Maria Hupfield: Installation and Performance
"I want to start by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the unceded and traditional territory of the Algonquin nation." It’s a crisp Tuesday morning in Ottawa and I – policy analyst, artist and curator – am sitting facing a small crowd gathered to discuss government policy around social finance. The words spill from my lips and are greeted by minute nods from some, while others glance down at their cellphones. Later, after the session, I discuss the utility of such statements with an Anishinaabe woman who had been in attendance, made all the more aware of my positionality as a young Black woman, born in Nigeria and raised in Gatineau, Quebec, on what remains the unceded territory of the first inhabitants of the land.
A land acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous peoples and their traditional, or treaty, territories. In a country like Canada, these statements are a way of affirming and paying respect to the first inhabitants, custodians and stewards of the land in the face of ongoing settler-colonialism. They are increasingly perceived as a contentious action, however, having received much criticism as they have risen in popularity and become standard practice in cities across Canada. While well-intentioned, these words are seldom accompanied by restorative action and have little material impact on those they seek to recognize or on the political conditions under which we find ourselves – when all is said and done, we are still on stolen land.
The tensions inherent in these statements are embodied and rendered visible in Maria Hupfield’s Electric Prop and Hum Freestyle Variations, an installation and performance piece currently on view in the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel. A member of the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound and now based in New York, Hupfield first created this work intending each variation to be presented in collaboration with a different artist and adding videos of past performances to the work as it is living and evolving as the land on which it was produced.
For her performance at the Gallery, Hupfield invited and co-created a new iteration of EPHFV with Ange Loft, a multi-disciplinary artist and performer from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The installation consists of a structure, put together seemingly haphazardly, and houses a small video screen and objects made of felt, a large black banner stretched taut across two walls and a red lightbulb placed conspicuously on the ground between structure and banner. The work had been installed since the exhibition's opening in November, but on a chilly December day, a sizeable crowd gathered to witness it be activated.
As I sat down on the floor to watch the performance, the first thing I noticed was that the black banner was no longer nailed to the walls but rather rung through the wooden structure, its opposite ends cradled in the hands of two women from Indigenous Nations that had at one point been drawn into conflict over land and its resources. Activated through movement and held in tension by these artists, the words printed on the banner (“Land and, and and and…”) were now articulated verbally in audio streaming throughout the room, taking on new meaning and firmly anchoring themselves in the urban Indigenous protests that the banner references and alludes to.
Instead of a literal land acknowledgment, Hupfield was inviting us to contemplate what she calls “radical solidarity” with Indigenous peoples. It is a term that I began to understand better as I watched Hupfield guide Loft, who at one point was made to wear a felt ‘jingle hat’ (for lack of a better word) that completely obscured her sight, using only the percussion-like sound of two pieces of wood to guide her movements. As Loft wove her way through the Gallery space, nearly, but never actually, tripping over attendees, I realized that what we were glimpsing was a new way of engaging with others, with space, with the land rooted in trust, reciprocity and accountability. The question that remains is the role of the audience in the fostering of this radical solidarity, in this movement to reclaim “land and and and….”
Land acknowledgments are a first step in correcting the practices that erase Indigenous peoples’ histories on this land. They are, however, also an invitation to do more. As a curator, I am exploring the question of what comes next and what more is possible through They Forgot That We Were Seeds, an exhibition I am curating at the Carleton University Art Gallery. It brings together work by eight Black and Indigenous women artists and stems from my work conducting engagement on food-related issues with Indigenous communities as a federal public servant. The exhibition uses food – its production, sharing and consumption – to explore past, present and future relations between Black and Indigenous women and the land that we find ourselves on. From Hupfield’s work, I am learning that the process of fostering radical solidarity is one of taking first steps – these are mine, but what are yours?
Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until April 5, 2020. Consult the Gallery's events listing for details of other performances, conferences, lectures and events. They Forget That We Were Seeds is on view at the Carleton University Art Gallery from February 9 to April 19, 2020. 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.