Pop Culture and the Sacred: An Interview with Kevin McKenzie
Kevin McKenzie is a Cree/Métis artist, born in Regina, Saskatchewan, whose work often juxtaposes Indigenous culture with symbols drawn from popular culture and colonial inheritance. In the early 2000s, he made several series of sculptural installation of resin-cast buffalo skulls – some painted as hot rods, others adorned with Christian icons and neon tubes. McKenzie used industrial materials and processes to re-create natural objects intrinsic to Indigenous traditional life. The resulting pieces are witty and contemporary, while at the same time reflective of a history of cultural conflict and erasure.
McKenzie’s installations 426 Hemi (2010), Hot Rod Buffalo (2003), Red Voodoo (2010) and Immortals (2010) are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. “McKenzie draws on the knowledge that buffalo skulls are considered sacred in many Indigenous communities,” writes curator Daina Warren. “They are also a potent symbol of cultural knowledge and beliefs. He likens his resin casts to vintage vehicles, which represent speed, power and prestige – extraordinary qualities quite distanced from their everyday use as modes of transportation.” Recently, McKenzie’s work has changed significantly. Some of his new pieces use traditional Indigenous art techniques, such as beading or animal-hair tufting, to re-create emblems of modern Canadiana. One sculptural installation is a pair of hockey skates made using animal hide and moccasin-making skills. Another series includes protective sports cups festooned with sinew and horse hair.
McKenzie’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is represented in private and public collections, including the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the First Nations University of Canada and the Saskatchewan Arts Board. He is a member of the Cowessess First Nation, Treaty 4.
NGCM: Can you tell me about your sculptural installations at the National Gallery of Canada? Bison and hot rods – how do they fit together?
KM: Around 2005, I was hanging out with artists in Vancouver who were associated with lowbrow art and hot rod culture. I was drawn to the motifs of the hot rod scene. My first car was a 1970 Chevelle, a classic muscle car. I grew up around muscle cars and, to a lesser extent, hot rods. It’s a scene that definitely has its own culture and it’s not really outsider art. I liked that in the art world it is considered decidedly lowbrow.
Before contact, the buffalo was the largest land animal in North America. A very strong and imposing beast. I thought that if the buffalo was a car, it would be a hot rod. It would have a big engine, like a 426 Hemi, which essentially changed how hot rods were built. Indeed, one of the sculptures is called 426 Hemi. Another is named Immortals after a Los Angeles hot rod club. I thought that it would be interesting to use a popular culture motif with the traditional motif of the skull.
In those pieces, you used industrial processes of fabrication to re-create natural objects.
KM: I went through the exact same process as if making a car, or the chassis or body of a car. I designed the skulls, moulded them and then cast them. Then I painted them with logos.
What materials do you use, and have they changed?
KM: I am very material-based as far as my process. In my older work, I used unconventional or non-traditional materials in a contemporary way. I tried to be innovative with my approach and my processes, and to contrast contemporary materials with traditional motifs.
I started out as a painter and watercolourist and then, around 2001, there was a wave of new contemporary Indigenous artists and curators. Peter Morin, Sonny Assu and Daina Warren were all very influential. Daina and I worked together from the beginning. I was basically her first curatorial project.
In 2003, I received a Canada Council grant to make buffalo skulls. There are a lot of protocols involved with using sacred objects, such as buffalo skulls. I knew I wanted to work with them in my art so my solution was creating a cast of a buffalo skull and using it to fabricate a copy, a simulacrum. And I liked the idea that there was a relationship between the real object and the copy: the hyperreal object. Creating a simulacrum allowed me the freedom to add other motifs or connect new ideas to the buffalo skull. Especially religious motifs. It gave me the freedom to be bold, to mix the popular and the sacred.
Your 2017 show Resurrection includes sculptural installations featuring buffalo skulls.
KM: Ghost and God (2003) is a buffalo skull made out of clear polyurethane, which inspired me to use neon as the light source in that piece. I also used a big acrylic cross and circle. Father, Son & Holy Ghost (2017) also includes clear polyurethane and neon. Neon is used like a pigment, but it is also very nostalgic; neon as a technology is fading away and now everything is LED. I like using neon because it is its own light source, which is unique as a material for adding colour.
Ghost and God was a bit of a departure for me. Daina Warren wrote the text for the Resurrection show, and her notion was that a lot of the sculptures in that series were self-portraits. The work brought together two different ideologies that are part of my background, that embody a lot of who I am. I grew up as a Catholic and went to Catholic schools, so that was a big part of my life when I was growing up. As I got older, I became more connected to my Indigenous identity and began asserting agency that way. It reflected in my work.
Those ideas collided in Ghost and God. There is Christian iconography and the buffalo skull, which connects with Indigenous spiritual traditions. I thought there was going to be a big confrontation between the two. Which God is stronger? The Indigenous one or the Catholic one? A huge confrontation, but when people look at it, it is so aesthetically beautiful, the confrontation doesn’t seem to come across. I expected a big impact, a different impact. It is probably one of my best pieces. I guess the confrontation, the conflict, was only inside me. The piece allows a synthesis. Both sides come together. Beauty.
What kind of work are you making now?
KM: I’ve been going back to more traditional art forms, such as beadwork, quillwork and animal hair tufting. So I have reversed everything as far as my approach and am doing completely different work than a year and a half ago.
I am an assistant professor in the department of Visual & Aboriginal Art at Brandon University in Manitoba. At my interview last April, the Faculty explained that they wanted an Indigenous professor to teach first-year courses in sculpture and various other studio courses. But the professor would have to teach Indigenous techniques like beading, quillwork and animal-hair tufting. I have been a contemporary artist for the past 25 years, with little access to traditional art forms. So when I was offered the position, I thought, “Okay, I'm going to be teaching Indigenous techniques, but I know very little about Indigenous techniques.” Cathy Mattes, associate professor at the Faculty of Arts, has a great deal of traditional knowledge and she took me under her wing. She is an educator, curator, writer, critic and a cultural art practitioner. During my first semester at Brandon University, I was her assistant for the techniques class, the class I would be teaching the following year. Under her mentorship I learned beadwork, quillwork and tufting on the fly. I did all the projects that the students did.
How did it feel being a professor and student at the same time?
KM: It was very intense. I’m still in the process of learning. This bracelet I am wearing – I designed it and made it. There is beadwork and hide work; I call it the empowerment bracelet.
Cathy Mattes has very strict protocols and teaching methodologies. We have a dedicated Elder, knowledge-keeper, who is involved with all our Indigenous art classes. This is absolutely unique to Brandon University. Our Elder's name is Barb Blind. I rely heavily on the guidance and wisdom of both Cathy and Barb.
As an artist, it is a complete 180-degree turn compared to how I was creating before. For the past 25 years working in the contemporary art field, I didn’t need to consult with anybody.
It’s kind of strange how this all worked out. I am so happy to be doing what I am doing and to be part of a community. Being here and participating in traditional art forms within a community has really given me a sense of kinship. Because of this, I feel like my artwork is going to be stronger and more relevant. It will address the research I am conducting, and my community. Before, my concerns were different, I was very much isolated and on my own.
As a contemporary artist, I had a sense of camaraderie with the other members of the contemporary art scene. But not community. This is probably my own fault, because being a contemporary artist did isolate me. Membership in a group, in a community, has really changed everything. The traditional techniques that I am learning are thousands of years old; they shouldn’t be new, but they are new to me. And creating the work is connecting me to ancestors and connecting me to my culture in a way that feels much stronger than my work did in the past. I don’t know how fate works, but this journey feels like fate.
Kevin McKenzie’s works are on view at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.