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Winnipeg
Steven Leyden Cochrane
Mammo'wiiang to make change at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, Brandon
June 30, 2015

Over time, certain artistic articles of faith, while still observed, have lost their once authoritative grip. “Authorship” itself was interrogated to death ages ago, and anything like “medium specificity” is only weakly enforced. Other, more insidious preconditions hang on, however, notably in the demand for what might euphemistically be termed “aesthetic autonomy.” Under the current rules, uselessness is art’s defining trait. With Identity Politics safely institutionalized or else confined to the ghetto of historical practice, personal and political narratives are once again and all too often regarded as embarrassing dependencies, accessories to or distractions from the supposed substance of art. The disavowal and erasure of these narrative frameworks amount to a program of assimilation, of course – a denial of difference and of the uneven cultural terrain we each navigate, a defense of the status quo. It flatters a Eurocentric and colonialist perspective, surreptitiously working to naturalize and uphold privileges that I and other settler artists presently enjoy. Like the larger matter of decolonization, unlearning these “rules” is hard, but it becomes less so through encounters and engagements with artists who freely disregard them.



Adrian Stimson, Aggressive Assimilation

The artists in Mammo’wiiang to make change (the Anishinaabemowin word means “gathering”), which closes this week at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon, work to expose, reckon with, and remediate colonialism’s delimiting impact on people’s lives and ideas about art. By example, they affirm both the idea that making art creates new language for articulating experience and the imperative of putting that language to use.

Two works by Adrian Stimson reflect the mechanisms and the effects of assimilation, both forced and (to the extent these things are possible) freely chosen. In a framed triptych, the Old Sun Residential School physically comes between the two men, pictured as children. Nearby, a bison robe draped in the elder Stimson hockey uniform lies splayed across the floor, deflated, a disarticulated glove grasping weakly for a trophy. The piece touches on the ambivalent role of organized sports in the lives of Indigenous young people, their dual emphasis on individual achievement and subordination.

Michael Farnan succinctly penetrates the hollowness of white people and white Hollywood’s Indigenous expropriations, ensconcing cardboard cut-outs of Pierce Brosnan (star of the 1999 stinker Grey Owl) and Kevin “Dances with Wolves” Costner inside Coast Salish-inspired wooden owl and wolf “transformation masks.” In her off-kilter performance video, Ayumi Goto cycles through themes of national and sexual identity, migration, death, and renewal as she transforms from “Geisha Gyrl” to spawning salmon on the streets and docks of Kelowna.

These poetic illustrations lay important groundwork for the exhibition; other works engage viewers more directly and to powerful effect. A collaborative installation by Scott Benesiinaabandan and Paul Zacharias subversively invites viewers to play with and, in the process, uncover the disastrous effects of resource extraction. As the disembodied voices of Indigenous activists drift in, we can push toy excavators through a backlit sandbox, revealing bleak, fragmentary footage of industrially ravaged landscapes.



Michael Farnan, Pierce Brosnan Grey Owl Transformation Mask

Both Peter Morin and Cheryl L’Hirondelle have made practices of radical generosity, achieving breathtakingly fluid and deeply moving syntheses of contemporary art, collective action, and diverse forms of Indigenous knowledge. The work of Morin and five collaborators, because they’re all somebody’s daughter, comprises fifty-two willow-branch and rawhide rattles, a tribute to Indigenous women who endure and fall victim to violence. The rattles hang in a weightless but seemingly impenetrable circle, anticipating the breeze or audience member who might shake them out of deathly silence.

An activist, musician, and songwriter, as well a performance artist, L’Hirondelle helps give voice to the disenfranchised and dispossessed in a more direct sense. For Wintercount: Can’t Break Us, she collaborated with a group of young inmates at a Regina detention centre to compose, perform, and record a four-minute song, itself a rousing assertion of selfhood and resiliency. Viewers can leave comments on Post-It notes, affixing them to a deer hide in an echo of the traditional Plains winter count calendar. A powerful and, one senses, meaningful connection emerges through simple acts of listening and response.

Thoughtfully curated by Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac, Mammo’wiiang’s aesthetics are hardly “autonomous,” enmeshed as they are in complex histories, lived realities, and human connections. They aspire instead to empathy, solidarity, and insurgency, which seem, as ever, not just useful but critically needed.


Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba: http://agsm.ca/main-gallery
Mammo’wiiang to make change continues until July 4


Steven Leyden Cochrane is an artist, writer, and educator based in Winnipeg, where he contributes weekly exhibition reviews to the Free Press. He is Akimbo’s Winnipeg correspondent and can be followed @svlc_ on Twitter.

 

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