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Features / November 11, 2015

Nadia Myre Fuses the Personal and the Political

Emily Falvey looks at the work of 2014 Sobey Art Award winner Nadia Myre, and her interest in the material extremes of sculpture and performance.

This is an article from the Fall 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

A scar is a paradox. An index of survival, it also marks the site of an indelible trauma. At once an emblem of violence and healing, fragility and strength, it says a lot while also saying very little. It may even be invisible, ghosting the psyche with its contradictions, at once a bottomless pit of sorrow and a potential wellspring of action.

In many ways, the work of Montreal artist Nadia Myre, member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation (Maniwaki), seeks to balance this paradox, to draw out its ambiguities, its valences of failure and resilience, loss and recovery, and distill them into a poetic idiom at once personal and universal. And while this process is ultimately about healing, it is not necessarily about reconciliation, at least not inasmuch as this might imply forgetting the past. Myre’s work does not seek to solve the paradox of the scar, but rather to bring it forward in ways that allow its history to inform the future.

This is perhaps most evident in her renowned work The Scar Project (2005–13). It was the focal point of the 2014 Sobey Art Award exhibition held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, where Myre became the fourth Indigenous artist to receive this prestigious award. The Scar Project is the fruit of a long-term, communal undertaking in which visitors were invited to sew their physical, emotional or spiritual scars onto a 10-inch square of raw canvas, while also putting the story of these injuries into words. Part studio-laboratory, part pop-up community-support group, The Scar Project travelled extensively in North America, occupying a variety of venues, including artist-run centres, galleries, cultural centres, retirement homes, schools and museums. Initially borne of Myre’s desire to explore her personal scars, it soon came to reflect her abiding interest in sharing, collective healing and spiritual resilience. When the project concluded in 2013, she had amassed a collection of some 1,400 canvases and narratives chronicling the pain and injuries of a wide range of individuals, including her parents, her son and herself.

Typically displayed as an installation, whose ever-changing constellation recalls both formalist and post-Minimalist artistic strategies, the canvases of The Scar Project are at once incredibly diverse and ritualistically the same. Although many begin with the same repeated act—slashing and then suturing a gash in the canvas—each piece is aesthetically unique, with styles and techniques ranging from abstract to representational, minimalist to collage. As an installation, The Scar Project feels both objective and incredibly personal, uniting the repetition of conceptual and processpainting strategies with those of traditional craft practices. In their number and anonymity, the scarred canvases and their stories ultimately represent a collective wound. And while this wound is necessarily universal—we all suffer, we all have scars—it is also very specific.

All of Myre’s work starts from a personal place, usually within the intricacies of her own identity. As her father, Robert Myre, writes in his eloquent introduction to her monograph, En[counter]s (2011), “Nadia was born in Montreal at the crossroads of three major cultures: French, English and Indigenous. Before each of these cultures, she bears the status of a migrant every moment of her life. […] Over the course of the last few years, she has been primarily concerned with her Indigenous roots, because they are the most threatened [my translation].” Seen through this lens, The Scar Project is not only a broad meditation on the nature of human suffering and resilience, but also a metaphor for the intergenerational scars left by what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recently called a “cultural genocide,” one that encompasses the residential-school system; assimilationist government policies (the Sixties Scoop and other racist child-welfare programs); land dispossession; murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and babies; and the invalidation and outright banning of Indigenous languages and cultural practices. Indeed, such a connection goes to the very heart of Myre’s politics. By aligning individual and collective suffering in this way, she opens a space for a more radical kind of sharing, one in which the scars of colonialism may be symbolically inscribed on all of us. In this dialectic, healing is at once a question of resilience, of finding the strength to name and tell, and of responsibility, of listening and participating in the other’s pain through a sense of empathy, but also accountability. When experienced through the prism of my white, middle-class privilege, for example, The Scar Project acknowledges me as an individual person, while also asking me to reflect upon my role as a proxy for colonial power. On the one hand, I am graciously invited to identify with a powerful healing process; on the other, I am asked to humbly accept my identity as a source of pain for others. That Myre is able to deliver this message with compassion instead of bitterness is what makes it so affecting.

In Politics of Materiality, a recent photo-documentary realized by the Globe and Mail and the app Wondereur in collaboration with novelist Joseph Boyden, Myre explains her artistic practice in the following way: “I always try to create a work that can mean a lot by being very specific about the materials I use. Poetry is like that; it has an economy of language that I can relate to. It can mean many things or one very specific thing depending on how you read it.” This dynamic, so clearly at play in works like The Scar Project, unifies Myre’s entire oeuvre. Indeed, each project she undertakes functions both autonomously and as part of a constellation of works that inform and feed off each other. Her recent solo exhibition of Orison (2014), commissioned by Montreal artist-run centre Oboro, highlighted this aspect of her work. In a telling demonstration of Myre’s affinity for poetry, the title of this installation was itself both elegantly singular and semiotically diverse. In English, “orison” is an archaic word for prayer. Etymologically, it is derived from the old French word oreison, which has a similar spiritual connotation, and may also be traced to the Latin nominative oratio, which means speech, but public speech in particular. At the same time, the word “orison” sounds very similar to the word “horizon,” thus inflecting the title with a dual sense of boundaries and boundlessness.

In her accompanying artist statement, Myre described Orison as “a personal response to having carried The Scar Project and its heartrending stories for the last nine years.” At its heart was a five-channel soundscape composed of audio recordings produced from the archive of stories she compiled during the course of that project. These recordings emanated from behind a set of seven large, aluminum plates, which projected 10 inches from the wall, so that the sound could vibrate against their surfaces, thereby giving physical presence to the narrators’ voices. Mounted to the front of these plates were enlarged images of the stitch patterns striating the back of Myre’s pivotal work Indian Act (2000–02), a tour de force of poetic and political subversion in which she and a small army of friends, colleagues and strangers painstakingly beaded over every page in the five chapters of the colonialist Act of Parliament governing Indigenous nations ,within Canada. Orison thus linked back to “CONT[R]ACT” (2002), Myre’s first solo exhibition at Oboro, in which she presented Indian Act in its entirety for the first time. At the same time, it also looked forward to her current exploration of The Scar Project narratives through the medium of sound. Taken as a whole, the installation functioned both as a singular statement and a complex ensemble of interlinking parts, at once unique and irrevocably entwined.

This relationship between disparity and wholeness is key to Myre’s work, and may be perceived in the way she privileges connectivity over hybridity. “I hate the word hybrid,” she once said during a 2009 interview with scholar Amanda Jane Graham. “Why do I have to be two things? I am one person.” It is important to distinguish between this sense of wholeness, which echoes Anishinabe philosophies of interconnection, and European individualism, which places the economic interests of individuals before those of the community and the environment. Myre brilliantly underscores the conflict between these two world views in her series Journey of the Seventh Fire (2008–), an elegant, beaded project that critiques environmental degradation and social disruption wrought by mining and energy companies through a combination of traditional Indigenous craft practices, references to pan-Indigenous history and conceptual-art strategies rooted in appropriation.

In a symbolic reversal of capitalist theft, Journey of the Seventh Fire hijacks the corporate logos of public and private companies engaged in natural-resource exploitation in Canada, including Hydro Quebec (electricity), Alcan (aluminum), Frontenac Ventures Corporation and Cameco (uranium). Stripped of their corporate names, these denuded logos are then beaded onto a square piece of unstretched canvas. The title of the work refers to “The Prophecy of the Seven Fires,” an ancient Anishinabe prophecy encoded in a historic wampum belt. This belt is thought to date from the 1400s, before the arrival of Europeans. Made using hundreds of small, polished wampum beads woven together with leather strips, it features seven white diamonds—one for each of the prophets who appeared to the Anishinabe—floating on a purple background.

When abstracted from their role as corporate brands, the geometric design of the logos Myre appropriates recalls the history of Modernist abstraction. At the same time, the title of the work makes clear reference to the content of the prophecy, which foretells the arrival of a “Light-Skinned Race” who will either come in peace or wearing a “mask of death.” The prophecy goes on to state that, at the time of the seventh fire, the “Light- Skinned Race” will be at a crossroads: it will have to choose between its current trajectory, which will lead to the destruction of the planet, or a balanced society grounded in a more holistic world view. Journey of the Seventh Fire thus aligns these historical teachings with the contemporary menace of global capitalism and its consequence, climate change. In so doing, it echoes an important lesson of contemporary Indigenous activism: capitalism and decolonization do not share the same interests.

In an astute text published in conjunction with Myre’s exhibition, “Landscape of Sorrow and other new work” (Art Mûr, 2009), Metis artist David Garneau writes the following: “Tempting as it is to read post-colonial ‘Indian’ meanings into every gesture First Nations artists make, Myre might be assumed to also express content beyond that one matrix. Taken as a whole, the primary theme of her oeuvre is not Aboriginal, but a delicious and acid relationship with language, people and environment.” While I agree that Myre’s work should not be reduced to her Algonquin heritage alone, I also do not think this facet of her identity constitutes a secondary theme. Rather, her Indigeneity has played an important yet integrated role in the overall evolution of her work. At the same time, Garneau points to a valid concern.

In seeking to recognize Indigenous artists, the broader Canadian artistic community courts a double risk: on one side lies the possibility of ghettoizing their work within a single paradigm, and on the other side lie ineffectual symbolic gestures that do little to alter the existing colonial power structure. This dilemma touches everything, including the Sobey Art Award. It is encouraging that Brian Jungen, Annie Pootoogook, Duane Linklater and Myre received this award, and that Raymond Boisjoly has been shortlisted for 2015. At the same time, if one looks at the overall composition of its curatorial panels, there is a distinct lack of Indigenous participation. The reason for this is simple: Indigenous curators still do not often hold permanent positions in public galleries or museums, and those that do usually fill roles linked exclusively to Indigenous art. The symbolic recognition of the Sobey Art Award thus does little to challenge longstanding, systemic inequalities that continue to marginalize Indigenous agency. Truly recognizing Indigenous peoples means changing the existing power dynamic at its most basic level. By privileging responsibility, listening, compassion, interconnection and self-determination, Myre’s work offers a framework for accomplishing this.