Among measures of self-identity, our experience of the world and the ways in which we communicate that experience remain paramount. But what if our relationship to land and language has been fundamentally disrupted? What if our ability to give meaning to the world around us has been lost or denied? These are some of the key questions raised in “A Stake in the Ground,” a group exhibition of works by 25 First Nations artists currently at Montreal gallery Art Mûr.
The exhibition is framed around a legacy of forced cultural erasure and the resonant effects of the resulting identity crisis—or what curator Nadia Myre calls in her exhibition text a “language wound”—on First Nations communities. It’s a troubled history, but one that has also fostered a radical reappraisal of this personal and collective disconnect, as the wide-ranging works on view in this show view indicate. Arthur Renwick’s photo series Delegates: Chiefs of the Earth and Sky replaces treaty delegates with punctuation marks; Greg Staats’ video liminal disturbance documents a recitation of a condolence speech; and Edgar Heap of Birds’ print series Dead Indian Stories uses language as a trenchant emotive strategy. All of these works suggest the frustration of words misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Similarly, Rebecca Belmore’s dark spectre-like sclupture, Nicholas Galanin’s half-standing, half-supine wolf pelt and Sonny Assu’s rough-hewn portrait busts speak to a conflicted Aboriginal presence that’s charged with the power of tradition, but subject to the reality of a modern, colonized self.
In print works and paintings by Carl Beam and Raymond Dupuis, a fragmented, composite image of Aboriginal history and identity coalesces into a complex, multilayered whole marked by the uneasy collision of images and symbols. Process-oriented works by Robert Houle—who, as Myre writes, paints while speaking Saulteaux to help “articulate aboriginal experience while deprogramming his colonized being”—and printmakers Greg Hill and Vanessa Dion Fletcher, both of whom engage in a physical mapping of space and landscape, attempt to renegotiate collective memory on spoken and spatial terms.
In all, “A Stake in the Ground” might form less of a coming to terms than a call to action. As Myre puts it near the end of her essay, “A language wound is not two people and their miscommunication…a language wound occurs when silence is mistaken for understanding.”