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Aboriginal artists defying expectations.

"I STARTED TO ESTABLISH MYSELF ... AS AN INDIAN ARTIST. PARDON ME,
ESTABLISH MYSELF AS AN ARTIST WHO HAPPENS TO BE INDIAN."
--GOYCE KAKEGAMIC, LATE 1970S


Since the mid-1960s, when Woodland School art became widely accepted, contemporary Aboriginal artists have faced many challenges not evident for their non-Aboriginal counterparts. From lack of resources to limited recognition and preconceived notions, they are constantly navigating between artistic practice and cultural expectations. For the Manitoba artists represented here--Kale Bonham, Helen Madelaine, Leah Fontaine, Riel Benn, KC Adams and Colleen Cutschall--one recurring obstacle they face are the existing stereotypes about Aboriginal artists.

In North America, stereotypes have played a key role in the settlement of the west, as the staged photography of Edward Curtis and postcards portraying a romantic, bountiful West enticed settlers. Hollywood "Cowboy and Indian" flicks and dimestore novels contributed to the bounty as interpretations of First Peoples as submissive, savage, mythical and sexual objects entered North American popular culture. And, for contemporary artists, misconceptions about the Woodland School Arts movement have also proved to be problematic.

In Manitoba, the legacy left by the Professional Native Artists Inc., commonly known as the Woodland School Arts movement, is strong. The seven artists who belonged to the collective were Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez, Eddy Cobiness and Alex Janvier. They were successful in having their voices heard and talents acknowledged at a time when newly formed Aborigina-rights organizations, like the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood and the Manitoba Metis Federation, were receiving much-needed attention.

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The group worked out of Daphne Odjig's commercial gallery in Winnipeg from the mid-sixties to the early seventies. Their diverse contemporary art visually interpreted oral stories, post-contact history and worldviews through painted imagery of stylized animals, spirits and landscapes. It became recognized in Aboriginal communities as a vital expression of Aboriginality.

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As well, this movement caused excitement on the Canadian art scene, and a market developed, blazing trails for those who came after.

Due to the wild imaginations of a non-Aboriginal audience, Woodland School artists were often romanticized to be the survivors or revivers of a great and noble past. Their works were treated as ethnographic objects and, at times, Woodland School artists received more recognition from history museums than from contemporary art galleries. Ideas about what contemporary art is within Aboriginal communities narrowed down to Woodland style art. Curator Lee-Ann Martin asserts that art existed in Aboriginal communities historically, but "was framed, integrated and discussed in ways that differ greatly from Western categorizations. Contexts for art were, and are, those of the everyday and of the religious, of the celebratory and of the ceremonial."

Even though Woodland School art was, and still is, contemporary art, to many First Peoples it is considered traditional art. For artists who emerged later and whose work sways from this movement, their own communities often do not respond with as much enthusiasm, even if their work reflects their Aboriginality.

Riel Benn

Riel Benn lives and works in Birdtail Sioux. Benn was quite young when his talents became recognized with Magazine Series. These works placed Aboriginal historic leaders on the covers of pop-cultural magazines, like People or Time. The paintings were a reaction to the tragic death of his brother, but were mostly celebrated for their cultural commentary, Benn exemplifying the tenacity of youth, and natural talent.

Benn exists in a dichotomy between private artistic process and the public presentation of himself and his work. In the confines of his home, where he creates, Benn does not ponder whether his subject matter is culturally appropriate or how to deal with public perceptions. But in the public sphere, he faces the pressures of being a recognized youth role model and the expectations that go with such status. In order to "not be rude" or burst people's romantic bubbles, Benn rarely challenged the expectations that he be spiritual, the voice of youth, or an authority on all Aboriginal issues. This exemplifies how stereotypes or cultural expectations can have a silencing effect.

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Recently, Benn paints what he defines as "humorous and human situations. I focus on screwed-up things." The Best Man series is an example. These painted narratives contain his alter ego, the eccentric, cynical Best Man. They reflect upon Benn's fascination with celibacy, while at the same time dealing with ignorance, loneliness and jealousy. The work only marginally references Benn's cultural background, but focuses on internal dialogues to which many can relate. With this work, it is impossible to locate him as an "Indian artist." He is more role model than role player.

Helen Madelaine

According to Australian artist Jacqui Katona, examining the land is reflective of Aboriginal art (Aboriginal art, not "Indian art"). She suggests, "Our land cannot be transformed as a resource, our land is part of our family, it reflects our relationships with each other, it connects our souls, it feels as we do and it grieves--as we do--when our connection with it is impaired. These are the issues which are central to Aboriginal art." Helen Madelaine, a painter living and working in Brandon, Manitoba, concurs with Katona. She creates abstract paintings that reflect a spiritual connection to the land, and what she considers spiritual dreams.

A soft-spoken yet politically driven woman, Madelaine is concerned with our loss of connection to the land. She suggests, "Our connection to the land is being lost, because of what is considered progress. On reserves, there is no room to move. You can't hunt too far off the reserve, because if you go too far, then you're on white man's land." Madelaine's vibrant paintings merge Aboriginal figures or animals with landscapes, reminding viewers of how integrated the land and beings ought to be, and the disconnect that exists now.

Despite her subject matter being culturally relevant, Madelaine's abstract translations of the land do not fit the Woodland Style model. Getting support for her work and being taken seriously as an artist has thus been challenging. As well, living in rural Brandon means missing out on opportunities one would find in larger cities like Winnipeg. Although she studied fine arts at Brandon University, Madelaine is now studying community development, with the hope to use art as a healing tool with her people.

Leah Fontaine

Leah Fontaine, an artist based out of Winnipeg, also references spirituality in her work, and uses art for community-development purposes. She has worked on a variety of projects that promote mental-health awareness, suicide prevention and women's rights. Fontaine explores cultural ritual and how we connect with our natural environment. Fontaine cites the Residential Schools as one of the causes for the lost connection with nature, as well as technological progress. In the mixed-media series, Elements (2004), she digitally merges photographs taken from a "ceremonial environment" with imagery from nature to represent the four elements. She ironically utilizes computer technology, something that has removed us from nature, to reconnect with land and spirit.

Fontaine suggests that she is "a walking political statement in two categories. First, I am a First Nations person and secondly, I am a woman. This, to most, could be two strikes, but I look at it as two pulses." Fontaine's piece, Five Bucks, Five Bucks, Five Bucks, Five Bucks (2004), overtly exemplifies her political consciousness. Treaty cards are an annoyance that drastically altered the existence of many Aboriginal communities. They carry stigmas of being wards of the state, or misunderstood to be a privilege--some lottery win for access to "government hand-outs." Fontaine, tired of enduring a government that feels free to label people, created her own version of treaty cards for Euro-Canadians. With a wry sense of humour she bestows the honour of a treaty card upon non-Aboriginal viewers, showing them how it feels to be labeled.

Kale Bonham

Winnipeg-based artist Kale Bonham, a recent B.F.A. graduate from the University of Manitoba, has felt pressure to paint in the Woodland style and create art that is overtly politically charged. At this point, she is interested in neither. Bonham paints twisted narratives with cartoon-like animals and women's faces reminiscent of characters one might find in an animated film.

One example is The Tortoise and the Hare. Against a ready-made background, a feather-wearing turtle wearily jumps rope. Two possibly intoxicated bunnies hold the ends of the rope gleefully enjoying their role of making the turtle jump. This piece convincingly exposes the pressure to role-play--to be at the mercy of others when deciding what to create. It seeps with frustration about cultural stereotypes and artistic expectations. Bonham, who has moved away from allowing cultural pressure to dictate her work, states, "I don't make that effort anymore. I think that side will come out by itself, whether consciously or not."

KC Adams

While studying fine arts, Winnipeg-based KC Adams "faced stereotypes from both students and teachers, many of whom viewed me either as the romantic Indian Princess or the mythical Noble Savage. Not only was I considered an exotic beauty; I was elevated to a sphere of goodness and believed to be possessed of a spiritual connection to the land, and my work was often subjected to these romantic stereotypes during critiques." At the beginning of her professional career, Adams also endured assumptions that she was an authority on Aboriginal issues, and pressure to create artwork with Aboriginal content.

It's only been in the last few years that Adams has chosen to explore her cultural identity of her own accord. Cyborg Hybrids (2003-06) is a photo series that challenges stereotypical views towards mixed race categorization; examines the relationship between nature and technology; and explores concepts of identity and community. Adams presents artists of Aboriginal and European ancestry, forward thinkers who are "plugged in" to technology. They are wearing beaded slogans on white t-shirts illustrating common Aboriginal stereotypes, like "Authority On All Aboriginal Issues" or "Dirty Little Indian." The defiant expressions of the artists in these airbrushed glamour shots challenge viewers to locate them culturally. These artists do not allow the slogans on their t-shirts to define them, and their captured strength exposes the absurdity of common stereotypes.

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Colleen Cutschall

Colleen Cutschall comes from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. For the past twenty years she has been working and living in southwest Manitoba as an artist, art historian, educator and curator. Cutschall holds a B.F.A. from Barat College, Lake Forest, Illinois, and a M.S.Ed, from the Black Hills State College, Spearfish, South Dakota. She has had numerous solo exhibitions, including "Voices in the Blood," a touring exhibition organized by the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba "House Made of Stars," Winnipeg Art Gallery; and "Dies Again," Urban Shaman Gallery. Cutschall is a professor and chair of the Visual and Aboriginal Art Department at Brandon University. She continues to work on her artistic practice.

"The energy for wanting to develop Aboriginal arts came from the grassroots level," Cutschall says, recalling the situation she found when she first arrived in Manitoba in the mid-eighties. "It came from people who were not professionals, but who were striving to be. And of course that was accompanied with an enormous lack of management, lack of infrastructure, lack of understanding how the professional arts community worked. All of those are enormous barriers. The real catalyst for getting things going again in Manitoba was the establishment of Urban Shaman as an artist-run centre. For this generation of Native artists it brought a level of professionalism that hadn't existed."

Responses to Woodland School Art has to an extent dictated how artists are perceived, yet the strong legacy left by this movement, has also given artists many opportunities they would otherwise not have had. Joane Cardinal-Schubert asserts, "Aboriginal artists in this country, in particular, have been the first liners; their hard work and dedication and commitment have made a difference. They have carried the voices of the ancestors forward, acknowledging and demonstrating a cultural continuum, unknown to others, that is not 'lost.'"

Some struggles continue, but new ways to face them are constantly found. The road ahead is layered with new awareness, the privilege to create and the freedom to be artists who happen to be Aboriginal.

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RELATED ARTICLE: The Mission of Urban Shaman Gallery

It is the "artists, storytellers and poets who are leading the way" when Indigenous people are sitting at the table. "It is their songs, words and stories that lead us in a direction and shape the future" (northern Manitoba elder Margaret Dumas).

For the past ten years Urban Shaman Gallery has been Aboriginal artists' outlet to lead and shape our future. The gallery showcases local, national and international Indigenous artists through collaborations, individual and collective shows.

The gallery's website states, www.urbanshaman.org, "we as a gallery are forever challenging people's notions of 'Aboriginal Art,' and while appreciating our ancestors' contributions, we focus on promoting cutting-edge contemporary artists who are continuing from a long tradition of image making." This kind of direction allows artists to transform and mutate, which continues to enrich their work. It also permits the concepts of Aboriginal art to be organic and transformative. This process does not tolerate a monolithic understanding of what is Aboriginal art.

The mission of Urban Shaman Gallery is to have "an Aboriginal artist-run centre dedicated to meeting the needs of artists by providing a vehicle for artistic expression in all disciplines and at all levels by taking a leadership role in the cultivation of indigenous art."

In November, 1994, visual artist Louis Ogemah (Anishinaabe) felt that there was no existing gallery representing contemporary Aboriginal artists. Recognizing this void, Ogemah had a vision of creating a place for Aboriginal people to express their worldview artistically. Inspired by Norval Morrisseau's idea of artist-as-shaman, he, too, thought Aboriginal arts could be utilized as healing tools for First Peoples while educating the mainstream about our own unique art forms and artistic practices. Urban Shaman was born. As an artist-run centre, it continues to provide an open space for emerging, experiential and seasoned Aboriginal artists. A big megwetch to Steve Loft, director of Urban Shaman, all the staff, volunteers, artists, Aboriginal communities and all the supporters.

by JULIE NAGAM
COPYRIGHT 2007 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
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Title Annotation:Focus: Indian Country: Art, Politics & Resistance
Author:Mattes, Cathy
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:2384
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