Steeling the Gaze, recently at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, was a powerful show. Some of the pieces were incredibly beautiful; some got in my face. Often the same works did both.
As someone with a background in Art History, I can identify the conventions of European portraiture in the props and poses European-Canadian artists deployed in their photographs and paintings of natives. So many of the “documentary” portraits of first peoples from the nineteenth century and later were augmented by studio props in order to cue ‘native’ or ‘noble savage’ to the European eye.
Many of the images in this exhibition acknowledge that history, play with it, and then go on to speak their own truth. The stereotypes and symbols are used in multiple ways, with sometimes playful and sometimes painful results.
There were photos juxtaposing old and new depictions of aboriginal people. There were large portrait photos by Arthur Renwick focusing on the face. Men and women distorted their faces by pushing on the forehead, pulling on the chin, or turning eyes upward. There were portrait photos by KC Adams in which each of the artist subjects was wearing a white shirt with a provocative phrase printed in white (“Indian Princess” and “Noble Savage” and “Ask me about my sweetgrass”).
This art asks questions of me, questions I am not always comfortable with: that’s funny … or, is it funny? If it’s not funny, why am I smiling? Should I be crying? Or outraged?
I recognize the “European-ness” of my Canadian Art History training of twenty years ago. Who decides what is art history and what is anthropology? Why were first peoples shown only as subjects/objects, never as creators?
It was a wonderful serendipity that this show opened on the heels of Idle No More, in which a new generation of native leaders came to the attention of mainstream Canadian news and society via social networking.
Thousands of people participated in the Idle No More protests. Many more talked about it at work and around the dinner table. Not everyone thought it was successful. Some wanted to see a program laid out in detail (“But what do they want?” was a common question).
I think this question misses the point. A positive expression of resistance is a message in itself.
The multiple cultural literacies involved in reclaiming pejorative comments and stereotypes (idle, as in Idle No More, and the mustang in Dana Claxton’s photography) speaks of the confidence and strength of the artists and activists, and the skill that they have acquired to work with words and images.
Canadians talk about being multicultural, and there are many cultures, many identities present in our cities. But often we exist side-by-side with very little interaction.
What we need now are people with the skills to build bridges between cultures.
What we need is intercultural competence.
In one of her videos in Steeling the Gaze, Cree artist Thirza Cuthand wonders what it is like to be a white person dealing with the heritage of oppression.
“Oh,” I thought to myself. “She means me.”
It is a truism, it seems, that the people who have been oppressed are the ones who end up having to learn to translate, so that mainstream culture can hear and make sense of who they are and what has happened.
Years ago, Peggy McIntosh wrote an article in which she described privilege as an invisble backpack. The challenge of privilege is that one doesn’t have to think of these things unless something happens that causes one to feel the weight of the backpack.
The answer, Thirza, is that I don’t think about your question often enough.
But I do hear the call. I hear it in the work of these artists and activists, who have developed the skills and creativity to intervene in mainstream culture and demand a re-telling of our larger story so that it includes all peoples. If they can do all this, surely I can find a way to face and reconcile the aspects of European-Canadian heritage that are bound up in systems of oppression.
Idle No More and Steeling the Gaze give me hope. They tell me that a new Canada is possible. But it won’t come about unless more of us take up this work of transforming our heritage, creating a culture where all can participate.
Not all of us have the skill and creativity of the artists in this exhibition, but we can begin to think about how we tell our stories, and how we use our images. We can learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable in between places. We can learn about our own multiple cultural backgrounds and identities. And we can develop the skills to move between cultures.
If Idle No More and Steeling the Gaze tell me anything, it is that the results will be well worth the effort.