From colonial-era archives to Disneyfied portrayals, the all-too-familiar image of Aboriginal peoples as “noble savages” reads like a legacy of stolen identities. It’s a predicament with deep cultural implications, leaving First Nations communities and individuals with a double-edged challenge—to redefine themselves from within and without as integral parts of not only a larger historical narrative but also of a diverse, and increasingly urban, contemporary reality.
That ongoing search for a 21st-century Aboriginal identity is the focus of “FACE THE NATION,” an exhibition of works by artists Jeff Thomas, KC Adams, Kent Monkman, Lori Blondeau, Terrance Houle, Adrian Stimson, Maria Hupfield and Dana Claxton, all of whom share First Nations backgrounds.
Works in this impressive and important show range across media to display a keen understanding of the critical power of ironic humour, imitation and parody. Saskatoon-based artists Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson reprise their exotic performance personas “Belle Sauvage” and “Buffalo Boy” with a set of staged portraits that re-distribute the power dynamic of 19th-century studio photography. Toronto painter and performance artist Kent Monkman’s drag queen alter-ego, “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle,” features in a new black and white film work which offers a flamboyant counter-narrative to silent-film depictions of cowboys and Indians. This double-take strategy of “disguised” identity takes a contemporary turn in Calgary artist Terrance Houle’s Urban Indian Series of photos featuring him grocery shopping, riding the bus, taking a bath, among other a-day-in-the-life activities, dressed in full powwow dancer regalia.
Portraits of contemporary powwow dancers by Ottawa photographer Jeff Thomas make a pointed contrast to the contentious yet widely accepted historical record of Edward Curtis and other early-20th century frontier ethnographers. Similarly, selections from Winnipeg artist KC Adams’s ongoing Cyborg Hybrid portrait series present a digitally modified take on modern perceptions of racial identity. That complex perspective on cultural individuality is continued in Vancouver artist Maria Hupfield’s Counterpoint photos depicting two (seemingly) identical women bound in a metaphorical balancing act that could be seen as either a locked struggle or desperate grasp for support. In a new photo series titled The Mustang Suite, Vancouver-based artist Dana Claxton matches the slickly seductive imagery of advertising with nostalgia-tinged family portraiture to give critical perspective on the troublingly persistent commodification and, in turn, general misconception of Aboriginal culture and identity. (100–10230 Jasper Ave Edmonton AB)