Art Gallery of Calgary’s film and video exhibition Red Eye packs a punch

Red Eye an exhibition organized and circulated by the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) in Ottawa and currently on view at the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC) showcases 28 short film and video works by 20 contemporary First Nations artists. The works (originally shot with varying video and film formats and ranging from one to nine minutes in length) have been compiled on DVD and are projected on a large screen in the downstairs Media Room. Take heed: if you intend to watch all of the works in one sitting which is feasible but will take almost two hours make sure to bring a cushion for the uncompromising wooden bench.

Red Eye was curated by Ryan Rice a strong and important promoter of contemporary First Nations artists. Artist critic and curator this Mohawk from Kahnawake Quebec has been the aboriginal curator in residence at the CUAG since September 2005 and has curated several shows there including Red Eye. In the introductory essay for this exhibition Rice explains that the artistic media of film and video is “particularly appealing to indigenous artists because it facilitates the creation of a narrative that expands upon oral traditions.”

Each work deals with in diverse and refreshing ways socio-political issues that affect First Nations people. However several works truly stood out from the pack as they offered viewers a new perspective on the lives of indigenous peoples and their struggles. For example Group of Seven Inches by Kent Monkman is a clever silent film portrayal of a parallel universe where the Caucasians are the “romantic savages.” In this Super 8 film we see a proud transvestite Native chief decked out in a glorious headdress and platform shoes recruiting two wild white men to be sexually exploited humiliated and dressed up in traditional British regalia. Interspersed between the scenes are quotes like “It has been my life’s work to make a record of them before they become obliterated” taken from the diaries of frontier painters like Paul Kane.

The subject of unjust treatment of First Nations people is seen again in Tannis Nielson’s simple and poetic work Nimin o Ayan. In the first part a naked woman standing on a black background covers herself in black paint until she disappears into the void referring to the assimilation of her people during colonialism. This video ends on an uplifting note as the woman slowly reappears from the darkness by smearing white paint over her body. The visuals are enhanced by the pulsating soundtrack and choppy editing giving the whole a trance-like effect.

Some of the short videos have had more public exposure than others as some were used as anti-racism commercials and others are music videos. Directed by Shelley Niro The Shirt premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2003 where hundreds of thousands of people from around the world gather to look at the latest developments in international art. For this work Niro dressed a middle-aged indigenous woman in a white T-shirt with a saying that makes reference to the common phrase “My parents went to Florida and all I got was this crummy T-shirt!” which becomes the tool for conveying her message about colonialism. The T-shirt lists what her ancestors went through for her to get the shirt: “annihilated” “massacred” “lied to” “cheated” “tricked and deceived.” In the end the woman is stripped naked of her “crummy” T-shirt as it is given to a younger prettier woman to model.

Another set of works tackles issues around indigenous traditions and values from their preservation to their critique. In Wood presented by Keesic Douglas a man dressed in a suit visits the trees in the forest to thank them for their contribution to today’s modern city. The man brings to them framed photographs of telephone poles and other wooden creations from the city as a sign of gratitude. This video makes the viewer think of how much we take our limited resources such as trees for granted.

The artists and emerging filmmakers that make up Red Eye are not only continuing an age-old tradition of oral and visual storytelling but are also offering viewers a glimpse of what it must mean and feel like to be a First Nations person living in contemporary society today. Red Eye proves video and film is an effective and powerful medium for indigenous artists to share their experience of hardship assimilation unequal treatment and stereotyping with others.