Spanning over 100 years of Aboriginal representation in Canada, the three concurrent exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Alberta this summer enter into the ever fracturing issue of identity. From the 19th century portraits by Russian aristocrat Nicholas de Grandmaison to the mid twentieth century works by the “Indian Group of Seven” to self-reflexive works by an entirely new generation of Aboriginal artists, the issue of identity and representation seemingly circles itself at least once.
Image credit: Nicholas de Grandmaison "Native Portrait (Sun Chief, Siksika)" n.d.
Pastel on paper
Grandmaison’s portraits continue to be cherished for their technically skilled draftsmanship, but are increasingly towards the vein of museumological artifacts. Grandmaison was an important resource of documentation in southern Alberta history, but only in contrast to these other exhibitions (that were not entirely planned in conjunction) does this work really shine in its ongoing importance. As a point of departure, the idyllic portraits are on the lighter side of the scale when it comes to exoticizing a culture, but through a legacy of exploitation and colonial relations, popular perception of Aboriginal identity has unfortunately morphed into stereotypes.
Image credit: Norval Morrisseau, "Bird Speaks To These Children," 1981
The Collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta
The contemporary works collectively entitled “Face the Nation” directly play against these stereotypes and more often that not, place themselves as artists directly into the role of subverted. Unlike the aesthetic from “Red Tile” which began with telling the stories and symbols from silenced cultures, and rechanneling them for a new generation that have been disconnected from their roots, “Face the Nation” goes all the way back to the early days and interactions between Europeans and First Nations. Walking through the gallery from Maria Hupfield’s re-imagining of Tom Thomson’s connection to the land to Terrence Houle’s staged performances as traditional and nontraditional roles as a contemporary Aboriginal male, each of this new generation of artists are taking back and taking on the role of both subject and director. Whereas the artists of “Red Tile” mostly negated figurative representations for traditional and mythological aesthetics, the next generation has clearly decided to revisit the troubled stereotypes and in so doing risks the act of perpetuation in its goal of total subversion.
Image credit: Dana Claxton, Boy Boy Gotta an Indian Horse, 2008
Holding a panel on the question of contemporary Aboriginal aesthetics with panelists Kent Monkman, Gerald McMaster, Joe Baker, and Candace Hopkins, the tone was immediately set that each esteemed panelist was of distinct heritage. The question of hybridity never did surface, even though the work is certainly referencing and assuming European traditions, nor was the difference between Canadian and American Aboriginal representation acknowledged. In Canada, Aboriginal artists are seen and discussed as contemporary Aboriginal work. But on the world stage, Canada’s Aboriginal artists are actually representing Canadian aesthetics. From Ed Poitras to Annie Pootoogook, it is not an Aboriginal aesthetic that we need to ponder, but the possibility of a national aesthetic that fully embraces all of our past, present, and future identities.