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Contemporary Indigenous Art’s Subversion of ...

Contemporary Indigenous Art’s Subversion of Stereotypes from the Past

In mainstream art, many groups have been marginalized and exploited throughout history. From pro-colonialist propaganda in the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt to the appropriation of African masks in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the prioritizing of white male aesthetics becomes clear. In contemporary art, however, marginalized groups have taken to many different media to reclaim the representation of their identities from white artists. Some artists from these groups are using subversive re-appropriation, and drawing inspiration from their own cultural history, as principal methods of fighting back.

The Indigenous community is one of the most influential groups using art as retaliation, and yet one of the least represented in contemporary art museums. The Canadian non-Indigenous community may be used to seeing Indigenous art, or at least art marketed as Indigenous, principally in souvenir shops in the form of things like dream-catchers, beadwork, soapstone sculptures, and paintings composed of Ovoids, a traditional shape of Northwest coast design:

Todd Stephens, Ganaa’w

Their cultural meaning is often excluded in these contexts, making them fetishized objects of Indigenous “authenticity” in white culture. The Indigenous community objects to this for two main reasons: this assertion of authenticity ignores the existence of community members who exist or create art in a non-traditional manner, and in turn, this relegates their community to the past.

Despite the fact that many forms of Indigenous art that have become stereotyped are still thriving and culturally significant in contemporary Indigenous communities, they have been wrongly treated as evidence of Indigenous people’s existence as relics of the past. This has been the case ever since the pseudo-ethnographic studies of photographers like Edward Curtis. 1 This treatment of Indigenous people creates a bitter irony in tourist industry art, for the only time tourists seem to acknowledge Indigenous people is when they are producing for a white industry. In a similar fashion, the Indigenous issues that mainly attract attention are those that get picked up by white advocates, such as at Standing Rock, where the support of white veterans ultimately led to the temporary halting of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Whether fighting for their land or for their own authenticity, Indigenous people face some of the most intense cultural and political struggles of any marginalized group.

Certain contemporary Indigenous artists use their historically politicized identities to contest the many injustices they face, often by using traditional Indigenous imagery to subvert stereotypes. This way artists reclaim their cultural identity and reject the harmful repercussions perpetuated by colonial tokenization of them as “authentic” people of the past, and nothing else. A prime example can be found in the art of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, who coined the phrase “how to paint a land claim,” which entails painting worlds that draw attention to Indigenous land that has been stolen. He focuses mainly on issues of Indigenous resilience within a system of oppression and isolation.

One example is Yuxweluptun’s painting, The Universe is so Big: White Man Keeps me on a Reservation, which depicts a  quasi-Surrealist landscape in which almost everything is composed of Ovoids. The incorporation of Ovoids immediately marks the painting as an Indigenous work. Yuxweluptun’s interest, however, is to also mark the land which he paints as equally Indigenous to the painting itself, and each object equal in spirit to the next. 2 Yuxweluptun thus introduces a contradiction to the concept of Canada as terra nullius, a doctrine that held that because Indigenous people were not farmers, 3 they were not using land that rightfully belonged to whoever would “develop” it: European settlers. 4 To further equate Indigenous people with the land that is rightfully theirs, Yuxweluptun includes two figures who are also composed of Ovoids, indicating that they are Indigenous, and are part of the community that lays claim to the land on which they stand. 5 These parts of the painting alone map out the space as Indigenous land, but the issue of the land claim in contemporary society implies that there is land that needs (re)claiming. Hence the inclusion of a great rift from one end of the landscape to the other, indicating the colonial overtaking and division of their land.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, The Universe Is So Big, the White Man Keeps Me on My Reservation, 1987, 182.9×228. (via http://mikwchiyam.com)

On the side of the rift in which there is no Indigenous presence there are mountains upon mountains, stretching towards what seems to be a never ending horizon. 6 In contrast, the area the Indigenous people occupy, not just on the other side of the rift, but a specific platform on this side, has a distinct end. The small bisected Ovoid on which they stand stops directly at the foreground of the painting. This restrictive space is meant to signify the reservations that Indigenous people were pushed onto. By juxtaposing the traditional Indigenous shape of the Ovoid with the relatively contemporary reality of reservations, Yuxweluptun highlights the ironic fact that white regulations still divide the land claim he maps out, and force its rightful Indigenous occupants to fight for what had long been theirs.

Political messages in Indigenous contemporary art do not end at land claims. Artists re-appropriate stereotyped clothing, critique the trope of the Indigenous person as a barely living relic, advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, and even poke fun at the stereotype that they all ride horses. Art, as something real but not necessarily representative of reality, provides a platform for Indigenous people to re-imagine the stereotypes that portray them as people condemned to the past. It may have been a victory for the water protectors to feel even remotely heard by getting the Dakota Access Pipeline delayed, white aid or not, but the fight is far from over. Political Indigenous art may not be able to win the fight for rights on its own, but the further promotion of Indigenous contemporary art unquestionably means the further promotion of Indigenous issues. This change in the Indigenous art industry has not only resulted in the production of visually striking art, but it is necessary. Contemporary Indigenous art plays a vital role in combatting the standards of authenticity set by colonial society, and thus combats the idea that Indigenous people belong to a dying culture of the past. If colonial society truly wants to make amends, it must acknowledge the essential role art plays in contemporary culture and give more recognition to these artists and their artworks, these products of outrage and resilience which break silences that colonial society has imposed for too long.

 

Notes:

  1. Pauline Wakeham. “Celluloid Salvage: Edward S. Curtis’s Experiments with Photography and Film.” Taxidermic Signs: Reconstructing Aboriginality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008: 87-128.
  2. Loretta Todd, “Yuxweluptun: A Philosophy of History,” Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Born to Live and Die on Your Colonialist Reservations, (Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, 1995): 45-48.
  3. A belief that is not historically accurate, since some Indigenous communities were agricultural.
  4. Candice Hopkins, “Why Can’t Beauty Be A Call To Action?” Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, Ed. Sherry Farrell Racette, (Winnipeg: Plugin Editions, 2011): 64-73.
  5. Loretta Todd, “Yuxweluptun: A Philosophy of History,” Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Born to Live and Die on Your Colonialist Reservations, (Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, 1995): 45-48.
  6. Ibid

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