Artists Deliver a History Lesson

The work of seven First Nations artists – Bob Boyer, Dana Claxton, Ruth Cuthand, Faye HeavyShield, Robert Houle, Ron Noganosh, and Edward Poitras – was featured in the exhibition A History Lesson, which ran at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MOCCA) in Toronto as part of the Planet IndigenUs festival. All the works are part of the permanent collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan.

A History Lesson demonstrated the adaptability and evolution of indigenous artistic expression and identity, highlighting contemporary sculptural installations, mixed-media video installations, abstract painting, and mixed-media printmaking. There wasn’t a bead or a feather in sight.

The exhibition also aimed to reflect what happens when cultures meet – in both positive and negative terms. Robert Houle’s Palisade, an installation featuring abstract paintings and lithographic prints, commemorates Odawa chief Pontiac’s battles against the British in the late 18th century and also references British commander Lord Jeffrey Amherst’s attempts to wipe out the Aboriginal population by distributing smallpox-infected blankets. Houle’s series of eight monochrome paintings – the long, narrow canvases are reminiscent of wampum belts – act as winter counts, recording Pontiac’s capture of eight British forts. The lithographs reproduce Amherst’s letters, in which he says, “You will do well to try to innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to extirpate this Execrable Race.” When seen alongside the other works in the exhibition, Houle’s work asked viewers to consider whether the state of relations between Aboriginal peoples and the colonial government has changed much in 200 years.

A History Lesson illustrated the intersections of past, present, and future intrinsic to Aboriginal art and everyday life. Dana Claxton’s Buffalo Bone China demonstrated these intersections using mixed media and video in an installation that consisted of bone china arranged in a perfect, mounded circle. Above the china, a video showing archival footage of a stampeding buffalo herd is paired with contemporary images of a man (actor Anthony Favel) screaming as the buffalo are shot and killed by hunters on a train. Images of a buffalo skull then appear, superimposed on stacks of bone china, emphasizing the connection between the death of the great herds and the material comforts of settler life – as well as the tensions between settlers and First Nations people. But the video ends on a hopeful note: Favel runs his hands and hair over the china, as if willing the buffalo back to life. Then he opens a gate and walks out to a sunny garden, as if consigning the painful history of colonialsm to the past. In so doing, he declares that the spirit of the buffalo remains alive in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal peoples, who remember them.

As colonized peoples know, history is never over. A History Lesson included two pieces about the way the past continues to affect the present. Ruth Cuthand’s Post-Oka Kind of Woman is a series of graphite drawings on paper that showcase her commentary on the Canadian government’s continued disregard for Aboriginal rights. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. (One panel shows two Aboriginal characters and the words, “Don’t worry, we’re oppressed… but happy.”)

In Anon Among Us, artist Ron Noganosh has shaped soil from his southern Ontario community into a burial mound. Above the faux grave, a video screen displays the names of the 63 Noganosh family members who have died from alcohol-related causes, diseases caused by poverty, and violent acts resulting from hopelessness and despair. Noganosh’s work honours the dead by naming those whose deaths are rarely reported by the media – the anonymous Indians who exist in Canada’s own Third World – and shows the difference between inflicted invisibility and the chosen anonymity of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where many of his family members sought assistance.

“It’s kind of ironic that this show is called A History Lesson,” says guest curator Lee-Ann Martin, “because it focuses on contemporary art. But it’s contemporary art created by Aboriginal artists who really want to set the record straight. This history isn’t taught in schools, and it’s usually the artists who have the first insights into these overlooked elements of history. It’s those insights and perspectives, in the here and now, and how they articulate them using contemporary idioms and art media, that I find the most exciting artwork today.”

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