Tanya Harnett’s "The Bargain"
Exhibition recognizes North American culture’s manipulation of indigenous presence
The title of Contemporary Calgary ’s current exhibition Deadly Lady Art Triumvirate is reminiscent of the title of Art Gallery of Alberta’s recent The Intellection of Lady Spider House a fact that implies the perpetual shifts and fluky correspondences of the art world. But the regrettable coincidence that the former exhibition which questions the perception and care of indigenous people in Canadian society opened only five days before the tragic murder of Loretta Saunders is a result of something much more urgent and effectual than cultural conversations: a political reality.
The ongoing neglect and oppression of First Nations people in Canada is a political problem that concerns artists as much as everyone else. In his statement about her untimely death Saunders’ thesis advisor Darryl Leroux refers to his non-indigenous students and the broader Canadian public when he says “We are for the most part incapable of empathy [for indigenous peoples].”
But this is due largely to a lack of willingness to engage the truth. Deadly Lady Art Triumvirate curated by Kayleigh Hall and including work by Amy Malbeuf Tanya Harnett and Brittney Bear Hat allows these complex truths to be told in ways that art knows how to do.
For instance in the piece “The Bargain” Harnett transcribes onto a blood red wool blanket an actual letter from 1655 that outlines an agreement between Queen Victoria and the King Chief of Canada. Handwritten in elegant cursive the Queen’s many forgotten and ignored promises — including “If you want a house in Canada anyplace go to the superintendent put in your order and he will see that it is built. It will cost you nothing they will pay for it” — sink in as your vision is saturated with a red colour field. The piece drives home the stark division between accepted appearances and the violent actuality that eventually penetrates through it.
Another piece “Jimmie Durham 1974” by Malbeuf also transcribes an influential text this time from artist Jimmie Durham’s book A Certain Lack of Coherence . The quotation in this work illustrates his thinking that “regaining or maintaining cultural integrity is not necessarily a revolutionary act.” Eight thousand glass crow beads spell out words that condemn as counter-revolutionary an uncritical participation in what the West deems “traditional” Indian activities such as beadwork. Adhered to a temporary shelter of tarp rope and wood the beaded text is read within a context of protest and activism of camping out on the front line. It speaks to the difficulty of locating one’s sense of self using a language and culture that have been grossly devalued and misunderstood.
While some contemporary artists wish to be known as artists without additional identity associations or labels such as “First Nations” or “queer” the three artists in this exhibition articulate their cultures while simultaneously rejecting the problematic romanticized image that is prevalent in western thinking — as author Thomas King calls it the “Dead Indian” or “Noble Savage.” As Durham writes when speaking about the cultural integrity and ability of North America’s First Nations to appropriate useful ideas weapons and events “The traditions that we mean are not the exterior manifestations that are easily identified as ‘Indian’ not the ‘artifacts’ and objects of our culture but what we call our ‘vision’ — the value that makes our culture.”
Bear Hat uses found imagery and personal narrative to articulate the endurance of her and her family’s values despite the linguistic and cultural tactics meant to dissolve them. Her series of six prints titled “Remember” uses small plastic toys of North American animals and stereotypical Indian artifacts as foils to her writing which elaborates on the rich experiences of her life. Again a sharp contrast between western representation and reality is articulated.
In an artist statement she says “I was intrigued by the stereotype found in the images I would search. I thought I had to be exactly like Pocahontas to be a real Native. It’s that silly way of thinking that drives my work.”
Bear Hat may call it silly but the insidious and manipulative ways in which North American culture and politics work to immobilize and taking from Leroux’s letter “eliminate” the indigenous presence must be recognized as such. This important exhibition elicits such a recognition.