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Scandalous Personas, Difficult Knowledge, Restless Images

Scandalous Personals, Difficult Knowledge, Restless Images, Winter 2004, pp. 48-49

On performance night the gallery is jam-packed with people. Backstage, in an improvised dressing room filled with makeup cases, costumes and wigs, Lori Blondeau is creating the persona of Belle Sauvage. The gallery is draped in gleaming brown curtains and filled with hay bales, a cow skull and, on one side, shadowy images of an Indian cowboy and an Indian princess. The golden-red lighting creates a world in which the audience looks alive and dead at the same time. An impresario introduces Belle Sauvage, the star of the show. Her time is the turn of the last century. Her milieu is the only gay Wild West show that toured Europe and North America. “A mean trick roper, capable of drinking most men under the table,” she is a notorious outlaw with an appetite for adventure.

As the curtains part and the crowd applauds, Belle Sauvage makes her entrance to a song by Doris Day, “The Black Hills of Dakota.” Dressed in a fringed vest, suede pants, a cowboy hat and boots, she saunters provocatively around her stage, spurs jangling. Posing for the cameras, she twirls her guns and turns on her legendary charm. This seductive cowgirl’s props are a long cigarette holder, a trick rope and a bottle of whisky. As the smoke from her cigarette coils up toward the spotlights, we enter the intimate atmosphere of a dusty rodeo arena.

In a performance rich in comic hyperbole, Belle Sauvage takes her audience on a roller-coaster journey through laughter and painful testimony. In one memorable segment, she gestures toward a life-size black-and-white photograph of an Indian cowboy (Blondeau’s grandfather). “He was a bronco rider who kept horses in the 1920s on the Gordon Reserve in the Touchwood Hills, Saskatchewan,” she says. In the long-ago photo, we see a handsome young man in cowboy hat, beaded vest and gloves, twirling his guns as he strikes a John Wayne-style pose. “It’s a pity,” Belle Sauvage continues, “that he couldn’t leave the reserve without a pass.” This sentence hangs in the air, its sense suspended, a reminder of the prisons of colonial space and the public secret of the pass and permit systems that restricted the movement and business transactions of First Nations people in Saskatchewan from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. This fragment of testimony invites a critical mode of attention and listening. It is an unsettling moment that reminds us of the power, unpredictability and rawness of live art, of the performer working with an audience to create the meaning of the work. Then, as the lyrics of Tom Petty’s resistance ballad “Swingin'” warm the space, Belle Sauvage exits the gallery.

In charting the life and times of Belle Sauvage, Blondeau creates a parodic counterpoint to Canada’s iconic Old West, with its celebration of white cowboy culture and its erasure of histories and voices. As Blondeau notes, Belle Sauvage is a persona that plays with “history and its authority.”

Believable and absurd at once, the persona of Belle Sauvage is based, in part, on the histories of such Indigenous women as Molly Spotted Elk and Lost Bird, who performed in Wild West shows and vaudeville in the early 20th century. Belle Sauvage is also based in the history of Blondeau’s family. “My grandmother was a skilled horseback rider who could outride the Indian agent. And my grandfather was an Indian cowboy who wore beautiful beaded garments,” Blondeau explains. Having grown up myself in England on a diet of Hollywood westerns, I also recognize that yet another stimulus text for this performance (one the viewer may or may not have fun spotting) is the cult movie Calamity Jane (1953). Conjuring up the ghost of Doris Day’s transgressive, cross-dressing, gender-bending white cowgirl, Blondeau transforms her into Belle Sauvage, a voluptuous, worldly Indian cowgirl whose very existence performs a post-colonial reading of Hollywood’s White West.

In A Moment in the Life of Belle Sauvage (2002), Blondeau pulls off the remarkable feat of turning camp melodrama into something genuinely cathartic. Invoking a Wild West show circa 1900, Blondeau takes us on a historical tour of some of Canada’s most tawdry colonial moments: moments her family has experienced first-hand. Disrupting national patterns of remembering and forgetting, Blondeau reminds us that parody can be a powerful force for challenging and disempowering the inherited violence embedded in Western ways of knowing the world. In this performance, Blondeau re-envisions the traditional frontier narrative of the Old West, peopling it with Indian cowgirls and cowboys who, like her grandmother and grandfather, had to adjust to living in two worlds. “My grandfather,” Blondeau says, “was a traditional dancer and an Indian cowboy. He showed us that as First Nations people you can live in both worlds and still maintain your identity and beliefs as a First Nations person.”

Blondeau frequently uses her family’s stories as a point of departure for her performance art. “My family is my first and most important community,” she says. “My mother and grandmother taught me how to tell stories and they taught me the significance of telling my own stories. I always ask permission before I use their stories,” she continues. “Their stories are a part of my history.” Born in Regina, Blondeau grew up spending summers with her grandparents on the George Gordon First Nation in the Little Touchwood Hills, also in Saskatchewan. As a child she observed her family’s creativity on a daily basis: “My mother made quilts and my grandfather worked with wood.” But it was in the studio of her brother, the artist Edward Poitras, in the mid-1970s, that Blondeau first made her discovery of art as a possible career option. (Poitras at that time was starting out on a career that eventually led to the Venice Biennale in 1995 and a Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award in 2002.)

As the director of the First Nations arts organization Tribe in Saskatoon, Blondeau is in close contact with the contemporary Indigenous art community in Canada. The vibrant work of Rebecca Belmore, Shelley Niro and Dana Claxton, among other artists, has had a significant impact on her artistic sensibilities. The dynamics of Blondeau’s performance style also owe much to her collaborations with the Saskatoon-based artist Bradlee LaRocque and the California-based Luiseño performance artist James Luna. In the mid-1990s, Blondeau apprenticed with Luna for three years. This productive collaboration led to the creation of a number of works, including The Ballad of the Shameman and Betty Daybird (2000). Like Luna, Blondeau uses live art to clear a space for the enunciation of difficult knowledge. In her performance Are You My Mother? (2000), for instance, she bears witness to the experiences of her mother and grandmother in residential schools, and to her own experience of the intergenerational trauma inflicted by colonial systems of education. Like Luna, Blondeau also uses humour and the non-serious as part of her critique, juxtaposing the fabulous, the political, the parodic and the philosophical to produce riveting moments of high-tech storytelling for social change.

Blondeau’s use of visual storytelling as an unsettling, politicized force is clearly evident in the performance Sisters (2000). This beautiful yet sobering work presents us with the concept of food as both sustenance and poison. The first vignette of Sisters consists of three actions: the pounding of chokecherries between rocks until their dark-red juice runs like blood, the gutting of a fish and the ripping of cloth. A live-feed projection throws a gigantic close-up of these actions on the wall behind Blondeau as she works. In the second vignette, Blondeau moves to a different area of the gallery. Opening a steel lunch box, she begins to force-feed herself McDonald’s hamburgers as the lyrics of “Hello Dolly!” fill the space. This painful, not quite funny action makes her gag. And, for the first time, Blondeau looks her audience in the eye, challenging us to meet her gaze.

Rooted in childhood memories and family stories, Sisters speaks to the impact of colonialism on the traditional Plains lifestyle and food culture of Blondeau’s family. “My great-great-grandfather lived on a diet of pemmican, wild roots, berries and wild game,” Blondeau says. “The demise of the buffalo meant that in one generation our traditional lifestyle was changed forever. Today’s fast food is killing Native people with diabetes, obesity and other diseases.”

In Sisters, Blondeau uses the intense beauty of the first three actions to pull the audience in. Then she switches gears and her performance style becomes cartoonish and violent. In juxtaposing the traditional foods her ancestors ate with the fast-food culture she inhabits, Blondeau uses memory work to invoke both trauma and recuperation, setting up a dialogue about fast-food addictions. (This dialogue has current emotional resonance as the popular 2004 film Super Size Me illustrated the filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s descent into ill health after a month of eating nothing but McDonald’s meals.)

No account of Blondeau’s performance practice is complete without mention of her sassy and irreverent personas COSMOSQUAW (1996-) and The Lonely Surfer Squaw (1997-). With these two personas, Blondeau takes on the hegemonic white aesthetics of contemporary media culture, grafting her own body onto iconic images of white pin-up girls. COSMOSQUAW, with her lubricious red lips and flamboyant outfits, is easily recognizable as a subversive reiteration of a Cosmopolitan cover girl. The Lonely Surfer Squaw, with her beaver-skin bikini and gigantic pink surfboard, appropriates and transforms the early pin-up girl of California’s white surfing culture. “It’s a photograph of me as a 1950s or 1960s surfin’ babe—only I’m an Indian woman standing on the prairies in the middle of winter!” Blondeau explains.

In addressing the continuing imperialism of present-day popular culture, COSMOSQUAW and The Lonely Surfer Squaw also talk back to colonial stereotypes of Indigenous women. As the name-caricatures of these two personas indicate, Blondeau is clearly inviting her viewers to think again about colonial hate speech, with its violent stereotypes of Indigenous women as either squaws or Indian princesses. As Blondeau has discussed, being called “squaw” can be deeply wounding, but this moment of name-calling can also be, as the critic Judith Butler argues, “the initiating moment of a counter-mobilization.” With tongue-in-cheek humour, Blondeau captures the word that wounds and redeploys it in COSMOSQUAW and The Lonely Surfer Squaw, making of it something startlingly subversive, compulsively entertaining and highly political. Fighting stereotypes with stereotypes, however, can be risky business, and her invented personas often spark heated debates about the need for positive images—as opposed to the use of subversive repetition—to reroute and reconfigure inherited patterns of thinking in contemporary culture.

In recent years, the popularity of COSMOSQUAW and The Lonely Surfer Squaw has grown. The glamourpuss cover girl COSMOSQUAW is in demand at exhibitions, festivals and cabarets, while the pin-up looks of The Lonely Surfer Squaw—currently appearing in the travelling railcar exhibition “Artrain USA” and as a poster girl for the Toronto art festival Planet IndigenUs—have been featured on coffee mugs, billboards, postcards and magazine covers. At once playful, shape-shifting and transgressive, COSMOSQUAW and The Lonely Surfer Squaw belong to a tradition of performance art that values, in the words of the cultural critic Dwight Conquergood, “the carnivalesque over the canonical, the transformative over the normative, the mobile over the monumental.”

This is an article from the Winter 2004 issue of Canadian Art.

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