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Features / November 21, 2019

Indigenous Art Is So Camp

An international Indigenous art exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada reveals a feminist, camp aesthetic
Mata Aho Collective, <em>AKA</em>, 2019. Installed at the National Gallery of Canada. Collection of the Collective. © Mata Aho Collective. Photo: NGC Mata Aho Collective, AKA, 2019. Installed at the National Gallery of Canada. Collection of the Collective. © Mata Aho Collective. Photo: NGC
Mata Aho Collective, <em>AKA</em>, 2019. Installed at the National Gallery of Canada. Collection of the Collective. © Mata Aho Collective. Photo: NGC Mata Aho Collective, AKA, 2019. Installed at the National Gallery of Canada. Collection of the Collective. © Mata Aho Collective. Photo: NGC

At the risk of sounding overly romantic (but then again, when do I not), I became the Indigenous art nerd I am today because I wanted to feel. During my undergrad, I struggled to fit myself into the Indigenous Studies scholarship of the early 2010s. Everything was verbose—hypermasculine theories and histories that seldom referenced the forms of countercultural criticism that I, to paraphrase bell hooks, saw around the kitchen tables of Indigenous women and queer and trans individuals, discourses more powerful than anything I was reading within The Discipline. I was quickly alienated.

By chance, a friend took me to an exhibition of work by Amy Malbeuf at the Art Gallery of Alberta and, well, I was moved. I felt wonder and joy and, to complete the cliché, I was brought to tears. The next day I started an Indigenous Aesthetic Tumblr, which slowly grew into a blog on Indigenous art and culture criticism. I wrote about artists who were like rockstars to me—Kent Monkman, Maria Hupfield, Cris Derksen, Kinnie Starr, Nadia Myre, Lisa Jackson, Skeena Reece, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Annie Pootoogook, Meryl McMaster and more—never imagining that I would get to rub elbows with these people I so admired. Admittedly, I fell prey to the cyclical dehumanization of celebrity. But time corroded my vision, as it does. Art became my career. Somewhere along the way, I lost the joy of Indigenous art, of art generally, and the initial emotions that drew me to the gallery became conflated with the day-to-day grind of contending with an industry.

Seeing the National Gallery of Canada’s newly opened exhibition of international Indigenous art, “Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel,” I was reminded of the wonder I felt at Amy Malbeuf’s exhibition all those years ago. Butterflies stirred in my stomach as I entered the NGC, walking into the Great Hall under Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett’s sky installation and over Joi T. Arcand’s Plains Cree syllabics communicating positive phrases, installed on the floor. Bennett’s sky installations enact Indigenous histories and presence by drawing from Mi’kmaq and Beothuk visual culture of Ktaqamkuk. Standing under Bennett’s installations, as the sun poured in through the windows of the Great Hall, was breathtaking. I followed closely behind the international artists as I entered and was struck by the power of kin being brought into the gallery by Indigenous peoples from Turtle Island, and beyond, as if the peoples from these territories were welcoming them with love.

International Indigenous symbolism and aesthetics were a thought-provoking theme throughout “Àbadakone.” The Tribal Women Artists Cooperative (TWAC) installed a painting along the wall of one of the NGC’s sweeping corridors; it was layered with complex, beautiful symbolism from their homeland, India. As I walked the corridor, I was trying to figure out what community this work was from, based on my knowledge of international Indigenous art. The figures reminded me of Anishinaabe painting styles, whereas the colour scheme resembled some I had seen in Aboriginal Australian art. When I found out that TWAC was based in India, I was surprised. I wondered, Is there a universal visual Indigenous language that supersedes the languages that colonized us?

Conversations about Indigenous internationalism in art always run the risk of voyeuristic intent, orientalist curation and tribalist framing. I want to be clear that I’m not attempting to argue, as anthropologists have for centuries, that there is a certain “look” to Indigenous art or that Indigenous art comprises a specific set of symbols and materials, thereby reifying white-supremacist ideologies meant to degrade non-Western knowledge. Rather, as I moved through the rest of the exhibition, I began to wonder if the universality I detected was actually a shared penchant for camp.

Camp, in brief, is all things ostentatious, exaggerated, affected and theatrical. And “Àbadakone” is camp. After passing by TWAC’s painting, I came into a second hall, where I found myself overwhelmed by the grandeur of AKA (2019), a 14-metre tall woven-rope installation by the Mata Aho Collective, which comprised four Māori women. The installation was huge, reaching up to the tall ceiling of the NGC. Sunlight illuminated the openings in the weaving, and I had to strain my neck to see to the top of the structure. Much like Jordan Bennett’s installation, doing so connected me with the open airiness of the space. As I exited the halls and moved into the main galleries, I was met with Rukai artist Eleng Luluan’s Between Dreams (2012), another statement of the Indigenous aesthetics of camp. Between Dreams is an installation made of white knitted material that reaches from floor to ceiling, its flourished tendrils spilled out from its bulbous base and into the gallery, as if it were a vine taking over concrete.

“Àbadakone” showed me that if there is one thing that Indigenous people are good at, it’s elevating materials some consider tacky, simple or poor quality into luxe and elegant forms of fine art. Think Dolly Parton’s Backwoods Barbie, but Indigenous (so maybe think Buffy Sainte-Marie?). Because, after all, isn’t being a little bit country what makes us Indigenous? We are the original rhinestone cowboys. There is inherent racism in the construction of a “lowbrow” aesthetic (which denegrates the aesthetics of camp) because Indigenous peoples, Black peoples and people of colour are the ones producing camp culture (see also: how racism and homophobia killed disco). Camp versions of weaving and fibre arts appear throughout “Àbadakone” as a reminder that Indigenous people were doing fibre works long before white artists caught onto its subversiveness. Navajo artist Melissa Cody blends traditional Navajo techniques with references to the pixelization of 1980s video games in her wool weaving World Traveler (2014). Haida artist Lisa Hageman Yajulanaas’s Raining Gold (2012–17) is a beautifully woven robe made from sheep wool and gold leaf that meditates upon the artist’s contemporary aesthetics and how their practice is simultaneously influenced by ancestral Haida design. Weavings by Cody and Hageman Yahgulanaas, blending ancestral techniques with new forms of story and knowledge production, are a reminder that Indigenous people were the original camp—a kind of pre-camp, if you will.

Weaving, for the artists of “Àbadakone,” is a powerful contemporary method for imaging futurist, utopian ethics. Mi’kmaq artist Ursula Johnson’s series Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember?) (2014–)—wherein the artist hand-etched diagrams of baskets made by her great-grandmother into acrylic vitrines with birch-face plinths, thereby subverting the idea of a sterile, deadened museum artifact—asks audiences to not mistake the use of weaving as pure nostalgia. Hlubi artist Siwa Mgoboza’s The Ultrabeam (2017) is made from isiShweshwe fabric, glass beads, tulle and cotton thread, and imagines a utopian world called “Africadia.” The immersive rooms in “Àbadakone” also expose an Indigenous futurist ethics generated through the use of traditional knowledge—featuring exaggerated materials by Algonquin-French artist Caroline Monnet and a shadow-projecting glass light box by Dzawada’enuxw artist Marianne Nicolson—by acting as portals to Indigenous worlds.

The focus on universal textiles and weaving throughout “Àbadakone” is a conscious grounding of the feminine circles that sustain Indigenous communities. Eternity Kap Kanin (2012) by Sámi artist Inger Blix Kvammen, for instance, is a wearable neckpiece incorporating the intensive labour practice of Nenets women of the Russian Arctic with photographs documenting them. Anishinaabe artist Maria Hupfield’s installation Electric Prop and Hum Freestyle Variations (2017–18), comprised of plywood, a protest banner, lights, and objects made of felt, is a depiction of the politics of being an NDN grrrl activist today, and all the contemporary materials that Indigenous feminists transfer love of things onto. Hupfield’s protest signs wrap around the gallery walls and read “Land and, and, and…,” as a reference to urban Indigenous protests. Anger makes me a modern girl, as Sleater-Kinney would say. Found materials industriously used as protest objects also appear in Javanese artist Eko Nugroho’s What Else? (2008–18), the banner images embroidered over textile.

 

I was happily surprised to find an early photograph by Métis, Saulteaux and Polish artist Dayna Danger, The Outlander (2011), in “Àbadakone.” The Outlander was one of the first images I reblogged to that Indigenous art Tumblr I started, all those years ago, when Indigenous art had brought me so much joy I wanted to archive and record every bit I encountered. Without knowing how exceptional it was, I was drawn to The Outlander because, well, it was very clearly an orgy. In “Àbadakone,” it is surrounded by two of Danger’s masks, one made of brain-tanned caribou hide and another made of beaded leather. The brain-tanned caribou hide mask was made with Danger’s collaborator and friend Jeneen Frei Njootli and was positioned directly facing Frei Njootli’s photographic installation Knowledge Transference III (when the one to author the cut is gone, a small hole in the shape of a portal forms) (1985–2019). Seeing Danger’s work in this light reminded me where I have come from and of the strong roots of relationality that now ground my work in Indigenous art, and in art generally. “Àbadakone” reconnected me with the joy of Indigenous art and the feeling of awe that art can inspire by having an embodied experience moving through gallery spaces. It’s the same kind of joy that brought me out of the Prairies in my youth, chasing feeling and exhilaration. It’s the same joy I felt seeing Indigenous art in a gallery for the first time and recognizing the audacity of my own representation. It was being so moved it made me unafraid to enact perhaps the most clichéd sentiment: being moved to tears.

 

This text was corrected on Monday, November 25 to more accurately reflect details in Maria Hupfield’s, Dayna Danger’s, Eko Nugroho’s and Ursula Johnson’s work; and the spelling of Lisa Hageman Yahjulanaas’s name. We apologize for the errors.

Lindsay Nixon

Lindsay Nixon is a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator, an award-nominated editor and writer, and a McGill art history Ph.D. student. They currently hold the position of editor-at-large for Canadian Art.