Art Mûr is unique on the Montreal landscape. It’s a commercial gallery that puts on sophisticated shows by member artists, but also regularly hosts guest curators and occasionally rents out sections of its large space for more experimental purposes. This exploratory mandate made it the perfect site for “A Stake in the Ground: Contemporary Native Art Manifestation.”
Curated by gallery artist Nadia Myre, the exhibition sought to unite new and socially engaged work by Native artists. Myre selected 25 participants (Sonny Assu, Jason Baerg, Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Kevin Lee Burton, Hannah Claus, Bonnie Devine, Raymond Dupuis, Edgar Heap of Birds, Vanessa Dion Fletcher, Nicholas Galanin, Greg Hill, Robert Houle, Maria Hupfield, Rita Letendre, Glenna Matoush, Alan Michelson, Marianne Nicolson, Michael Patten, Arthur Renwick, Sonia Robertson, Greg Staats, Tania Willard, Will Wilson and herself) to inhabit the entire gallery. The effect was overwhelming, to say the least. The artists originated from across North America, and apart from nationhood and their place within it, they dealt with subjects as varied as linguistic integrity, racist violence and child abuse.
I’m always perturbed by projects whose umbrella is race or gender. I’m not against them—just perturbed. Maybe I’ve been so brainwashed by cultural oversensitivity that I can’t see the value of communal collectivities anymore. Or, as a person who’s always straddled two tensely opposed cultures, maybe I see the fallacy of unifying labels. But the Native-ness of this exhibition is also what made me run to see it. Shows featuring First Nations artists as producers of cutting-edge visual culture are still far outweighed by exhibitions that portray them as protectors of a dying—or dead—culture. The racial grouping of these 25 contemporary artists was a powerful staging.
While there was an element of disorganization—namely, missing wall descriptions (a shame when the works have so much to say), and a hanging that at times felt overpacked and even unflattering—some works shone like beacons. The blood-red poetics of Edgar Heap of Birds’ Dead Indian Stories (2011) were incredibly powerful. Nicholas Galanin’s Inert (2009), featuring a wolf half stuffed and half flattened like a bearskin rug, was the first floor’s pièce de résistance. On the second level, Rebecca Belmore’s crouched figure carried an ominous, violence-laden creep factor. Editing could have made a more refined curatorial proposition, but “A Stake in the Ground” provided a mouthful, if not a whole meal, on which to chew.