Someday, perhaps, archaeologists will discover a bizarre petroglyph repeated across Turtle Island: the word “Indians,” carved deep into stone and sidewalks in the style of Cleveland’s controversial baseball team.
Tlingit and Aleut artist Nicolas Galanin journeyed from Alaska to etch his ironic petroglyph with a cement cutter at the entrance of the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of its ground-breaking aboriginal art exhibit, Beat Nation, an exhibition of 27 aboriginal artists from every region of North America, open until June 3.
“The word ‘Indian’ becomes ancient-looking when you etch it into stone, but it has other kinds of political echoes as well,” says Beat Nation co-curator Tania Willard, of Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia’s interior. “That was the idea of looking at the urban landscape in a way that excavates it to show indigenous roots and indigenous presence. It brings us back to the land of aboriginal presence and culture as embedded in the landscape.”
Using the popularity of hip hop among aboriginal youth as a starting point, Willard and co-curator Kathleen Ritter branch out into wildly diverse terrain, bringing together indigenous mash-up videographers with conscious rappers and innovative carvers alike.
Even Nike Air Jordans become the gutted and transfigured pelts for West Coast ceremonial masks in the hands of Dane-zaa Nation artist Brian Jungen, in his series “Prototypes for New Understanding.”
Likewise, Apache and Navajo videographer Dustinn Craig uses his medium to re-imagine the skateboard as a “4-Wheel War Pony,” both celebrating the popularity of the sport on reserves, as well as exploring the way aboriginal youth can reclaim and restructure their worlds through skating.
After discovering a rare collection of recordings of outlawed potlatches — gift-giving ceremonies banned by Canada until 1951 — Kwakwaka’wakw Nation artist Sonny Assu painted 67 elk-hide drums to represent the number of years the potlatch was practiced underground, imagining them as a subversive rock-n-roll box set, “Billy and the Chiefs: The Complete Banned Collection.”
Beat Nation is a show at once captivating, creative and confrontational. And unlike so many “traditional” Indigenous art displays and performances today, the curators refused to sanitize the artists’ politics from their work.
“We do see that done,” Willard admits. “That’s how Canada attracts tourists to this country: they use aboriginal culture as a kind of attraction. While that’s partly beautiful — and I believe in showcasing aboriginal talent, custom and tradition — at the same time we have enduring sociopolitical issues in this country, and an enduring sense of injustice. I live back home on the rez now – I can see the big difference in terms of the reservation and the expensive tourist cabins on Shuswap (Lake). There are existing legacies and injustice that, as a curator, I can’t look beyond.”
Those legacies are intrinsic to the exhibit’s scope — at times playing the ironic trickster, and others others explicitly pushing back against colonialism. But re-mixed throughout Beat Nation is a sense of dignity, pride and the future, itself.
“For me, as an aboriginal person, that connection to the past is really important,” Willard says. “We can all learn something from that. We can all learn from indigenous cultures across this country and across Turtle Island. We can learn a lot from listening to those voices, and from reconnecting to the land — things that are really important to the survival of our society.”
The exhibit’s largest piece is a full-wall mural of Wasco, a traditional Haida Nation sea wolf figure. The gallery agreed to let two urban graffiti artists — whose work normally appears on local bridge underbellies and community centre walls — spray-paint directly onto the gallery walls.
Corey Bulpitt, Haida, and Larissa Healey, Ojibway — known by their tags Akos and Gurl 23 respectively — donned gas masks, paint cans and stencils to create the monumental image, its thick black-and-red curves both graceful and defiant. After eight hours, they completed their mural by scrawling their tags – the graffiti term for an artist’s stylized signature — on either side of their artwork.
For Willard, the tag is an enduring metaphor for aboriginal relationships to the earth.
“The tag is really about marking the land,” she says. “We see that in ancient ways with pictographs and petroglyphs in our territory, marks that our ancestors made.
“And we see it as well, today, in graffiti work. The tag really focuses on this continuum. . . that starts with our ancestors and starts in the land as the original and vessel for culture, stories and language.”