A different kind of souvenir
Alongside the first gallery of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries is a treasure you will not want to miss: a suite of videos by four Indigenous artists, called Souvenir. It was produced by Anita Lee for The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and premiered at the Aboriginal Pavilion at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games as part of the exhibition Gazing Back, Looking Forward, curated by Rhéanne Chartrand. “I saw an opportunity to curate an exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art as a counterpoint to the more traditional forms of cultural expression that visitors would see at the Aboriginal Pavilion (i.e. pow wow dancing),” says Chartrand. “The exhibition was about confronting and moving beyond stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples derived from the idea of the Imaginary Indian, which is no way reflective of how contemporary Indigenous peoples see themselves or the diversity of Indigenous nations.”
In consultation with Chartrand, the NFB initiated Souvenir by inviting four contemporary Indigenous artists to access the archives at the NFB. Each artist was given the mandate to “fashion a short film, no longer than four minutes that reframes archival imagery in a new light for a contemporary audience”. “We at the NFB Ontario Studio conceived of the concept to commission these four artists to create new narratives and reframe history, using NFB archives,” says Lee. “For the Pan Am exhibition, Souvenir was developed as a film installation. Since then, the films have been invited to multiple international festivals including TIFF, Sundance and imagineNATIVE. We are privileged to have such exceptional artists share their vision and to have the suite installed in the National Gallery of Canada.” For Chartrand, the title of the suite of videos is apropos. “The name in itself is a double-edged sword,” she says. “For so long, Indigenous culture was seen as kitsch, as a souvenir, a remnant of the past. But with this film, the artists took the archival footage, claimed it and made it a tool of empowerment.”
The four artists, Jeff Barnaby, Michelle Latimer, Kent Monkman and Caroline Monnet, each chose different themes to tell different stories. Kent Monkman’s Sisters & Brothers is a haunting video and a stark juxtaposition of black and white film footage of bison herds alongside footage of children in residential schools, making a startling comparison and blatant critique of Canada’s colonial history.
Michelle Latimer’s Nimmikaage (She Dances for People) makes an equally powerful statement. Latimer was appalled that a major mining company was sponsoring the medals at the Pan Am Games because of the company’s human rights violations, particularly against Indigenous peoples. For Souvenir, she considered the ways in which Indigenous peoples are featured at events and “trotted out in the face of nationalism,” she says. “I have an opportunity to speak out about how Indigenous lives are affected by colonialism and nationalism,” says Latimer. “I set out looking through the archives for documentation of other nationalistic events where Indigenous peoples were paraded as spectacle; an insult when you consider how little has been done to date to advance and support Indigenous culture, language and land claims in this country.”
The result was Nimmikaage (She Dances for People) which intercuts black-and-white footage of land and animals, with images of Indigenous women. There are also shots of mainstream audiences laughing and watching, which reinforces the message that Indigenous people were seen as objects. The climax of the video, however, is a series of images of Indigenous women staring directly at the camera. “I think they implicate the viewer into ‘seeing’ them for who they are, not something to be consumed, but someone who says, ‘I’m here and I see you seeing me.’ There’s power in that.”
Jeff Barnaby chose to focus on scenes of environmental degradation and social neglect in his film Etlinisigu’niet (Bleed Down). There are many images of young Indigenous children being poked, prodded and examined in clinics and hospitals. This is interspersed with images of pollution, which leaves the viewer to conclude that, despite the many attempts to ‘get rid of the Indian problem’ through forced assimilation, Indigenous peoples are still here and still maintain their cultural identities.
Caroline Monnet’s Mobilize is the only video to use coloured archival footage and she says she knew she wanted the film to have a positive message. “I found, even if the films are by non-Indigenous filmmakers, I learned a lot by watching them, like canoe making or making snowshoes,” she says. “There was such a richness to this material and I wanted to show how skillful we are as Indigenous peoples, how Indigenous people are not stagnant, but vibrant, working people.” The film is fast-paced, showing Indigenous peoples in motion; moving, walking, canoeing. This is done in the bush but also in the city, which was important to Monnet. “I wanted to use the archives to speak about the future; usually archives are nostalgic but, on the contrary, I wanted to talk about the future.”
Each filmmaker was provided with soundtracks from award-winning musicians Tanya Tagaq and a Tribe Called Red. The music is a vital element to all of the films. For the National Gallery of Canada, Souvenir was a perfect fit for the overall theme of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, according to Greg Hill, Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art. “Souvenir works well in these historical galleries, where contemporary works are being shown alongside ancestral works, because these videos are also about mixing contemporary ideas and historical or archival images together. The videos pick up on the importance of history to contemporary Indigenous artists.”
Souvenir is on display in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries until summer 2019. See also the NFB blog.