If you saw Felicia Gay’s exhibition Oksun at Wanuskewin, or Joi Arcand’s otē nīkān misiwē askīhk – Here On Future Earth billboard, then you share my excitement for the exhibitions Testimony and Transformation, at 424 20th Street. They reach outside as well, with Terrance Houle’s Aakaisttsiiksiinaakii / Many Snake Woman / “The Daughters after Me” overlooking Riversdale in a strong and silent manner.
These socially germane exhibitions mesh within paved’s programming and are a gift to the stuttering aka, whose 2014 began with a significant (yet merited) funding cut from the Canada Council, the second in five years. Gay has curated independently for several years, often providing an aesthetic still absent from some “official” institutions. This focus also manifested in her co founding (with Joi Arcand) of The Red Shift Gallery. Currently, she’s also curated Lens, with works by Michèle Mackasey, Arcand and Angela Sterrit at Wanuskewin.
Her focus here (and with Lens) is on the ongoing horror of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Gay has chosen artists whom are privileging the “immediate”, in terms of women within their immediate social spheres that are of significance. Felicia’s words: “Testimony…features the testimonies of Indigenous peoples concerning difficult knowledge, in this instance the focus is primarily on the testimonies of Indigenous women [and] creating a third space in which testimony has an opportunity to become a strategy.” This leads to how Transformation next door highlights “the power of transformative change.”
Houle’s video component of Aakaisttsiiksiinaakii fills one wall, and dominates the space: whereas next door, Arcand’s The Beautiful NDN Supermaidens™ grabs your attention as you enter. The near life-size ladies in Supermaidens and the sparse use of colour only emphasizes the women, with specific objects in colour to highlight their significance. Arcand’s work is a piece that, like her recent Artists by Artists at the Mendel (that work is on display in an alternate form in Lens), plays upon the personal being political. The women pictured in Supermaidens are drawn from her circle and in conversation she commented about them being “supermaidens” in every day clothes.
Houle also employs a personal narrative to frame a larger dialectic: one wall has a reproduction of his grandmother May Weaselfat (Bloods/ Kainai) by German born NYC artist Winold Reiss from the Glenbow Gallery. She makes fierce eye contact, in this minimalist, very Edward Weston influenced, portrait. One can’t help remember Steve Loft’s ideas regarding the political nature of portraiture, and the idea of the aesthetics of resistance as defined in creating self-portraits instead of submitting to others’ versions of whom, and what you are.
Houle’s words on his video that reconfigures Reiss: “[This is] a living portrait in process…my Grandmother then my Mother: Maxine Weaselfat- Sacred Soaring Bird woman, my sister: Jolane Houle – Three Suns Woman and…my own daughter: Neko- Peace Keeping Woman or Many Peace Flags Woman. [This is a] video piece for the matrilineal part of my family that speaks to survival and strength that they have endured…my grandmother is alive and one of the only surviving members of Winold’s Work, she has stood the test of a life as an Aboriginal woman raising 12 children 2nd gen residential school attendee, and seeing her great great great grand children. She is an elder on my Reservation and holds almost 100 years of Blackfoot knowledge”.
The billboard outside is split into four equal sections, for each woman’s “portrait”. The simplicity of this work is its strength: the frankness, eye contact and directness matches the same in Niro’s Stories of Women at aka.
This is a very “female” show (just as it was women at the genesis of Idle No More, and just as I realize that women like Arcand –with her role with the zine Kimiwan – or Gay or Lori Blondeau – one of Niro’s portraits – or Mary Longman. whose Warrior Woman image is installed at aka, come to mind when I think of feminism…).
Gay spoke of these shows as single voices in a larger choir: Testimony, Transformation, Lens (Sterrit’s work will be familiar to you from Idle No More coverage – the real coverage, not the Globe and Mail or Star Phoenix), Walking With Our Sisters, Mary Longman’s Warrior Woman and the recently passed Stronger Than Stone four day gathering of panels and performances all are speaking to reality and society in a manner our politicians should be emulating, but eschew.