Indigenous Aesthetics & The Remaking of Art History

Symposium organized by Candice Hopkins and the Art Gallery of Alberta 24 / 06 2012

This FUSE review from issue 35-4 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

Review by Amy Fung

I thought this was going to be about Alex Janvier. You know, the “modernist” within The Indian Group of Seven. I don’t know if it’s okay to still call him that either. But there’s a major retrospective of Janvier’s work three floors above, here in Edmonton at The Art Gallery of Alberta. The man himself is sitting one row down listening to the panellists speak about Indigenous aesthetics. He is wearing a cowboy hat. He is sitting not too far from the young women who have been exhibiting as part of The Indigeneity Arts Collective Society. They are also here attending this symposium on Indigenous aesthetics. I remember one of their photos: In it, on the soles of their feet, the question, “Now What?” is spelled out.

I remember talking to Janvier a number of years ago in his studio. He was then working on rice paper, which was a relatively new medium to him. He said he was exploring Chinese techniques because Native people and Chinese people were not that different. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his lips. He told me about his visit to China in 1985 as part of an official Chinese /Canadian exchange. He said it’s possible that Native people came from China. He was talking about the Bering Strait. He made a series of calligraphy paintings on small rice paper mandalas that maybe only ever existed as studio exercises. Not surprisingly, they are not part of his retrospective.

A retrospective is a sanitized version of art history, and if art history has been an exclusive club, what’s the point of trying to fit in? As beloved as he is by those who know him, Janvier has not been canonized into Canadian art history. He can represent Canada on foreign soil, but he is not represented on native soil. This has its plusses and minuses. His work has been claimed by various groups over the decades. Lee-Ann Martin was the only one talking about Janvier that day. Martin is the curator of Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art at the Museum of Civilization. Her presentation was called “Alex Janvier: Canada’s First Indian Modernist.” Language contains history. She is praising Janvier for his contribution to Canadian Modernism, and for his dedication to his Aboriginal culture, which is of Dene Suline and Saulteaux descent. Janvier signed his early paintings only with the signature “287,” the treaty number Canada assigned to him. Simultaneously, he has been critiqued for being, and not being, Aboriginal enough.

The panelists assembled have created various entry points to consider this position, and there was a tension among these perspectives. This was good to see. What becomes clear is that reclaiming territory usually doesn’t work. Territories shift, like language. Like language, territories determine power. Deterritorializing would be far more interesting. Deterritorializing would be less reinforcing.

I have no idea what that audience question about healing the earth through art was all about, but Jolene Rickard answers it with great generosity. Rickard is the Director for the American Indian Program at Cornell and she is also the keynote speaker. She sets the tone, asking rather than asserting the proposition, “Making Aesthetics Indigeneous?” The response so far also ends with a question mark.

If we look at Canadian art history alone, the notion of identity representation begins from the point of negation. Rickard is going full steam ahead with the decolonization process. She is working from the inside out rather than from the outside in. She refers to the UN a lot. The UN adopted the Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous People in 2007. Indigenous rights are an international issue, but they are  governed nationally. Indigenous aesthetics appears inherently essentializing of Indigenousness, but also moves forward with the strategy to break free of the essential. This tension was not addressed. Perhaps it’s already implied. Rickard navigates an Indigenous space by subsuming the colonial intellect. She has overridden the totalizing construct by taking charge of the language, but I am with Richard William Hill, who holds that language is precarious. Privileging power in language means we are further indebted to the loop of language, which is arguably the most colonizing form of all. Hill teaches at York. His presentation is less a presentation and more a line of thinking and speaking, reframing Indigenous ontologies and the concept of “aesthetics.”

Hill speaks about Jimmie Durham. Hill is not convinced of an Indigenous aesthetic. Not a singular one, anyways. He is trying to be problematic. He succeeds. Only reluctantly and provisionally will he use the terms “Indigenous” and “aesthetic,” but as a writer and curator in contemporary art, reluctance happens. How do we account for the influence of transcultural lineages as Indigenous or not? Janvier is again a good example: Hill puts forward the possibility that we may be inheritors of modernist ontology in only being able to discuss art through our formal encounters with it. A shiver runs through me as I sit here in Edmonton. Now what?

Well, here’s what I think: the gallery is inherently a colonizing space. To colonize is to contain. Is there a need to press for an Indigenous aesthetic outside of the gallery? Objects from the streets, reconsidered for the gallery, like what Durham is known for, offer an experience, a memory to infringe upon and change our relationship to the world. We are released from language, the most colonizing form of all, and its ontological hold on us.

There are 400 million Indigenous individuals globally. Terminology has been shifting in the last ten years, but are we shifting further apart? Commodifying Indigenous aesthetics is today’s problem, but, as Marcia Crosby notes, the lack of commercial interest in Indigenous artists was once a rampant problem. Two sides of the same coin. Crosby is presenting from her PhD dissertation, Aborginal Cultural Production in Unlikely Urban Spaces. She sets out to create a lineage of an Indigenous art history by connecting Skeena Reece to Rebecca Belmore to James Luna, and Luna to Erica Lord to Belmore to KC Adams. Indigenous aesthetics move across borderlands. This is important.

But back to Janvier. What does it mean to still refer to him as part  of The Indian Group of Seven? A Winnipeg Free Press journalist coined  that phrase in 1973. The ongoing colonizer mentality is a hurdle, an invisible and reinforced hurdle. Language is a hurdle to self-determination, enabling the epistemes  of intellectual domination, making language too careful, too limited, and wholly complicit in the construct of an Indigenous aesthetic in art history.

Amy Fung is an arts writer and curator currently based in Vancouver. Her writing appears in magazines and other platforms including Art Papers, C Magazine, Frieze and Modern Painters.

Image credit: Grand Entry, 1980. Alex Janvier. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of Alberta.

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