Continuing Stories: Jordan Bennett in Sobey Art Award 2018
It may be difficult to upstage the soaring creations of the renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, but within that cathedral-like atrium he designed for Toronto’s Brookfield Place, Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett hung the entire galaxy.
For one month this summer, a double-helix made of two 38-metre patterned polysilk banners was suspended from the ceiling. Reflective aluminum stars clustered around it. People stuck in their automatic shuffle through the corridor toward the office, the train station or the underground shopping mall became unstuck and looked up. They stopped to marvel.
For this work, titled Tepkik, the Terence Bay-based artist, originally from Stephenville Crossing, Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland), was inspired by the Mi’kmaq petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings found around Kejimkujik National Park. In particular, he says, the one that depicts the Milky Way. It lends the piece its shape. The artist filled the banners with ancestral mythology, “stories from the six worlds,” he explains, “the world of the sky, the world of the water….”
Bennett often adapts the designs of traditional porcupine quillwork, enlarging to the size of an entire wall an element that might decorate the lid of a small birch-bark box. It is a practice that began with his paintings. In purples and hot pinks, the colours appear poppy – and that is to say contemporary. They resemble the shades of Krylon spray typical of graffiti. These are, however, the traditional colours of Mi’kmaq quillwork and regalia.
While the banners’ flag-like material directs the viewer’s mind toward concepts of nationhood, the reflective aluminum stars recall highway signs. “It’s a way of reinforcing that these are our stories, these are our laws, this is the way we navigate the world,” Bennett says. The gesture is about taking back authority and granting these stories that power.
Honouring the work of ancestral artists is important to Bennett’s practice. But he is not just trying to honour them, he says, he is trying to continue the story. “Our stories are entirely different 200 and 300 years on.” One of the main questions that animates his art-making is: “How do we tell these stories using these symbols?” Also: “What new symbols do we create?”
Over the past decade, Bennett’s multidisciplinary work has been featured in more than 75 group and solo exhibitions, including shows at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, and Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. The 31-year-old artist is representing the Atlantic region as one of five finalists for this year's Sobey Art Award at the National Gallery of Canada.
Cultural belongings figure centrally into Bennett’s work, and he exudes a special reverence for the knowledge they contain. Rather than “seeing” or “observing,” he describes “visiting with” the objects. He is of the belief that the longer you visit with a piece, a person or a place, the more you learn about it or about them, and the more your learn about yourself.
His 2014 installation Ice Fishing, which premiered at Trinity Square Video in Toronto and was shown at the 56th Venice Biennale, is primarily about visiting. This is the work Bennett is presenting at the Sobey Art Award Exhibition. Viewers enter the space through a fishing shack built by the artist and his father. The ground inside is ruptured by fishing holes, as if augered straight through the gallery flooring. Visitors are invited to sit on one of the overturned buckets that circle the holes and watch the rod with its line dropped into the watery depths below (created by screens mounted inside of the hole sculptures). Projected on the wall in front is a video of the vast, snow-covered landscape near Bennett’s home. It begins with a clear day and then a storm blows in. He has set the scene for the type of contemplation the activity typically entails. The rods have each been kitted with automation so that, every now and then, they bow and jerk, like there’s a fish on the hook. He was trying to recreate a very particular sensation, he says, “the joy and excitement of when you see a fish come up to the hole.” The excitement is built by the waiting.
A recent work at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, titled Aosamia’jij, began with a search of museum archives for the keywords “Mi’kmaq” and “Newfoundland.” He found a series of photographs taken in the 1930s by New England anthropologist Frederick Johnson of Joe “Amite” Jeddore, a member of the Conne River Mi’kmaq community. They demonstrate how to salmon fish, along with other skills for living on the land. Recognizing the name, Bennett asked his friend John Nicholas Jeddore, also of Conne River, about “Amite”, who identified him as his great-great-great-uncle. Jeddore accompanied Bennett to return to the sites photographed in the original series and Bennett made field recordings of each place — an act of recapturing the scene nearly one century later. Where Amite’s house once stood is now the middle of town, the heart of the Miawpukek First Nation Reserve, and the sounds of cars, quads and people passing by mark the recording. “A lot of anthropology at the time,” Bennett reminds, “was intended to document these people who had been here for a long time, but aren’t going to be here forever.”
Using a weaving technique taught to him and his wife, Amy, by the artist Ursula Johnson’s grandmother and great-auntie, Bennett made speaker grills from split ash baskets. He hung the original photographs on a wall and set up the speakers in a line array opposite, bathing the pictures in the sounds of present-day Conne River. Enlivening the inert archival record — like so much of Bennett’s work — it portrayed a community that both remembers and that grows.
Such is the crux of Bennett's art practice: the stories he is interested in did not all end once they entered museum holdings or were put under display glass. They continue today – and there are many new stories to tell.
Jordan Bennett is one of the five finalists of this year’s Sobey Art Award. His work will be on view in the Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from October 3, 2018 to February 10, 2019. The winner will be announced on November 14, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.