directed away from the audience. The humour and subtlety of usurped identity echoes KC Adam’s 2005 Cyborg Hybrid series, which will also be included, along with sculptural works from Maria Hupfield.
“The way the show is shaping up, there will be a lot of performance and masquerade,” Crowston says. “A big part of what the show is looking at is the question of identity."
*First published in Galleries West, Volume 7, Number 2, Summer 2008