Vantage Point: Indigenous Art on a Global Stage

Lori Blondeau Grace (2007) COURTESY THE ARTIST PHOTO SHELLEY NIRO

In this excerpt from the Feature “Vantage Point: Indigenous Art on a Global Stage” in the Summer 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly, Dr. Heather Igloliorte considers what exhibiting at the 58th Venice Biennale may mean for Isuma, as well as Inuit art more broadly, by examining the impact that this international platform has had on the lives and careers of other Indigenous artists. And, what the implications are in having Isuma, a community-based, principally Inuktitut-language video art collective based in Iglulik, NU, represent Canada at arguably the world’s most visible and scrutinized international art event.

Edward Poitras Untitled (1995) COURTESY CANADIAN MUSEUM OF HISTORY

Within a Canadian context, only Rebecca Belmore’s project Fountain (2005) and before her, Edward Poitras in 1995—curated by Gerald McMaster, the first Indigenous curator from Canada to have worked in Venice—had presented solo exhibitions in the Canada Pavilion of the Giardini prior to Isuma, while other notable Canadian Indigenous artists and collaborative projects have been shown in the Arsenale venue and elsewhere in the city.

“Showing in Venice is an opportunity to mobilize and insert our practices, creativity and bodies within an established and somewhat shifting global dialogue or cultural economy,” says Ryan Rice, Associate Dean, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences, at OCAD University. “Our presence addresses recognition and indicates our arrival in spaces we were not included, known or welcome.”[1]

Following Poitras and Belmore’s projects, Rice co-curated The Requickening Project (2007) with Chiricahua Apache curator and academic Nancy Mithlo, which featured Cree/Metis/Saulteaux performance artist Lori Blondeau and Mohawk photographer and filmmaker Shelley Niro. The project stemmed from Mithlo’s longstanding and dedicated efforts to exhibit Indigenous artists in Venice spanning two decades, beginning with the 1999 exhibition Ceremonial, and most recently featuring the exhibition Wah.shka in 2017.

The Requickening Project ran for five consecutive days and featured a sunrise and sunset performance by Blondeau each day, Grace (2007), followed by a screening of Niro’s Tree (2006) each evening. Explains Rice, “Our project emanated from the Haudenosaunee philosophy of “requickening,” to bring back spirit; we also took the opportunity to honour the late artist Harry Fonsesca (who participated in Mithlo’s first project).” As Blondeau explains, “There was a group consensus not to pay to become an official collateral project; it was more grassroots in nature. Being away from the gardens actually gave us the advantage of having more local people come.”

Blondeau distinctly appreciates the perspective of Venetian audiences, who she felt were receptive despite any language or cultural divides. “Grace is about life and death, the beginning and end, and time, and how the time we keep in the Western world is not the time we keep (in the Indigenous world). The audience got it.”

Considering Isuma’s representation, she notes: “When Edward [Poitras] and Rebecca [Belmore] showed there it was such a huge thing, I remember, and now Isuma is there too. I think it is important to recognize them like this because of the great work they do. Not only in what they produce, but also the way they involve the whole community in their work.”

Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq multimedia artist from Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland), exhibited the installation work ice fishing (2014) in the 2015 Biennale. To experience the exhibition, you must enter through a recreated ice fishing shack; through that portal you are transported to the frozen lake behind Bennett’s family home, both through an evocative video work and convincingly, through the ice fishing holes that appear have been drilled with an ice auger directly in the gallery floor. Inside the holes audiences can peer into the watery depths below, waiting for a bite. The lines on the fishing poles even jump when a fish nibbles on the line—and the appearance of fish swimming up on the holes made visitors to the seemingly floating city startle at the sight.

Jordan Bennett ice fishing (still) COURTESY THE ARTIST

ice fishing showed in Venice as a part of a two-person show with Anne Troake, Under the Surface, organized by the not-for-profit Terra Nova Art Foundation. It was a first for Bennett, and for his people. “When I [was] selected I was really excited—first, because I was probably the first Mi’kmaq artist to show on any level at Venice, not to mention a young Newfoundlander—but I was really excited when ice fishing was selected, because I was excited to show perspectives of home on the world stage.”

Bennett vehemently believes that showing in Venice is impactful on artists career’s and creative trajectories. “It does so much, and not just for the nation or community being exhibited. While everyone in Canada supports the Canadian artist, for Indigenous peoples, they’re not only representing Canada, they’re also repping all of us.”

This is all the more significant given that Indigenous artists have only recently begun to take up such international contemporary art spaces. “In Venice, it shows people who don’t have any knowledge of Indigenous peoples that we are here, now, making ground-breaking work. They are used to thinking of us in the past tense—like, oh the Mi’kmaq people did this in the past, they used to make that—and now they see that we are here, now, representing all of Turtle Island in the present.”

Likewise, in the United States, a small number of Indigenous artists and curators have been pushing against the often rigid boundaries of the Biennale for decades as well.[2] Indeed, Mithlo is currently writing a whole book, A/Part of This World: Indigenous Curation at the Venice Biennale, on the subject of her Native American exhibitions in Venice alone. During the 2017 Biennale, Zuecca Projects, a non-profit cultural organization founded by Alessandro Possati, organized INDIAN WATER – The Native American Pavilion featuring artists Nicholas Galanin and Oscar Tuazon; this year they are continuing in their efforts to feature artists from across Turtle Island in their pavilion, inviting Alan Michelson and Nadia Myre as part of the exhibition Volume 0.

Installation view of Lisa Reihana‘s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015) in Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, New Zealand Pavilion, Italy, 2017 COURTESY CREATIVE NEW ZEALAND

And, more recently, artists from New Zealand and Australia as well as other circumpolar communities have begun showing on this international platform. Lisa Reihana, a Māori artist of Ngāpuhi descent, represented New Zealand when she exhibited in the Tese dell’Isolotto building of the central Arsenale complex in 2017. The exhibition Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, features a single, painstakingly crafted and deeply moving work, in Pursuit of Venus [infected]—a 23.5 m long by 3.3 m high projected video with soundscape that takes the form of a living wallpaper, based on the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804-1805), which imagines the Indigenous peoples Captain Cook encountered on his voyages in the south Pacific.

“Participating in the Venice Biennale builds your profile and your resilience like nothing else,” explains Reihana. “It’s a major logistical undertaking, and the pressure is on to deliver a great work. There’s a Nation’s noise that surrounds the event, and endless meetings at all levels from creative to media to catalogue design. I’d shown my first cut of in Pursuit of Venus [infected], and felt reassured I had a good work to present, but I wanted to upgrade it and contextualize the content with additional photos and sculptures.”

The finished work is both an astounding technical feat and an insightful and nuanced masterwork on the complex narrative of colonial contact between Cook’s crew and Pacific Islanders. The “wallpaper” seamlessly scrolls, first depicting scenes from the many nations before contact through to the first arrival of Cook’s tall ship and the encounters that must have followed, acted out by the living descendants of those nations. Given the monumentality of the work, it is no surprise this work of great historical accuracy took Reihanna over a decade to complete.

Tracey Moffatt Heaven (from the series Passages) (2017) COURTESY ROSLYN OXLEY9 GALLERY

Reflecting on the significance of showing in Venice, but also on representing her people in this context, Reihanna is quick to acknowledge the high level of support she received to do so. “It was amazing to share this important moment with whānāu, friends and the incredible supporters who helped bring it to fruition, of which Creative New Zealand played a vital part.” Since its presentation in Venice, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] has toured to additional international venues and will continue to be presented well into the 2020’s. The piece, she says is, “about a community of people in it, who worked on it and are represented by in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. It has made many people from home, indeed world-wide extremely proud, and for those that were unfamiliar with Maori and Pacific peoples, this has piqued their curiosity.”

In addition to Reihana, Tracey Moffatt’s My Horizon took over the Australian Pavilion in 2017. While many Australian Indigenous artists have participated in group exhibitions, notably Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls in 1990, Hetti Perkins, Victoria Lynn and Brenda Croft in 1997 followed by Vernon Ah Kee in 2009, Mofftatt is the first solo artist featured within the austere pavilion. The exhibition featured two large-scale photo series and two video works which draw on cinematic tropes from Old Hollywood, film noir and documentary to reveal complex histories of Indigenous and migrant experiences in Australia.

“Being there and hearing from the artist [Moffatt] herself, someone that not only had been influential in my connection to and understanding of art but an important figure in Australian art made the reality of an Aboriginal artist taking over the Australian Pavilion a real possibility and made it within reach,” says Yorta Yorta curator Kimberley Moulton, Senior Curator South Eastern Aboriginal Collections at Museums Victoria. “Seeing the fearless approach Moffatt and curator Natalie King took to highlighting Aboriginal and Refugee Rights on a world stage inspired me to think how our people can continue to hold space at the Biennale in the future what can that look like, how do we have agency and create a culturally safe and powerful space within that world?”

Bolatta Silis-Høegh Ningiu (2012) COURTESY THE ARTIST

In 2012, Greenlandic artist Bolatta Silis-Høegh was invited to create a domestic installation of a “Greenlandic home showing Greenlandic history, development, presence and future” to be included in the Danish Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale the same year. “A home with warmth, a lot of family photos, relaxingly unpretentious and a contrast to the Architecture Biennale.”

The interior of the installation, titled Ningiu, meaning grandmother, relayed the chronological history of its imaginary female inhabitant through a progression of photographic documentation that traced traditional life on the land through to having children and grandchildren as they record various landmarks from Christmas celebrations to graduations, travels and more. And, provided the artist an opportunity to shift larger perspectives of Greenlandic culture and identity.

“I loved telling a whole story like that, the warmth showing the importance of family in our culture through out the changes of scenery. The rapid change in culture, but also how quick we adapted to new surroundings holding hands with our culture, which I think is so beautiful.”

Apayata Kotierk as Noah Piugattuk and Kim Bodnia as Boss in Isuma One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (still) (2019) COURTESY ISUMA DISTRIBUTION INTERNATIONAL

During the 2015 preview week, when thousands of artists, reporters and art cognoscenti descend on Venice en masse, Bennett was visited by then Associate Publisher of the Inuit Art Quarterly, William Huffman, who brought him a copy of the most recent issue and interviewed him on the potential for future inclusion of Inuit artists in Venice. “They asked me, ‘Can you imagine an Inuit artist representing Canada at the Venice Biennale?’ And I said, ‘most definitely, hopefully I will see that in my lifetime’.” Only two years later, at the following Biennale, the work of Inuk graphic artist Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010) was included in the Arsenale venue group exhibition Viva Arte Viva (2017), making him the first to hold that honour; albeit posthumously.

Now, only two years on, Zacharias Kunuk, OC becomes the second Inuk to represent Canada as one of the co-founders of Isuma alongside Norman Cohn, though this time at the official Canada Pavilion. Although, as Rice notes, it is a bit of a risk for Canada to position Isuma—a film collective led by Kunuk and Cohn, located in a remote community a world away from the ostentatious stage of Venice—as the representative for Canadian contemporary art. “Such recognition supports Canada’s distinct national identity and creative force. It sets a precedent for other museums and galleries to shift their prejudices and value the enormous wealth of our cultures that are distinct, specific, authentic and original to our land and nowhere else.”

The selection of Isuma to represent Canada makes a bold statement about where we are as a country today and where we want to be. Ultimately, this choice has nothing to do with current discourses of “reconciliation,” and yet their work has everything to do with the history of colonization. By giving Isuma a global platform from which to untangle the brutal truth about the history of contact between Inuit and qallunaat, the National Gallery of Canada and the Biennale’s team of curators open space for the frank and urgent conversations we need to have about the ongoing legacies of colonialism and paternalism in the Arctic, while showing the world that we are not afraid to break down the myth of Canada and the North in order to move forward together.

This article is the second in our three-part series Vantage Points.

NOTES
[1] All quotes in this article are from personal communications with the author in February 2019, unless otherwise indicated.
[2] In addition to projects by Mitho, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) has supported collateral projects with performance artist James Luna and painter Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap-of-Birds.

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