I hadn’t heard of Mark Igloliorte (an Inuk from Nunatsiavut [Northern Labrador]) before I visited the Beat Nation exhibition now on view at the Power Plant contemporary art gallery in Toronto, and I’m both so upset for that and glad that I have come across these beautiful paintings.
His contribution to Beat Nation are a red skateboard rail, the “Komatik Skatebox” - active skating equipment-turned minimalist sculpture - and my favorite piece, a video-sculptural work where two small videos of the nalukataq (Inupiat blanket toss) are projected onto the top side of a skateboard mounted on the wall. The connection is to movement and energy between the very traditional and very modern sports. Unfortunately I can’t find any documentation of this, so I just suggest everyone visit the Power Plant and see it (and the rest of this landmark exhibition) for yourself.
On a different note Igloliorte has also produced these very current, psychological paintings, alongside a series of more current works mirroring cast-off objects from his studio called simply Diptychs (with the reverential and thus ironic message being clear). These, especially, show an intensity and mixture of foreboding and peace. Likewise, given the theme of kayakers and the composition, they at first recall a theme common to early 20th century photography (from both white photographers and early Inuit photographers, notably John Møller), but being in a highly painterly style and so thoroughly constructing the atmosphere with very non-photographic textures, they also position themselves against the old photographs, as a type of reviewing.
Another challenging work by Erica Lord: Quartered, Quantified and Classified: My Blood Quantum Cabinet.
This work focuses in on the immediate fact of indigeneity; how are citizenship, membership, ‘authenticity’ and ‘belonging’ defined by nations and communities that have had many of the formal, concrete structures and symbols used to define nationhood diluted or stripped away? Interestingly - though not unexpectedly - in the US and Canada, the regulations for determining indigeneity often draw directly from the white bureaucracy and ideology that put tribal/national membership in such a precarious situation in the first place.
As Lord writes, the cabinet contains “The approximate amount of my body’s amount of blood, ~4.5 quarts, divided into 16 equal parts and preserved in glass canning jars.” Interestingly it does not contain only a certain amount, that would qualify an individual for enrollment in any particular nation. It is the blood of a whole person, because an indigenous person is wholly native. How would one pick apart the non-native blood? Certainly no one, indigenous or not, would survive if only their ‘pure’ blood (however that is defined) were kept and the rest expelled. And so Lord states that the fact of indigeneity can perhaps not be defined by anything so solidly and clinically in the physical world. But it is no less a fact, when it is defined by one’s community involvement, one’s language and one’s beliefs.
So while Lord clearly rejects the use of blood quantum to define such an abstract, personal and communal thing as indigeneity, cleverly, she provides no alternative. It is as fascinating to examine the arguments about how to regulate enrollment within indigenous communities, as it is to question why no better and more community-specific and -centered methods have been developed. And perhaps the answer to the latter lies with the former.
I certainly am not qualified to speak about the complexity of tribal enrollment in North America. But I think that Lord’s work is also pertinent to indigenous communities outside of the New World, particularly ones without this confusion. Because even if a nation is entirely in control of its membership and has systems in place to defend it, this work asks the viewer to consider the fact of indigeneity as a fusion of experience, heritage, community and the individual, and reminds the viewer that the obsession of measurement of indigeneity was once (and often still is) considered measurement of personhood.
Erica Lord, Artifact Piece, Revisited, performed in 2008 at the National Museum of the American Indian. Lord is Athabascan and Iñupiaq.
This performance reflects the ever-present theme of the exhibition of peoples and lived materials, that is such a conflict in indigenous aesthetic issues. For centuries Western bodies of academia meticulously “collected”, “gathered” (to use the conspicuous terms) materials for exhibition of the many “exotic” and “primitive” nations of the world. Such collections then added prestige to the visual rhetoric that the non-Native used/s to define and confine “Native”, for it is hard to imagine white collectors not having the colourful, popular picture of “Native” in mind.
It is hard enough for objects that are defined by their use and by their makers - clothing, ceremonial garb, baskets, boats - to convey a people when they are not being lived in. But this work also shines a light on the more insidious topic in the exhibiting of peoples - the active collection and exhibition of human remains. The constant fight to repatriate human remains in museum and university collections around the world has often ignited opposition from the scientific community, that I can’t speak to (other than to say how can any individual or body, regardless of their purpose, claim to have rights to a person).
But let’s look at this from a curatorial perspective, for the vast majority of these remains are not actively studied. What, could exhibiting, collecting, hoarding away these stolen people seek to accomplish beside upholding the idea of indigenous cultures as stagnating at best, more often dead, and so the pretext of white superiority, because it lives on? Beside exciting an attraction to the macabre, that keeps alive both the myth of indigenous peoples as bloodthirsty, and especially the role of Native Americans as enemy, by conjuring up images of gore and warfare? And what does it say that this is the theme most highlighted in exhibition placards, the story of war, and not that in North America, orders were sent out by courts that Native Americans should be killed and their bodies taken, for extermination, and implicitly, for sport? That is the real bloodthirst.
And in this and any academic rhetoric, is lost the fact that the exhibited material was a person, with a life entirely their own. In such exhibition design, the assertion is that - whether the material is human remains or lived objects - a fractional artifact from a single life can be made into an easily digestible visual, and expanded and held up as a representative first for a whole community, then a whole nation, then for all that falls under “Native American” then again for all that falls under “Native.” And so Lord places among the traditional clothing and jewelry, childhood photos, and in an entirely separate display are photos and objects that could in no way, visually, be called “Native” except that they belong to a Native person. But through ownership they are as native as the anorak and the body lying beside them. And the body one confronts is neither dusty and withered nor battle-torn, but warmly lit, healthy and peaceful. And still as a viewer one can’t know her by seeing her, though of course, one knows she is alive. She is still reduced to “exhibited material” and if she exists as a person it is to reject one’s “viewing”, to separate viewing from knowing. So when an exhibited person is as present as they possibly could be, and still one can not know them by viewing them, how can a withered piece of a person from another time be expected to speak for a multitude of living nations?
Related: Inuik at the 2nd Nordic Fashion Biennale in Seattle, Pia Arke at the permanent Greenlandic exhibition in the National Museum in Copenhagen.
Her work is most interesting to me, because of its added element to the traditional vs. fine art discussion as a context imposed by the Western preconception of indigenous art, just one of its many levels. As Sonya is Inupiat, the material is “traditional” - sealskin, bladders and intestines from whale and walrus - but the form is not. “Traditional” is almost entirely inclined to what the West would identify as “craft”, functional objects first and so lacking artistic value. And so it upholds an element of the cultural structure that devalues indigenous art, by saying that the true indigenous creation is “humble” and “utilitarian” - to use the Western connotations of “craft”, which contribute to the “noble savage” picture of indigenous peoples as creatures of relative intelligence dedicating effort and patience just to survive. Any other incarnation of art made by indigenous artists cannot, in the Western art world, be called indigenous, least of all “traditional.”
The form denies the other half of “traditional”, by abstracting the “traditional” material (abstract art as the “purest” or most arty form of visual art in the Western sense, as it takes in no references but itself). So the artist articulates the flexibility of the “traditional” materials and the continuity of indigenous heritage; the picture of “traditional art” is defined (by the West) as an unbroken aesthetic continuation, which is why in exhibitions of indigenous art, contemporary objects are often placed alongside ones centuries old. And so this work taps into a deeper notion of pure, aesthetic beauty that all art aspires to, certainly including indigenous art whether or not it looks like “craft”, but which the Western pretext denies of any art that self-identifies as indigenous.
Siqiniq - Sun; from “siqi-” - “to splatter/to splash outward” - and “-niq” - “the action of”, making a direct translation of “explosion”
The sun, then, is both seen as a continuous explosion - continuous creation as well as destruction - and as a reminder of the creation of the earth.