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Terrance Houle: Road Warrior

On a chilly fall evening in Ottawa, the grating shriek of an electric guitar shatters the austerity of an otherwise typical art space. Glistening silhouettes of bison—equal parts primeval cave paintings and rough-and-tumble spray-can street art—glare impassively at a crowd that sips boxed wine and watches in bemusement as Terrance Houle, the man of this particular hour, stands off to one side in a shirt and jeans, stretching.

Hamstrings, groin, quads. “You gotta limber up, man,” Houle grins. It’s January now, in the midst of a particularly brutal foothills cold snap, and Houle is back home in Calgary. We’re watching his Gallery 101 performance of Iinniiwahkiimah (2010–11)—which means “Buffalo Herder” in Houle’s native Blackfoot and, not coincidentally, is his Blackfoot name—on his laptop, and its urgency is not at all reduced by the screen’s small stature.

It has been a long fall. Almost everything Houle has made since graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) in 2003 is on view somewhere in the world, whether London, New York, Colombia, Ottawa, Toronto or Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He spent months assembling “GIVN’R,” a touring five-year survey of his work, with the Plug In ICA curator Anthony Kiendl. Iinniiwahkiimah was developed last summer during a residency at the Oxygen Art Centre in Nelson, BC. For the first time in a long time, it was a chance to make something new, and Iinniiwahkiimah brims with rabid exuberance, like a cat let out of a cage.

On-screen, Houle strips down to an immodestly small breechcloth, his belly lurching over its waistband. He pins feathers to his head, puts on his nerdy black-plastic specs, squints. The squalling vocals of Iron Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, join the already ear-splitting din:

“White man came across the sea / He brought us pain and misery / He killed our tribes, he killed our creed / He took our game for his own need.”

Houle rolls his head around on his shoulders and shakes out his hands, like a fighter prepping for the ring. Guitars wail. People in the crowd chat and smile nervously, swallowing wine and waiting in the uncomfortably long, loud stillness. Then Houle draws a deep breath, raising a cooking apron above his head. “Hyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” he howls, flapping it wildly. “Hyah! Hyah! Hyaaaaaaaaaaah!” And he’s off at full speed, his belly shuddering with every footfall. He yowls and shrieks as he sprints around the crowd, which draws instinctively, defensively tighter with each pass.

“Run to the hills! Run for your lives!”

Like many of Houle’s performances, it’s an absurd spectacle—a painfully deliberate cliché, plied with a knowing wink. To say that Houle’s work is centred on persistent stereotypes of Aboriginal representation goes beyond the obvious. His Calgary apartment is littered with every manner of Indian kitsch, including a Hiawatha doll on the mantle and a collection of steamy, trashy Western romance novels. In his Urban Indian series of photographs (2004) with Jarusha Brown, to pick just one example, Houle meanders through a quotidian routine—breakfast at a diner, grocery shopping, mundane office-drone chores in a cubicle—wearing full grassdance powwow regalia, headdress and all.

If critics suggest that Houle is simply playing the merry jester, they’re looking too quickly. With his gleeful send-ups of rote Aboriginal representation—however mild, or hilarious—Houle joins generations of First Nations contemporary artists for whom the simplistic Indian identities fashioned by postcolonialism are a favourite target.

Rage has been the dominant emotion expressed by Aboriginal contemporary artists, at least in Canada; Rebecca Belmore, in her role as Canada’s emissary to the 2005 Venice Biennale, produced Fountain, a video installation that flowed with the metaphoric blood of generations of ancestors pulped by the colonial machine. But humour, Houle’s weapon of choice, is by no means his alone.

In 1999, Allan J. Ryan, now the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture at Carleton University, published The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art, establishing this kind of concern as a full-blown, long-standing phenomenon. And one that persists: Brian Jungen, one of this country’s most internationally successful artists—First Nations or otherwise—has always traded on a cheeky, counterintuitive play between Aboriginal custom and the pervasive consumer kitsch that has come to represent it. Look no further than his breakthrough series, Prototype for New Understanding (1998–2005), a suite of 23 intricate, traditional-looking Northwest Coast masks rendered from Nike Air Jordans.

What makes Houle different? Frankly, it is something alarmingly simple. While Houle sketches colonialism’s master narratives—cowboys and Indians, modernity, and everything in between—in broad, bombastic strokes, his art is always, almost painfully, about himself. At once fearless, charismatic, tender and intimate—and, we mustn’t forget, uproariously funny—Houle’s work centres not on the desecrated, unspecific, victimized Other, but on the artist’s flabby, beer-drinking, pizza-eating single-dad Self.

This works a strange magic, allowing Houle’s art to seem both accusatory and oddly endearing. Take Iinniiwahkiimah, for glaring example. For millennia, Plains Indians—Houle’s forebears—followed the buffalo, relying on it to supply everything from food to clothing to medicine. As colonialism lurched westward, settlers were encouraged to hunt buffalo to extinction in a campaign of savage, nonchalant waste. Their motivation was the skin trade; buffalo hides paid well, and the rest of the animal didn’t, so millions of carcasses were left to rot in the sun. A darker suggestion about the colonialists’ motivation persists to this day: eliminate the buffalo, and you eliminate the “Indian problem.”

And yet, here we are. In a sense, Houle is still hunting buffalo, for an audience of conquerors whose tax dollars—at least in part—have allowed him to do it. “I’m hunting for my dinner,” he smiles. “It’s a traditional practice.” Shrieking, Houle races in circles, occasionally pausing before his spectral bison to peel off bits of green painter’s tape and reveal their hollow eyes. (“I wanted to work them physically,” Houle says—a contemporary homage to the visceral link between his ancestors and the giant beasts.)

Iinniiwahkiimah functions as a send-up of both the romantic image of the noble savage, with his sculpted body and dangling loincloth, and the dominant, unspoken perception of Aboriginal people—as fat, lazy and forever on the dole. Meanwhile, Houle lumbers in a slowly closing circle: panting with alarming intensity, he plods ever closer to his audience, who cluster together more and more tightly. It becomes clear what is actually being herded: them.

“There are a lot of layers to my work,” Houle remarks, in a quiet nod to the potential temptation to take his playful performance at one-note comic face value. “I was given this name because of the spirit of what my people used to do,” he says, straightforwardly serious. “I don’t want to talk about the decimation of the buffalo, or lay blame. I’m just trying to embody this, and honour it, in the best way I can, now, with what I have, with the world being what it is.”

Darkly comic, Houle’s postcolonial role-reversal makes its point. But there is no finger-pointing here. Both his intentions and their result—in Ottawa, when he stopped, doubled over and panting, the crowd erupted in a gleeful spasm of cheers—have a perfect synergy, which all his works seem to intuitively contain: they are inclusive, cosmic jokes that nonetheless ring with a depth of personal truth.

Inclusiveness comes to Houle honestly. His mother and army-sergeant father raised him and his siblings on military bases across western Canada before settling in Calgary, where Houle went to high school. On weekdays, Houle was an urban kid. On weekends, his parents would take the family to his mother’s Blood reservation, south of Calgary, to take part in traditional ceremonies like powwows. “Growing up, it was instilled in us: this is where we come from,” Houle says. “As kids, we always knew who we were.”

In his household, the two cultures found a peaceful coexistence. In the city, Houle slipped back into his urban life, skateboarding and listening to punk rock. Meanwhile, his father burned sweetgrass and sage; his mother taught him sewing and beadwork. “We knew that the reserve wasn’t the only place our culture could exist—that our culture could exist in the world.”

Houle’s parents were in the minority among their peers. They were part of the last generation to experience the brutality of Canada’s residential school system, where young children were taken from their parents and inducted into assimilation programs far from home. Erasing their culture and indoctrinating them with colonial values wasn’t even the worst of it— in recent years, evidence of beatings, sexual abuse and psychological terror have surfaced, much of it conducted at the hands of the Roman Catholic school authorities the government enlisted to administer the program.

As the schools were slowly abolished from the 1970s on, native communities undertook a deep, bitter retrenchment. Back on their reserves, they tried to relearn and repair a culture and community left in tatters. A simmering—and justifiable—rage fuelled a generation of native artists and activists, focused on retribution.

“I remember all of that—growing up, people were so angry,” Houle says. “And I understand that. I’m part of the first generation of Native people to grow up with parents in how many generations—four? Five? People have every right to be angry, the shit they went through.”

Still, Houle’s parents refused to wallow in vindictive bitterness on the reserve, choosing very deliberately to raise their family in the contemporary Canadian mainstream while acknowledging their First Nations culture. “My father always told me that they thought the reserve was a confine, where that sort of thinking kind of festered. So we really saw both sides. When we would go on reserve to visit my family, bitterness just wasn’t something we thought about at all.”

But growing up an urban Indian wasn’t always easy. Houle’s remarkably good humour about the sporadic but persistent bouts of racism is the direct result of his parents’ influence. “We were the Native family,” he says. “Our identity was constantly being pointed out to us. But my folks always used humour to cushion the blow. We were taught at an early age not to put the barrier up, but to try to teach people who we are. I think that’s why, at an early age, I started getting into art.”

In his late teens, Houle began to experience a political awakening not confined to his Native identity. “All my friends were punk rockers, or skaters, or headbangers,” Houle recalls. “They all played in bands, and they were heavily into politics. And I really identified with all these things that were, in a sense, protest. That really sat well with me—people creating music, creating art and putting it out in the world.”

Houle’s straitlaced military father encouraged him to pursue art as a career. “He told me, ‘The army is no place for an Aboriginal man,’” Houle grins. When Houle got to ACAD, though, he found that the school was far from the liberating creative nirvana he had hoped for. “It was all the same old racial things,” he says. “I had professors asking me why I was doing work about identity—well, what the fuck should I do work about, then? In studio crits, I felt like I was being critiqued for my culture, not my work.”

At the same time, Houle was studying contemporary art and art history, coming across Canadian Aboriginal artists like Joane Cardinal-Schubert and his father’s cousin, Robert Houle. “I started realizing how angry some of these artists were,” he recalls. “But that was a generation. It wasn’t my generation—it’s not how I was raised. But somehow I was stuck with all of this shit.”

Feeling frustrated and stymied, Houle quit in his third year, in 1997, without graduating. By then, his father had retired and his parents were living on the nearby Blood reserve. Houle pulled up stakes in Calgary and retreated, much like the angry, wounded generation before him had done. He helped his mother run a gas station, and connected with the way of life his family has been careful to temper throughout his childhood.

“I immersed myself in it,” Houle says. “I just found out more and more about who I was, but at an adult age.” In 2000, Houle went back to ACAD. “Things hadn’t changed,” he said. “But I had. I decided I was just going to do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it.”

He enrolled in the fibre program—his mother had been a textile artist—and displayed an acid wit that has remained in his art. Hard work culminated in a 2006 show at Vancouver’s grunt gallery, where Houle showed alongside his friend and colleague Adrian Stimson. One side of the gallery was occupied by Stimson’s Sick and Tired (2004), a bison robe folded into the shape of a human form and placed on a rusty bed frame with three windows behind it—all culled from the Old Sun residential school. On the other side, Houle showed Paper Bag Indian Princess (2006), a paper cast of a young Indian girl sitting at a desk, copying lines. On a chalkboard, an iconic slur: “Indian Giver.”

Before long, Houle’s practice had turned largely to performance, and the documentation—photography and video—that accompanied it. Moved by Native artists who used their bodies in their work—like James Luna, whose installation/performance Artifact Piece (1987) involved becoming a living artefact in a natural-history museum—Houle looked more closely at the physical stereotypes he had butted up against his entire life. Less directly, he was moved by Faye Heavyshield’s minimalist sculpture. “She wasn’t afraid to talk about emotion, but not that angry emotion,” he recalls. “It was beautiful.”

Houle kept his body at the forefront—the breechcloth saw to that—and his anger in check. His was a broad appeal that found an audience quickly. In Portage (2005–9), Houle—in breechcloth—and his artist friend Trevor Freeman hoisted a canoe above their heads and trekked around Calgary, recasting the heroic Hudson’s Bay “Company of Adventurers” fur-trader tale in a decidedly urban key. It proved so popular that they’ve since performed it all over Canada. (In Vancouver in 2007, they paused to buy moccasins—made in China, with plastic soles—from a tourist shop, before trying to barter beef jerky for chocolate at, fittingly, the downtown location of the Bay.)

Houle’s work has changed: become more complex, less overtly funny. In the recent film and photographic series Landscape (2007), Houle photographed himself laying prone, in full ceremonial regalia, in various suburban locales: a manicured parkette, a baseball diamond with a women’s baseball practice in progress.

Patently absurd, the series nonetheless encapsulates an awkward rift at the heart of both our culture and Houle’s project. More than two centuries into full-fledged colonialism, we’re still a world away from anything resembling resolution between Native Canadians and the colonial arrivistes that supplanted them. Indeed, Houle’s work centres on that very tension. Landscape, by implication, is tragic; Houle is laying claim, here and now, to his people’s land and culture, which was all but destroyed nearly two centuries ago. But he stakes his claim in a forward-looking vein of reconciling humour.

Not everything is played for laughs. Most recently, Houle has been engrossed in a feature-length project called All For You (2009–present), a series of video portraits of residential-school attendees. It has begun to yield strange fruit. Houle started with his parents; for the first time, his father has been opening up about his memories of being wrested from his family and home.

All For You seeks not to rekindle old pain and resentment, but to find the human core that remains, post-tragedy. “I asked them: ‘What makes you happy? Where makes you happy, and who?’” Houle says. “It’s about being human—whatever you’ve been through.” You could call it Terrance Houle’s version of truth and reconciliation: a lot of truth, but even more reconciliation, with a focus on what comes next—not what’s left behind.

See more work by Terrance Houle from Calgary to Colombia at

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