Friday, August 19, 2011

Close Encounters: the Next 500 Years*

Contemporary indigenous art received its largest international display as part of Winnipeg’s year as Cultural Capital of Canada. Showcasing 33 international artists, ‘Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years’ ambitiously looked forward to the future of indigenous culture while remaining very much in conversation with a past 500 years of oppression.

Image credit: Jonathan Jones, 2011

Two examples to give a bit of context to the visibility of contemporary indigenous art: the first living artist to receive a solo exhibition at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian was Dunne-za First Nations/Swiss-Canadian Brian Jungen, only as recently as 2010, under the guidance of curator Paul Chaat Smith. Four years earlier in Australia, Sydney-based Jonathan Jones won the Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award and came under fire for not being ‘Aboriginal’ enough. Working with clean, sleek designs and often using commercial fluorescent light tubes, Jones has often been compared to American minimalist Dan Flavin, but beyond their shared interest in a now widely used media, the comparison does not hold.

Indigenous history and representation has been largely shaped, if not dictated, by European settlers and explorers who have decimated indigenous culture through systematic eradication of language and animistic traditions. It is a history still fraught with anger and miscommunications fuelled by generations of racism. ‘Close Encounters’ began where Western art history fails, at the narrative of first contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers. Curated by LeeAnn Martin, Steven Loft, Candice Hopkins and Jenny Western, the exhibition took place throughout Winnipeg, where Canada’s largest population of urban First Nations people currently reside. The five exhibition venues featured artists from across Canada, the US, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand and Australia working in installation, photography, sculpture, performance, film, new media, video and painting.

Demystifying the Western representation of an untamed culture – one that perpetuates an ideal of the ‘noble savage’ – and the commodification of traditional designs and traditions, ‘Close Encounters’ set out to focus on works that defy stereotypical ideas of indigenous art. Canadian artist Michael Belmore’s sculptural installation Smoulder (2010) was one of the strongest examples of work that looks back while moving forward. Inviting viewers to form a circle around an arrangement of copper inlayed stones on the floor, the concept of Smoulder is simple: when gathered around the stones, the outside light is blocked, and the inlay between the stones begins to shimmer like a camp fire. As a reimagining of the traditional campfire, the work encapsulated the essence of the exhibition’s reclamation of identity through contemporary modes of storytelling.

Other highlights included contrasting immersive sculptural works by Maori artist Brett Graham and the aforementioned Jones. Graham’s interest in the materiality of traditional forms, such as stone and wood, is transformed into modern spectacles such as Te Hokioi (2000–9), a large hand-engraved sculpture of a scaled-down stealth bomber that also references its namesake, a magnificent eagle of Maori legend. Jones presented Untitled (infinity) (2011), a multi-tubed fluorescent light installation in the shape of Canada’s Métis infinity symbol – a culturally loaded image for Canadians of French and First Nations heritage. As an artist already receiving both accolades and scrutiny for not being ‘indigenous enough’ in his work, Jones carries this provocative issue of authenticity further by directly invoking a symbol from a heritage of which he is not part, but which he has chosen to use within the scope of an international contemporary indigenous exhibition.

With a cross-generational line-up that also covered the urban and rural divide, ‘Close Encounters’ excelled in its scope but failed in its own promise to look ahead. It stumbled at times over questionable inclusions of works by notable names that did not necessarily serve the exhibition’s outlook. For example, while it was obvious to include works by Jungen, it was unfortunate that only a handful of small pieces from ten years ago were on display, none of them indicative of his current direction or representative of his work’s scope.

The show addressed Winnipeg and its province’s history of rebellion and human rights, which dates back to Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba and one of Canada’s most controversial historical figures. As a rebel leader of Métis heritage, Riel actively championed the cultural preservation of Métis languages and culture in his region before eventually being executed for treason against the Canadian government. Shortly before his death in 1885, Riel prophesized in his journals: ‘My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.’ More than 100 years have passed and reconciliation talks between Canadian government and First Nations leaders have only just begun in what will be a long and complicated healing process. With the realization of an international and indigenous art exhibition in the very resting place of Riel, a step has been taken towards the fulfillment of his life long goal, which ultimately was for the preservation and perseverance of cultural sovereignty for all.

*First published in Frieze Issue 141 Sept 2011

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