Kent Monkman, The Triumph of Mischief (2007), acrylic on canvas, 213 x 335 cm. NGC
“If the past is often present in the works of Indigenous artists, how do we define contemporary?” This was the burning question for Christine Lalonde, the National Gallery’s Associate Curator of Indigenous Art, as she and her colleagues planned the massive exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art.
Clearly, Lalonde and co-curators Greg Hill and Candice Hopkins found the answer: contemporary is bold, challenging, multi-layered, sometimes massive and sometimes miniature, sometimes comical and sometimes dead serious.
Sakahàn presents a broad variety of contemporary works of art by Indigenous artists from around the globe. Apart from cultural diversity, there is diversity of scale, medium, meaning and tone.
Common threads tie these works together, however. Artists the world over share similar concerns about colonial history, exile and trauma, sovereignty over land and resources, and environmental degradation. While confronting such challenges head-on, many simultaneously offer images of transformation and healing; they look to activism, communal work and spirituality to inspire hope and effect change. Creation itself seems to be valued as a tool for change, because these artists make broad use of traditional craftsmanship.
Tela bordada (Embroidered Fabric) (2012), by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, together with a group of Mayan women, exemplifies this blend of traditional technique with present-day political concerns. The large cloth, delicately embroidered with traditional motifs of flowers, birds, butterflies and stars, could pass as a craft item bought in the market. In fact, the blood-stained fabric came from the Guatemala City morgue, where it once covered the body of a murdered woman.
Teresa Margolles, Mujeres bordando junto al Lago Atitlán [Women Embroidering next to Atitlan Lake], 2012, video still. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
Tela bordada tells a multi-layered story of systemic violence, oppression, exploitation and poverty in Central America; but it also addresses positive notions of communal labour, ritual, healing and transformation.
A Canadian counterpart to Tela bordada is Fringe (2008) by Rebecca Belmore, a photograph of a reclining woman draped in a white sheet. Running diagonally the length of her back is a deep gash that has been stitched up, from which hangs a blood-red beaded fringe. The work makes reference to violence against Aboriginal women, and to collective memory. The reference to traditional handiwork is not simply a nostalgic memory of the past, but a symbol of fortitude and persistence.
For Belmore, Fringe implies hope and survival. “I see it as a wound that is on the mend,” she writes. “It wasn’t self-inflicted, but nonetheless, it is bearable. She can sustain it. … She will get up and go on, but she will carry that mark with her.”
Rebecca Belmore, Fringe (2008), cibachrome transparency in fluorescent lightbox (ed. 2/3), 81.5 x 244.8 x 16.7 cm. NGC
Another artist from Canada, Brian Jungen, acknowledges the complexity of land and resource use in his sculpture Nicotine (2007), made from a plastic gasoline canister. The image of a flowering tobacco plant has been drilled into its side, giving it the look of traditional beadwork. The artist was inspired by the experiences of his home community of Doig, near Fort St. John, British Columbia, where the oil-and-gas industry is the main source of employment. Jungen’s title is symbolic of the conflicting aspects of the industry, for the tobacco plant has sacred and medicinal qualities, but is of course toxic and addictive. Similarly, the oil industry responds to a real need for economic and resource development, but takes an environmental, and perhaps spiritual, toll.
These and other works in Sakahàn suggest that Indigenous artists all over the world maintain strong roots in the traditions, values and aesthetics of their heritage, while also engaging in contemporary practices and concerns, and imagining new ideals. The artists of Sakahàn are timeshifters, moving nimbly from past to present to future, which indeed seem to co-exist.
Fiona Pardington’s Portrait of a life-cast of Matua Tawai, Aotearoa/New Zealand (2010) is very much a timeshifting work. Part of a series of enlarged digital photographs, it uses a highly contemporary technique to examine a fascinating, if shameful, aspect of imperialist history and Enlightenment science.
In 2007, Pardington learned of an exhibition of plaster life casts of Māori people—some of them her ancestors—created by French phrenologist Pierre-Marie Dumoutier in 1840. This was a time when Indigenous people were widely believed to be a “vanishing race,” and when phrenology was a burgeoning field. Phrenology held that the size and shape of the human skull revealed character traits and intelligence.
For her series, Pardington carefully lit the casts to highlight certain facial features—including elaborate tā moko, or incised facial tattooing—and enlarged her photographs to more than life size. Pardington’s twenty-first-century lens brings attention to the individuality of the nineteenth-century sitters. “It’s a kind of repatriation of the individual to the community,” says Greg Hill. “She had to consult with family and community members, following Maori protocol, in order to get permission to use the images as artworks and put them on public display.”
Artist Richard Bell asserts the vital place of Indigenous peoples in contemporary life. “If we cannot be both ‘Indigenous’ and ‘modern,’” he says, “then we are doomed to extinction.” Through Sakahàn, we see that the beauty, power and diversity of contemporary Indigenous art is thriving.
Sakahàn is on view at the National Gallery until 2 September 2013, with related exhibitions at partner venues in the National Capital region and abroad.