Replacing Nostalgia: Contemporary Views of Home Sweet Home
When you hear the word "scouts" the first thing that usually comes to mind is the character-building youth organization that teaches pre-pubescent teens how to make fires and play safe in the great outdoors. But how about "scouts" in relation to Contemporary Canadian Art? Recently, Anishnaabe First Nations artists Michael Belmore and Frank Shebageget collaborated with Ontario curator Ryan Rice to present Scout’s Honour, a traveling exhibition currently on display in Winnipeg’s Urban Shaman Gallery.
Comprised of five sculptural installations, the exhibition playfully parallels the ‘art’ of Scouting by exploring themes of teamwork, community, and personal development within the shifting scope of our contemporary Canadian landscape.
Image credit: Frank Shebageget
"Lodge" 2008 gelatin, basswood, steel. Courtesy of Urban Shaman.
The idea for the show came about three summers ago, when high-school friends Belmore and Shebageget decided to return to Upsala, the remote community in northern Ontario, once home to the artists’ grandparents. Having spent many childhood summers fishing, playing, and exploring in and around the area, their journey back was coloured by distant memories of a landscape that no longer was. Formerly the site of a booming sawmill industry, the community is now nearly all but abandoned, with few residual indications of its modern past.
But rather than succumbing to their personal sense of loss, Belmore and Shebageget found the experience liberating. From it, they drew inspiration to create a series of sculptural installations, in which they address the impact of Western technology within our country’s cultural, social, and geographic climate.
Using hammered sheets of copper, engraved aluminum, suspended mosquito netting, interwoven fishhooks, and yes, even a giant pile of wooden airplanes, Belmore and Shebageget have pulled together a variety of informal materials to develop landscape installations rich with wit and hidden symbolism.
In "Snag," Belmore has cut a series of hydro/telephone poles into ten small aluminum panels, spacing the pieces evenly apart along the gallery’s wall. In northern Ontario these poles still stand tall, but remain functionless. With no more community to connect to the outside world, the poles have been stripped of their wires and are slowly being engulfed by the natural forest from which they originally came. Now, they merely exist as ironic examples of cultural change; as symbols of an economic shift; and as icons of the lasting marks we so carelessly leave when we decide we’ve had enough.
Image credit: Michael Belmore "Snag" 2008: Aluminium (10 panels). Courtesy of Urban Shaman
For Belmore, these poles also convey a personal dialogue. Having grown up at a time when they functioned as Upsala’s central lifeline to the modern world, the artist refers to the poles as ‘guardians,’ or technological symbols connecting life in the past to life in the present.
“Standing on the shores of the lake my grandparents once called home,” Belmore recalls, “I am reminded that progress marches forward, and on that march things are sometimes left or forgotten. My work is an attempt to reconnect or at least capture the essence of our ever-changing landscape.”
Similarly, Shebageget’s installation "Lodge" plays with the notion of intercultural change within the places we call home. Resting approximately four feet off the gallery floor, "Lodge" is comprised of 1,692 hand crafted wooden Beaver bush planes. It is no coincidence that 1,692 is also the number of Beaver airplanes the de Havilland company first produced when the Canadian Shield first became open to southern pilots. With their ability to land on water, the introduction of the Beaver’s modern technology forever revolutionized the way native and non-native communities alike would interact with the land.
As is true of most of the works in the exhibition, the more I think about "Lodge" the more I appreciate Shebageget’s work. In a previous installation, the artist hung the planes from the ceiling in the formation of a beehive. This time, he meticulously piled the pieces onto the floor to resemble a dam. By cleverly playing on the various meanings of the word "beaver", Shebageget’s installation requires you to stop and think about the competing relationship between these two symbols of Canada’s heritage.
Shebaget proposes, “My focus on historical and contemporary intercultural history attempts to locate positive connections that have been established between native and non-cultures, without falling into tropes of stereotypical issues about native culture. This conceptual framework speaks to both the historical and contemporary relevance to both native and non-native identity in Canada.”
By exploring the changing visual icons of the Canadian landscape, Belmore and Shebageget’s sculptures touch on personal and universal truths about the community’s role within the construction of self-identity. Emphasizing themes of change, development, displacement, mass production, and repetition, their subject matters explore parallels between the land’s natural appearance and the surfaces we’ve learned to create. Such works cannot only be appreciated for their honesty in social address, but also for their playful candor and remarkably emblematic appearance.