For Europeans, the epic voyage resulted in the discovery of a new world brimming with riches and replete with possibilities. The Oct. 12, 1492, landfall of Italian merchant-adventurer Christopher Columbus in America was an achievement on the order of 20th-century man’s landing on the moon, an exploit to remember and celebrate. And to mark the 500th anniversary of the historic voyage, numerous commemorative festivities are taking place in both New and Old Worlds this year. But for many descendants of the millions of indigenous natives of the Americas, whose ancestors had already been there for millennia, Columbus’s discovery had tragic implications. During waves of European settlement, they were exploited, enslaved and killed in great numbers by new weapons as well as by imported disease. That devastating fallout is highlighted in a spirited, though sombre, exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., called Indigena: Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples on Five Hundred Years.
The show, which opened on April 16 and continues until Oct. 12, is the centrepiece of an array of museum-based events reflecting Columbus’s impact on native people. With the exhibit, which will later travel to other museums and galleries in North America (and which is accompanied by a book of essays and reproductions entitled Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, published by Douglas & McIntyre and selling for $45), a new generation of 19 Canadian Indian, Métis and Inuit artists explore the legacy of the Columbus voyage. Their 38 sculptures, paintings, photographs, video displays and mixed-media installations provide a searing portrait of catastrophic loss, of what might have been if Old World intruders had left the natives’ forefathers to live at peace in the hemisphere they first arrived in more than 12,000 years ago. Said Luke Simon, a New Brunswick Micmac whose three surrealistic works in the show, collectively titled Columbus Decelebration Series, comprise a bitterly angry manifesto about the conquest: “Natives can’t share in the spirit of celebration. The one thing they can celebrate is that they have survived.”
Indigena began taking shape in 1989— before the collapse of Meech Lake and the traumatic events at Oka, Que., in 1990—when the museum’s contemporary-native-arts curator, Gerald McMaster, and native-art scholar Lee-Ann Martin first heard of plans for celebrations marking the Columbus discovery. Said McMaster, a Plains Cree born in North Battleford, Sask., who is also an artist: “We felt that native people also had to be part of that reflection. We had to ask the question, ‘If the colonizers were celebrating, what about the colonized?’ ”
McMaster acknowledges that Indigena may only scratch the surface of the cross-cultural gulf. History itself, he argues, has long been weighted in favor of non-natives—there is almost always an alternative view shared by native groups. McMaster notes that indigenous people regard the North West Rebellion, which resulted in the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel in 1885, not as rebellion but as an act of “resistance” to overbearing non-native authority. Said McMaster: “If Canadian history is the same as when I went to school, it’s skewed.” Everyday life itself also harbors mixed messages and double meanings for native people. “Just look at the monuments around Ottawa,” said the curator. “They represent ‘discoverers.’ The only Indian is an unknown man sitting at [French explorer Samuel de] Champlain’s feet.” Added McMaster: “My question is, ‘Which of the two is really the great Canadian?’ ”
That attitude marks many of the works in Indigena. While some of the pieces in the exhibition make references to the timeless concerns of native people—the land, the environment, the community and the family—and others are ironic or frankly humorous, almost all condemn the legacy of colonization as well as tenets of history that many non-natives have long accepted as true. One work, an ambitious installation entitled Preservation of a Species-. Deconstructivists, which occupies an entire room of the exhibition, offers a wide-ranging, bluntly framed and unsettling learning experience. Artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert, the sister of the museum’s Métis architect, Douglas Cardinal, presents a resoundingly angry panorama of responses to racism and colonization.
Using drawings, artifacts, sculpture, written messages and montages of both natural and manufactured materials, Cardinal-Schubert touches on many aspects of native life since the arrival of the white man—conversion to Christianity, life on reserves and foster care for native children among them. “When non-aboriginal people start facing what has been going on,” the artist told Maclean’s, “there will be a lot of guilt. People will have to deal with what their ancestors did.”
Sadness and a sense of loss mark National Pastimes, an imposing display of seven autobiographical canvases by B.C. painter Jim Logan. His central focus is the reserve’s ice rink and a hockey game. But lurking at the painting’s edges are a man committing suicide, two others fighting, a drunk and, through a window, the artist and his father watching a televised hockey game in their home. “Hockey for my dad was an escape,” Logan writes in his notes in the Indigena volume. “He dreamed of being somebody important, somebody respected. He wanted to be a winner, but fate wouldn’t allow it.”
Other Indigena works, by contrast, mock the dominant culture or are outright spoofs. Vancouver painter Lawrence Paul’s Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky shows a stylized Indian observing a white scientist standing on another’s shoulders as they attempt to place a patch on Earth’s torn ozone layer. In his notes to his work, Paul strikes a stern, though sardonic, note about the destruction of the environment. “Clean your land,” he writes. “This earth is not a latrine, an outhouse where you can urinate toxins. But I wish you well, Longknives.”
Indigene!s robust and at times scolding voice touches a heightened interest and appreciation of the role of aboriginal people in history as well as national life. Such books as Ronald Wright’s Stolen Continents: The “New World’’ Through Indian Eyes Since 1492, along with popular films including Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart, clearly present challenges to the hegemony of the dominant culture. In addition, native Canadians are for the first time full partners in national constitutional deliberations.
That native artists in Canada should venture into the debate at this time was predictable, said Peter Kulchyski, head of native studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. He added: “There has been a kind of renaissance in aboriginal art, as there has in aboriginal culture. That has been going on since the 1960s, and it seems to be getting more vital and dynamic.”
The artists included in Indigena are building on the accomplishments of more traditionally oriented native artists, including carvers Mungo Martin and Bill Reid and painters Norval Morrisseau and Daphne Odjig. Unlike those forbears, said Janet Clark, curator of Ontario’s Thunder Bay Art Gallery, an institution devoted exclusively to the collection of aboriginal art, most of the artists in Indigena have mastered Western contemporary art and then “rediscovered their own traditions and gone back to them.”
An intimate working knowledge of both of those artistic traditions lends strength to Indigena. Said McMaster: “Hopefully, it will create a ripple effect that will carry to other communities, other generations.” Clearly, the striking images presented in the exhibition could play some part in ending the five-century gulf between native and invading cultures that has so drastically scarred the history of the Americas.
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