Self-portraiture gets an unconventional spin in kayâs-ago, an installation by Amy Malbeuf now showing at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Titled for the Cree/Michif term for “a long time ago,” kayas-âgo renders a variety of quotations in the traditional Aboriginal medium of tufted caribou hair. Originally from Rich Lake, Alberta, Malbeuf has been branching out of late, with a recent performance at Concordia University and a residency in Australia as part of the collective Neon Kohkom. Here, Malbeuf—who will also be featured in the 2015 Alberta Biennial—talks about Indigenous representation and misrepresentation, changes to First Nations art since the 1970s, and the way words and materials shape identity.
Q: In kayâs-ago, there are texts that sound kind of childish—“More Nativer than you!”—and ones that sound more academic—“A Cree person is not the opposite of a European person any more than a man is the opposite of a woman.” Where did these quotes come from?
A: They’re all from Indigenous people that I know personally or know of. Some of them are from my family, and others are from academics and artists I admire. Some came from readings that I’ve done or from lectures I’ve heard. They’re all things that have stayed with me.
#morenativerthanyou is a hashtag that was being used on Twitter and Instagram. My husband [Jordan Bennett], who is also one of my creative collaborators, is often saying that, and it’s also the title of a work we made together.
The second quote you mentioned is from Richard William Hill, who is a scholar and a writer. He often writes about Jimmie Durham, who is an artist I admire, and I really admire a lot of Richard William Hill’s writing on art.
I’ve chosen to sculpt these words in caribou hair because they have become a part of who I am, in some ways.
Q: I haven’t seen a lot of caribou hair tufting in contemporary art before. Why did you use this technique?
A: It really came out of learning the skill of caribou hair tufting, which is something I grew up seeing quite a bit.
A typical kind of imagery you would see [for this technique] is floral work or animals. I became interested in how I could push the boundaries of caribou hair tufting, because people don’t deviate from that general imagery.
I wanted to almost revitalize this form—to use this traditional technique to speak to contemporary Indigenous realities.
Q: Yet in some other recent works, like Jimmie Durham 1974 shown at Contemporary Calgary earlier this year, you used blue beads on a blue tarp to render another kind of quotation—“An Indian who sits and does beadwork or conducts beadwork classes, or trades beadwork when he or she should be on the front line with a gun, or organizing his or her community, is performing a counter-revolutionary act.” Can you tell me a bit more about that piece?
A: Well, that quote was very much directly referencing beadwork. I actually started working on the caribou-hair tufting project before I made the beadwork piece, but I thought of the beadwork one first, so it was like a triggering point to start doing the caribou-hair tufting quotes.
That quote is from the 1970s, around the time of the American Indian Movement. So I gave it the same kind of treatment as a protest sign, using utilitarian materials like scrap wood and a tarp.
There’s lots of things that have changed since the 1970s, but there’s also lots of things that haven’t. This is a way to pay homage to [Jimmie Durham]—but I’m also critiquing that statement, because I do think that beadwork, or things such as beadwork and things that hold traditional value, are tools and weapons for change for a younger generation.
Q: Along with your partner Jordan Bennett, you sometimes exhibit as Neon Kohkom—an artist that takes a much more campy approach to issues of First Nations history and culture. Can you talk about Neon Kohkom a bit and why it was helpful to create a separate identity for that work?
A: With Neon Kohkom, we still deal with serious things like Indigenous misrepresentation. But we try to approach it from a very humorous place. Neon Kohkom sort of came out of joking together about silly kinds of projects, and they just became real.
It is helpful for us to kind of separate Neon Kohkom from our individual practices. It helps to keep the lines clear!
Q: What kinds of jokes would Neon Kohkom turn into artworks?
A: Well, before we even met, we were both avid collectors of cheesy native T-shirts. Ha!
One day we were walking around Banff and we were on a mission to find the cheesiest native T-shirt possible. We started joking about what would be the most extreme version of the cheesy native T-shirt.
It’s become a large part of our practice to push that imagery and exaggerate it even further than it’s been exaggerated—in order to call attention how ridiculous a misrepresentation that imagery really is.
Q: As Neon Kohkom, the two of you also had a residency and exhibition this past year in Australia. What was that like?
A: It was really exciting; it expanded our global ideas of what indigeneity means.
We found out that Aboriginal motifs are also appropriated and misused in fashion there.
For example, there is a huge problem in North America with non-native people wearing headdresses to concerts and such. But we were shocked to find that it was even more of a problem [in Australia], and we made a work in direct response to that.
Q: Some of the works Neon Kohkom showed in Australia included headdresses in garbage cans, and packaging from manufactured headdresses that were framed and hung on the wall. Is that the artwork you mean?
A: Yes, we purchased those headdresses locally [in Australia] and then we wrote letters to the people we purchased them from, telling them who we were, where we came from, and our intent to put them in garbage cans. Then we explained in the letter why [selling the headdresses] was inappropriate and asked them to remove the headdresses and related items from their stock.
Q: Did you get any responses to the letters?
A: We got one. And actually, two of the sellers stopped selling those products.
Q: And what did the person who wrote back to you say?
A: They called us racist! Ha! It’s a really strange letter.
We exhibited the letters [we sent], but not the response, because we didn’t get a response back until after the exhibition. But the letters we sent were framed and hung right above the garbage cans, or beside them on the wall.
Q: Interesting. Circling back to the work at the Art Gallery of Alberta, is there anything else you think people visiting kayâs-ago, or looking at pictures of it online, should know?
A: Well, with the AGA work, I was really hoping to create a self-portrait while simultaneously having a portrait of various Indigenous people who have influenced my life.
It was dedicated in honour of my late auntie, and that was really important for me; she passed away while I was in the midst of making it.
I’d also like people to know when they look at something like caribou-hair tufting that it takes a lot of time. It took me two and a half years to create [the piece in Edmonton], and well over 3,000 hours of just tufting labour. I think that’s an important thing to know.
This interview has been edited and condensed. “Amy Malbeuf:kayâs-ago” continues until November 16 at the Art Gallery of Alberta.