I was chatting recently with a fellow cultural worker (anonymously: organizations that cite “critical dialogue” in their mandate, like an art department or artist run centre, can be exceptionally Stalinist and reactionary to dissent). We were bemoaning the disparity in many artistic organizations between a genuine engagement with a site, and fluctuating narratives of a place that directly challenge comfortable, current ones, and the half assed political glad-handing we usually see in these spaces. To paraphrase Lori Blondeau, an Aboriginal artist of local and international renown, some organizations simply check off that box of “Aboriginal engagement” and demand some cash for this strenuous effort.
These discussions – or arguments, if you will – can be overt, and often pervade an environment but are rarely officially acknowledged. It’s like a billboard that owns precious public space – also within our heads and public discourse – that we’re often unaware is being “occupied”. That’s why it seems appropriate to bring so many “outside” ideas into a discussion about Mary Longman’s billboard project Warrior Woman, on 20th Street: this isn’t in a “white cube” gallery, some restrained classroom or a gelded academic space. It exists in the real world. Warrior looks out on a literal site of history and argument in Saskatoon, with some being privileged (gentrification), some being ignored (those displaced).
Longman is also an art historian, so her words are exact: “The concept of Warrior Woman began as a memorial for my late mother, Lorraine Longman [and] evolved into a larger theme of Indigenous Genocide in North America. Lorraine’s legacy was the earned title of, “the toughest chick in the hood.” Having survived regular beatings in residential school, that culminated in a severe head injury at the age of 8, she was left with a life-long disability of grand mal epilepsy and premature dementia and could no longer attend school or work in her adulthood”.
Warrior Woman embodies the activist notion that the personal is the political, and the memory / history of her mother is the base of it, but “[with] the billboard, Lorraine’s image and legacy is transformed into Warrior Woman, the Indigenized version of the Americanized Wonder Woman. Her fight now becomes one of justice and transparency of Indigenous Genocide in North America (1492-1888). She becomes the voice for the millions of Indigenous people who were slain by Spanish, British, American colonial armies and settlers who were driven to inhumane acts by their greed of acquiring gold, land and scalping payments”.
It’s a contemporary stance, with a PMO spending taxpayer money on a New Yorker ad selling tar sands, but dismissing any inquiry into missing / murdered Aboriginal women. But hey, that’s just kissing cousins to an art school that claims LG award winning artist Ruth Cuthand as “faculty” to make themselves look better, ten years after she’s worked there. To return to the beginning of this piece, the arts community is often as filled with duplicity, denial and self-serving propagandists as the PMO they hypocritically decry, when it comes to issues of race and representation (both in the gallery behind the scenes).
Longman’s Warrior Woman reconfigures Wonder Woman: and (ahem) exposing my comic book geekiness, her golden lasso was supposed to force whomever was in its grip to tell the truth. It’s amusing to think how that power could play in the current political environment. The simplicity of the image is perfect for a billboard, in its candor and forcefulness.
The military helmets that flank her resemble Conquistadores (left) and the British Empire (right), and both hang on projections that suggest graves or death, appropriately. She raises “the tightly clutched red campaign ribbon with white tips, in the hope to raise awareness and bring justice to all those that perished” in our genocidal histories. This hopefulness is an echo of how Lorraine, “despite her painful youth and hard life” was “tough and…feisty until the day she passed”.
When I reviewed the exhibitions at Wanuskewin, and the play between older and more contemporary works, the string that tied them together was an insistence of the place of Aboriginal artists within the larger national imaginary. I’m curious to see how the upcoming Mendel 50th Anniversary will “write” history, as well. I hope it will touch on the forced famine, germ warfare, manifest destiny, residential school or genocide that is part of Canada’s history, that imbues Longman’s work, but that might make the political delegates and other institutional gatekeepers “uncomfortable.”
This factors into Warrior Woman, as Longman states it’s “a long-overdue memorial to all the Indigenous men, women and children who unnecessarily died only because the color of their skin.” Along with the shows at Wanuskewin, or Sympathetic Magic (at the Mendel), this summer has been a summer of dissenting narratives that speak a truth and require inclusion in “our” history.