In 1885, Lakota chief Sitting Bull left his reservation to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Riding in the show, he became an autograph-signing celebrity and was seen by many white spectators as an embodiment of the romantic “Indian warrior.”
Now “Sovereign Acts,” a group show of contemporary First Nations artists, takes as its departure point the history of indigenous people performing for colonial audiences. Works by Rebecca Belmore, Robert Houle, Terrance Houle, Shelley Niro, Jeff Thomas, Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson make a compelling case that the idea of “performance art” was pertinent to First Nations performers long before the modern term existed.
Costumes are a recurring theme. In the print The 500 Year Itch, Niro dresses up like Marilyn Monroe (a dinky electric fan billows her skirt). Placing the print next to images of the artist and the artist’s mother in regular clothes makes you consider why Norma Jean is the world’s most famous female face. Jeff Thomas’ photographs of modern-day powwow dancers display the dramatic feathers of traditional garb, but also capture the dancers in sneakers and baseball caps, unloading the costumes from pickup trucks. Which visual is more authentic?
A camp sense of humour comes across in Stimson and Blondeau’s photographs, paying tribute to Wild West shows while reversing races and genders. But Stimson’s reinventions of residential school photographs and Blondeau’s Betty Daybird’s Vision Quest (in which her character awaits spiritual awakening while drinking liquor and smoking a cigarette) remind us of tragic legacies that still haunt First Nations communities.
The work that best embodied the show for this writer was Stimson’s Buffalo Boy’s Wild West Peep Show featuring videos of the artist dressed up either as a buffalo, whose slaughter the US Army once hoped would eradicate the Plains tribes, or in his guise as Buffalo Boy, wearing a cowboy hat, fringed jacket and ladies’ stockings. In this ostentatious costume, Stimson is shown exploring the streets of Venice as white onlookers whisper, point and snap pics with their cellphones.
To view the films, you bend over and peer through one of four peepholes (painted red, yellow, white and black). Not only does this give the viewer a feeling of watching something forbidden, but it is also uncomfortable. Stopping to stretch my back and adjust my legs, I suddenly understood that I was part of the work: the white spectator still eyeing the First Nations performer—archetypes neither of us can forget.