Historical Notions and Contemporary Realities: Indigenous Artists at the NGC

Shelley Niro, Resting With Warriors (detail), 2001, woodcut on wove paper, 207.5 x 106 cm. NGC

In advance of the opening of the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries in 2017, visitors are invited to reflect on the tension between historical notions of Canada and the modern realities of Indigenous peoples in a display of four contemporary works now on view at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).

Prints, paintings and photographs by four disparate artists — Canadians Shelley Niro, Robert Houle and Kent Monkman, and New Zealand artist Fiona Pardington — explore how Indigenous identities have long been both documented and stereotyped in the work of European artists, missionaries and ethnographers.

Renowned for her photographic and video-based work, Shelley Niro’s woodcut prints stand out in more ways than one. Resting with Warriors (2001) features four oversized prints depicting Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) warrior women. While clearly not elders, the figures are evocative of Clan Mothers: older women who serve as matriarchs.

In blue-black ink pressed onto paper from sheets of plywood, they appear to be both resting and standing at attention. In a previous installation at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, Ontario, the sheets of plywood were attached to a support structure at a 45-degree angle, allowing visitors to lie back on them. In the current display at the NGC, the connection is less tangible, as the plywood structures are gone, and the remaining works on paper are too delicate to be exposed to constant touch.

Fiona Pardington, Portrait of a Life Cast of Matoua Tawai, Aotearoa, New Zealand (2010), ink jet print on rag paper, 148.8 x 111.8 cm; image: 146.6 x 110.2 cm. NGC

In the series Ahua: A Beautiful Hesitation (2010), Fiona Pardington has photographed life casts — or moulages — of her Maori ancestors. They seem to be asleep, until you notice that these are photographs of plaster casts, cut off at the neck. Made between 1837 and 1840 by a French phrenologist who travelled to New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea, they are relics of a time when it was believed that the measure of a man could be taken from his skull.

Juxtaposed against Niro’s graphic prints, Pardington’s high-resolution photographs look almost too real. Only someone who has seen the actual casts at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris or the Auckland War Memorial Museum would know they were actually painted red-brown. Each image has been desaturated to a warm grey, making it look like an antiquated photograph, or even a daguerreotype. Ironically, this filter makes them appear more historical. Poignantly documenting colonial encounters with Indigenous people within a context of modernity, the photographs are compelling in their attempt to bridge the gap between different times and cultures.

Robert Houle, Kanata (1992), acrylic and conté crayon on canvas, 228.7 x 732 cm overall; panels: 228.7 x 183 cm each. NGC

An even more apparent reference to history is just across the room. Suggesting a preparatory underpainting, Robert Houle’s Kanata (1992) features a rendering of Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe in sanguine Conté crayon. Part drawing, part abstract painting, Kanata looks a bit like a roll of parchment held open by two tomes.

Primarily an abstract painter, Houle has flattened the image and brought everything forward to make the colours stand out, especially on the warrior figure. In combat, a bright uniform obviously makes for an easier target, but here the warrior seems more viewer than participant, more spectator than actor. Nevertheless, at this decisive moment in Western European and Canadian history, the warrior crouches across from the dying English general. Conspicuous in both works, what seems a passive, subordinate stance in the West becomes a vigil, poised between one moment and the next.

Kent Monkman, The Triumph of Mischief (2007), acrylic on canvas, 213 x 335 cm. NGC

In his The Moral Landscape series, one of which rounds out this display, artist Kent Monkman plays fast and loose with traditional depictions of First Peoples. The Triumph of Mischief (2007) could easily be mistaken at first for a sublime, historical landscape from the Hudson River School. Front and centre, however, the cross-dressing Miss Chief Eagle Testickle wears high heels and a flower in her hair, while cherubs drape her in diaphanous pink cloth. More than a play on words, Miss Chief is Monkman’s alter ego, appearing in paintings, photographs, videos and performances. Riffing on traditional depictions of Indigenous warriors, Monkman also reinstates the notion of the “two-spirit” identity in certain Indigenous cultures.

Drawing upon historical representations of Indigenous culture, each of these artists has found a way to turn these representations inside out, whether in Niro’s evocative prints, Pardington’s unsettling yet beguiling photographs, Houle’s politically charged painting, or Monkman’s gleefully ironic Miss Chief. Deliberate in their methods and thorough in their critiques, each upholds certain elements of Indigenous traditions, even as they create something entirely new.

The four works by Shelley Niro, Fiona Pardington, Robert Houle and Kent Monkman — all from the national collection — are currently on view in Gallery B204 at the National Gallery of Canada.

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