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Features / May 28, 2015

20 Years of Tribe: Milestones and Future Horizons

In celebration of Tribe Inc.'s 20th anniversary, Lori Blondeau and Wanda Nanibush discuss the organization's past, and the future for Indigenous artmaking.
Jordan Bennett, a Newfoundland-born artist known for melding contemporary consumer culture with First Nations traditional materials, is one of the 25 artists longlisted for the 2016 Sobey Art Award. Here, his <em>Artifact Bags (Giant Tiger)</em> (2013) as seen at the Mendel Art Gallery. Photo: Tony Mamer. Jordan Bennett, a Newfoundland-born artist known for melding contemporary consumer culture with First Nations traditional materials, is one of the 25 artists longlisted for the 2016 Sobey Art Award. Here, his Artifact Bags (Giant Tiger) (2013) as seen at the Mendel Art Gallery. Photo: Tony Mamer.

For the past two decades, artist-run centre Tribe Inc. has been a cornerstone of contemporary art in Saskatoon and beyond. Its itinerant, collaborative model of programming exhibitions, performances, symposia and events—always with a keen eye to critical issues and forward-looking practices—has played a key role in building local dialogues and in defining a national and international perspective on contemporary Indigenous and Canadian art. To mark its 20th anniversary this month, Tribe has organized a series of exhibitions across the city—at AKA Artist-Run, Paved Arts and the Mendel Art Gallery—all of which culminate this weekend with exhibition openings and panel discussions that zero in on the future of Indigenous artists and arts organizations. Here, Bryne McLaughlin catches up by email with artist, curator and Tribe executive director Lori Blondeau and 20th-anniversary guest curator Wanda Nanibush to take a measure of the past milestones and future horizons for Tribe’s next 20 years.

Bryne McLaughlin: Lori, you’ve been at Tribe since the beginning. Could you describe how you came to be in Saskatoon and the specific history and general climate for the beginnings of Tribe circa 1995? Was there was a simmering need for the kind of programming and supportive environment that Tribe established, or was there a spark that got Tribe started?

Lori Blondeau: In 1994, Bradlee LaRocque and I moved back to Saskatchewan from Montreal, where I had lived for many years. While I was in Montreal I was involved with a group of Indigenous artists, including Skawennati, Ryan Rice and Eric Robertson, who had started a collective called Nation to Nation. They would do art events that were completely independent from any institution. There was also a provincial cultural organization in Saskatchewan called Circle Vision Arts Corporation, which was founded in the late 1980s. With the move to Saskatoon we noticed that, with the exception of what these two groups had been doing, there was an obvious lack of Indigenous visual-arts programming going on both in Saskatoon and across the country. There was some programming going on by non-Indigenous groups, but it was what we like to call “the quota show.”

In March 1991, Lee-Ann Martin submitted a report to the Canada Council for the Arts titled The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion: Contemporary Native Art and Public Art Museums in Canada. Then in 1992 the Aboriginal Arts Office was started at the Canada Council. During this time the Canada Council also added a new policy to their granting program that encouraged groups to be more inclusive of contemporary Indigenous art and artists. I believe it really made a change in the national art scene, as we began to see more exhibitions by Indigenous artists being presented. But I also feel this had more to do with the scene in the early ’90s than with the Oka Crisis, for example, because people were already doing things, for instance Circle Vision, Nation to Nation and individuals like Dana Claxton and Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew. The difference is that when the Oka Crisis happened I think it created an environment for us to really take things forward into the future on our own terms.

There were four founding members of Tribe: Bradlee LaRocque, April Brass, Denny Norman and me. We worked out of a studio and produced our own work in different venues. Then Circle Vision approached us with some funding to do some programming and the rest is history. Basically, we just wanted to see the galleries do more programming in Saskatoon, so we decided not to get a space and to instead work in partnership and collaboration with the galleries that were already in Saskatoon.

BM: There was this grassroots drive you described in Nation to Nation and Circle Vision, as well as the now-defunct Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association in Hamilton, to have more presence in the established art scene combined with an institutional redressing of contemporary Indigenous art practices and curating. Then a catalyst moment happened, in the art world and otherwise, in the early 1990s around the Oka Crisis.

Tribe is one of the artist-run collectives that cohered around this growing social and political paradigm shift, alongside Sâkêwêwak in Regina (1993) and Urban Shaman in Winnipeg (1996), then later organizations like the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (2005). And let’s not forget about Edward Poitras (1995) and Rebecca Belmore (2005) representing Canada at the Venice Biennale.

Lori, given these changes, I’m wondering if there are a few key exhibitions or performances at Tribe over the past two decades that for you best reflect, signal or even push back at this paradigm shift? How do they address the opportunities above but also the inherent quagmires of Indigenous histories and post-colonial contemporary art? 

LB: Well, there are several, but I would have to say Dana Claxton’s Buffalo Bone China installation in 1997 was really important. It was presented at AKA Artist-Run and it was the first solo exhibition I curated. It was also Dana’s first solo show and has become one of her seminal works. High Tech Storytellers Festival in 2000 was another very special event for me. This included three exhibitions (Rebecca Belmore, Edward Poitras and James Luna), six performances (Rebecca Belmore, James Luna, Lori Weidenhammer, Cheli Nighttraveller, Caroline Meili and Steve Heimbecker) a panel and a cabaret. There were five organizations involved: Tribe, AKA, the Photographers Gallery, Video Vérité and the Kenderdine Art Gallery. It stands out because it was so much fun, and at the same time brought so many people and organizations together!

Tribe not having a space has shifted the way artist-run centres have been defined. Tribe and AKA were among the first artist-run centres to collaborate/partner in Canada. Anthony Kiendl was then working as program coordinator at AKA and he and I used to say that Tribe and AKA were like Esso and A&W, because at that time the corporate world had become really big on partnerships/collaborations and we saw them popping up all over Canada. I remember we were also being looked at as a model—for instance, the South Asian Visual Arts Collective in Toronto was based on our model as an artist-run centre working without a centre.

BM: Let’s fast-forward 20 years to the present and the concerns, both longstanding and emerging, that are shaping the current art scene. There’s been a ground swell of urgency and action: I’m thinking here of the national impact of the Idle No More movement and things like Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in Ottawa, protests against the Keystone Pipeline project in BC and the ongoing trauma around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. There have also been high-profile exhibitions such as “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art” at the National Gallery of Canada in 2013, which is set to repeat every five years, and “Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes” last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario, to name just two recent examples. The presence of Indigenous artists and curators in artist-run centres, commercial galleries and public museums across the country is perhaps as strong as ever, including the past two years’ Sobey Art Award winners, Duane Linklater (2013) and Nadia Myre (2014).

Wanda, the exhibition “The Fifth World” at the Mendel Art Gallery, which you’ve curated for Tribe’s 20th anniversary, is framed as a kind of call to action around issues of Indigenous sovereignty and the defense of the natural world. As you write in the exhibition text: “As Turtle Island becomes a site of massive resource extraction and the world economy tips the balance of the earth toward global warming, Indigenous Peoples and their inherent rights to the land are where capitalism will have its last stand.” Can you say a bit about how you came to this curatorial stand and how or if the social and political resistance and institutional successes cited above have, in a sense, ingrained a renewed confidence for you as a young curator, and for the artists in the show, to take that stand? And how important, in your view, have organizations like Tribe been in establishing this confidence?

Wanda Nanibush: Saskatoon is the site of the birth of Idle No More. I was heavily involved during its first year. I keenly felt a desire for change in how we relate to Earth, to water and to each other. The water was deregulated in order to allow industry to take or pollute it. First Peoples’ title to the land stands in their way. So many people are putting their bodies on the line to defend Earth. In Toronto I’ve tried to help focus the language and discussion on nation-to-nation to give non-First Nations people a way to stand with us in the round dance. I was also reading Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko at the time and “The Fifth World” is the rise of this new consciousness for her.

Also, I had volunteered to have a bust made of me by artist Ursula Johnson. While she weaves black ash around you, I kept thinking of birds. I could hear the birds as she covered my face. Later when she was by a body of water finishing my bust she said the sky filled with birds. L’nuwelti’k (We Are Indian) is the series of busts Ursula created in black-ash weaving. Each of us tells her what our “status” is under the law—I am a status Indian with two status Indians as parents. This work became the touchstone for the show, which includes 16 of those busts in a circle. They could be at a round dance, they could be planning something, or they could be doing a talking circle. Once you leave the government’s sexist and racist definitions behind we can define ourselves in completely new and inclusive ways. It got me thinking about what other “emerging” artists already live in the Fifth World.

I was deeply honoured when Lori asked me to curate a group show. We spent a lot of time discussing the direction…whether it would feature artists Tribe had previously exhibited or if it would be the next generation of Tribe.

Part of the resulting premise of the show and what I gathered from talking to the artists in it is that they do not separate their practice or their identity from these social-political-cultural struggles. Contemporary art is meant as a space to comment on them, to intervene in them, to be ahead in visioning alternatives. I would hazard a generalization and say that the majority of Indigenous artists feel this way. That is not to say their practices are didactic and overtly political—when you see the work you will know that’s not true. So it’s a different way of thinking about the relation between politics and art that is not tied to consciousness-raising, or slogans or pure criticism. These artists are visionaries, they show sides of our world and ourselves we cannot see yet. As a curator I am cut from the same cloth as these artists. I’m interested in cultural complexity and social change, not telling people what to think or feel. I’m interested in the body’s relationship to politics and art. Actually, I think it’s the key.

Big shows have always had less of an impact on me as a curator than the so-called little shows have. I think there are some amazing new ways of thinking about Indigenous art that are taking place all over the world in small gallery or non-gallery exhibitions. I am collecting some of this writing into an anthology right now.

Tribe is central to this because it creates spaces for curators to tell new art histories. Tribe has challenged people’s ideas of what First Nations or Indigenous art is. This creates more freedom for artists and curators now. Also, they have brought us together in conferences, gatherings and exhibitions so we can learn and grow stronger. Tribe is also Lori Blondeau. She has worked tirelessly in mainstream organizations like CARFAC, the Canada Council, and more, not only against exclusion but also how to be included in a way that honours our differences. When you work in First Nations organizations you can say and create things that speak to your own people and have a deeper starting point in the conversation on culture. The reason for that is that you’re not busy explaining things to someone who doesn’t or can’t understand. That explaining holds us back sometimes. Tribe has done some of that work for everyone.

BM: Lori, it’s an interesting observation that Wanda makes about how the work that Tribe has done during the past 20 years establishes a deeper starting point for conversations on culture, where there’s less emphasis on explanation or perhaps justification than on addressing the core concerns head on. There’s a kind of freedom implicit in that, which points the conversation ahead instead of back. There are three other 20th-anniversary exhibitions currently on view—Claxton at AKA and Bear Witness at Paved Arts, along with a new billboard work by Poitras across the facade of the AKA/Paved Arts building. How do these particular exhibitions gauge the ground that has been covered, and how do these works push this contemporary cultural conversation forward?

LB: Edward and Dana have played a key role in the history of Tribe—they are two of five senior artists whom I look to for advice and as mentors. Tribe has what we like to call our senior artists advisory, which consists of Shelley Niro, Dana Claxton, Rebecca Belmore, Ruth Cuthand, James Luna and Edward Poitras. These artists have all shown with Tribe, and Ruth was our chair for many of the early years. As executive director, I will consult with them on different issues and also when we are looking for new emerging artists, as all of them travel and exhibit nationally and internationally. They are also big supporters of Tribe and tell people about the organization. Looking at Tribe’s programming history drove the decision to have these artists exhibit for our 20th anniversary. Dana Claxton was Tribe’s first solo exhibition, so it made sense to me to have her show again in AKA as this is where she had her first solo show. Curating Bear Witness was a choice I made because of where he is in his career. I see him as the next generation. We were very conscious about looking to the future while still looking at the history of Tribe. As for Edward Poitras creating the billboard, that was a decision I made with AKA and Paved Arts. We felt with Edward’s history of doing billboards, he would be a good choice and, also, he is from Saskatchewan, which was important to us.

My thoughts on the contemporary cultural conversation that is being pushed forward by the Indigenous artists, curators and programmers is that it’s a conversation we have been having for a very long time and has been going on for generations. The difference now is we have arts organizations and we make the programming and curatorial decisions from our place of being First Nations, instead of the Western art world making these decisions for us. That said, I also feel it is crucial for non-Indigenous institutions to continue to program and curate Indigenous artists.

BM: Wanda, keeping with this idea of forward momentum, you mentioned the rise of a new consciousness as being at the root of your exhibition at the Mendel, and also this made you start thinking about “the next generation of Tribe.” As a young curator, where do you see contemporary Indigenous art and this “conversation on culture” going from here? What are the horizon lines for “The Fifth World”?

WN: Rather than a horizon, I like to think of lines of connection and flight—like a never-ending weaving that I am just as embedded in as the artists are. I also like the image of spirit lines in Anishinaabe culture, which show a squiggly black line on birch bark as the power of connection. Some pathways will continue, like creating our own spaces, as well as its necessary opposite––artists exhibiting as artists without being labelled by nation. Group shows are rarely based on identity alone anymore and there has to be a more pressing theme, question or concern for a grouping now. We are not ever going to reach a point where First Nations won’t want to exhibit together because there is so much in the work that needs discussing that the contemporary art world may not see or ever care about. It’s part of creating a new conversation on who we are and where we are going. Indigenous methodologies, knowledge, processes and philosophies are becoming the defining aspects of exhibitions and underpinning new work now. The old paradigm of cultural authenticity and recognizable visual markers will not define our art for the public in the future, at least in the country now called Canada. We won’t ever have to choose between “Anishinaabe” or “artist.” New art histories will be written from within First Nations understandings of their own culture rather than in response to contact and colonization. Land rights, the restoration of power and honour to First Nations women, language restoration and the land will always be important. Because First Nations artists are well received in contemporary art today—the best in a Western sense—their influence and vanguard position will be taken seriously and not just added on in a paradigm of inclusion, much like Modernists had to acknowledge the influence of our artists on their work. Cultures change and art changes, and it’s an exciting time of experimentation and imagining. The future, for me, is summed up in paying heed to N. Scott Momaday’s words: “We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny is to imagine, at least, completely, who and what, and that we are. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.”

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.