Contested Narratives / absence omission redaction / Carry Forward at Rodman Hall

“Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago)

‘It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’
“I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.” (George Orwell, 1984)

doc·u·ment – NOUN – a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan is receiving a great deal of attention lately, nationally and internationally, as a destination site, but also for how it focuses contested notions of history on the Prairies. There’s been a number of very good exhibitions there in the past decade under the stewardship of Curator Felicia Gay: and one of the events that took place there that echoes outwards was Stronger Than Stone: (Re)Inventing the Indigenous Monument. A number of speakers (Rebecca Belmore, Jimmie Durham, Candice Hopkins, Paul Chaat Smith, Jeff Thomas) talked about the idea – literally and metaphorically – of public monuments (not so much “art in the public sphere”, but those statues / sculptures that are meant to act as “landmarks” of “shared” (H)history).

One of the speakers, James (Sákéj) Youngblood Henderson, Research Director of the Native Law Centre and a professor of Aboriginal law at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, made an interesting point about the implicit bias of physical documents versus oral histories. Specifically how the former was (is) more about ownership and exclusion than about a shared history, or a shared usage, of the sites in question.

Some of these ideas returned to me when I was listening to curator Lisa Myers walk through her exhibition Carry Forward at Rodman Hall. Specifically, (Sákéj) Youngblood Henderson’s ideas of documents vs. oral history in the framework of colonialism and “ownership” as pertains to land, but here as it pertains to “owning” historical narratives.

The curator’s words: “Documents, such as contracts and treaties, are officiated in the stasis of printed word, indicating sociopolitical biases and attitudes of a specific moment. The complex history of documentation through film and photography entangle power relations or trouble how we separate authenticity from fiction; the colonial gaze from the Other; and propaganda from ideology. As a form of “official” information, they reveal not only that which is deemed worthy of public record, but also the relationship between those on either side of the camera. Carry Forward will convene artworks that propose different modes of understanding how realities are registered, contested, and even fabricated within the framework of an archive.”

Before we go then, you and I, to peruse the “documents” in Carry Forward, let me offer a few other remarks, pilfered from Myers’ walkthrough of the show and elaborated further.

When working with historical, yet living, documents, the conflation / conflict of “absence / omission / redaction” must be acknowledged, not denied. Sometimes that which is concealed (as with Claxton’s work) reveals much.

This is like a Soviet historian prying jewels of truth from a copy of Pravda, or someone who notices that the National Post will only speak of the Catholic Church’s refusal to own their stuttered genocide of the Indigenous in Rez schools through the “lens” of “religious freedom.”

There is also “the value of distance” in examining these often emotionally laden documents (something that infuses Deanna Bowen’s work, an intersection that incorporates her own history. History is, after all, just a series of biographies). The title itself is also not without consideration. What, and how, we “carry forward” from historical documents (or what “we” choose to discard, intellectually or physically) is a place to stand and look and engage – especially in cultural sites where “institutional accountability” isn’t solely a catchphrase. This physically manifests in choosing to include Barker Fairley as not just a “flat” simplistic “racist” (in Bowen’s piece exploring racism in Alberta) but as a “scholar, literary and art critic [and] painter.” History is messy: and to paraphrase Timothy Findley, not even monsters are monstrous all the time. Even though it was a year ago, when you engage with Carry Forward, keep in mind that #Canada150 is one historical trope, written down, documented and signed. But the Anishinaabe will tell you that they’ve been here ten times that long, and why do you need a piece of old paper when a descendant of those proud peoples is in front of you as living history, telling the story, as was told to them?

Carry Forward fills the back gallery space and stretches up into the hallway and landing area. As you emerge from the slim hallway leading from the front door, you’ll be facing Nadia Myre’s Monument to the Two Row, Revised and Portrait as a River, Divided and Marjorie Beaucage’s collaborative video piece Speaking to Their Mother is behind you, in the alcove space on the landing.

Beaucage’s piece – like the Mike MacDonald work Electronic Totem in the lower gallery – could be seen as foundations for the ideas Myers is exploring through these artists’ works. The idea of sharing but not intruding, of the implicit, perhaps dangerous, power in documenting, between the message / messenger and your own position (or positioning) as the one who documents…

But – as is necessary with many shows that have multiple dense works, any of which could stand as a gateway to the other works, or significant on its own – there’s several works that encapsulate the curator’s intent more clearly, that are the basis of what I “carry forward” with me from Rodman Hall.

These are works by Dana Claxton, Deanna Bowen and Maria Thereza Alves, and it isn’t accidental that their proximity to each other enhances each, more than a sum of the parts. Robin Metcalfe, a fine writer / curator has said quality curating is creating an installation that brings out the best of the individual works and makes the artwork speak to each other in expected, and unexpected, ways. Carry Forward does that: what I offer is one view, and my obligatory comment about visiting often, and spending time with works I mention, or those I don’t, is necessary. A rigorous interaction always serves a visitor (I enjoy Ad Reinhardt’s assertion that you, the viewer, are also a space within which an artwork might exist, and it will meet you halfway, if you offer the same).

Claxton’s massive prints and Bowen’s tiny ones (of which there’s many) contrast formally and conceptually. On a purely superficial level (“skimming”) Claxton’s prints could be monochromatic hard edged (M)modernist voids and Bowen’s many pages an Agnes Martin inspired exploration of emptiness and irrelevance / relevance through mindless repetition. But both artists (if I use a term from my chat with Myers and Crystal Mowry, the KWAG’s Senior Curator) “degrade” that “pure” Modernist facade (much Modernist art was apolitical, or, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, was implicitly supporting the politics of the day by eschewing concepts for formalism).

Claxton’s works are about concealment in an “historical” document, and Bowen’s is moreso about unexpected revelation. Alves’ art is also about a subtlety, a history “written” in the land, or on the land. Perhaps how we “are what we eat”, which may be so obvious that we cannot see it in front of our mouths (so to speak, with history in our mouths that we consume in different manners. Or perhaps it fails to nourish us at all). Alves’ thick round Moore-ish bronzes (titled “When they come, flee“, said my Grandmother to my Mother. “When they come, flee“, said Mother to Me) also seem to offer a simple “reading” but carry a deeper history in their shape and visual references, just like Bowen and Claxton. In Don DeLillo’s exceptional novel Libra, one character reminisces that all revolutions counter revolutionary insurgencies (edit as you will) in Cuba began with the burning of the sugar cane fields. Whether this is as a “formal” declaration of hostilities or understanding that any conflict there is about commodity and colonialism is left up to the reader to decide.

Dana Claxton AIM Series Deanna BowenIn an exhibition about documents, I feel comfortable taking Myers’ words whole, as the last thing needed here is a Balzarian whitesplaining:

“Dana Claxton’s AIM series presents four declassified and heavily redacted FBI surveillance reports. The blacked out areas of redaction mark a withholding of information and also suggest the presence of power and authority to conceal state observations and perspectives. Legible words or partial sentences hint at details about gatherings and people, thereby revealing the intense surveillance upon members of the Native American civil rights and advocacy organization called the American Indian Movement (AIM). Founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968, AIM was formed in response to the brutalities of state violence towards Indigenous people. For Claxton, this series is a testimony to the erasure of liberation.”

Let me interject, if I may (like scribbles in the margins). Recently, Kim Kardashian (my lord, my lord, we live in an age where I feel compelled to mention the Kardashians in an article) petitioned the American President to grant a relative amnesty for a drug charge. My initial thought, as it ever is when the American Presidents grants amnesty to prisoners (I decline to use the term “criminal”), is “What about Leonard Peltier?” A further disturbing aside is that all the documentation that has been “released” clearly indicates his innocence and the role the FBI and COINTELPRO played in targeting AIM and Peltier.

But suddenly “documents” are meaningless, unreal and almost an affront to the “official” history – or story, as that makes it less monolithic. When speaking of mass killings in America, Wounded Knee is never mentioned…but to return to Alves’ work, perhaps history is “written” on the land neither needing nor wanting “documents.” Rebecca Belmore’s Blood on the Snow, or the historical horrid synchronicity of Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge are another interesting aspect of “how realities are registered, contested, and even fabricated”, to quote the curator.

Another consideration, as demonstrated by Deanna Bowen’s “petition” is that her “choice to present every page of the petition exposes the fear and intolerance that can motivate consensus.”

Deanna Bowen’s “1911 Anti Creek-Negro Petitionfrom Immigration of Negroes from the United States to Western Canada 1910-1911 is to your right, as you stare at your reflection in the flat blacks of Claxton’s AIM series.

Petition fills the long wall with the pages like bricks in a wall, as much about exclusion as any proposed border wall. Bowen’s piece has an “adjunct” to it on the far side of the room (Barker Fairley’s Primrose Flower). Again a metaphor for distance as history is implied in the space between Petition and Primrose, but more on that in a moment.

Myer’s words, again: “…Bowen’s Petition excavates and brings to the fore a long, emphatically inscribed list of signatures. The statement at the top of the petition discloses a racist and exclusionary action against Black/Muskogee Creek people moving north across land and borders from the United States to Edmonton, Alberta. Fifteen percent of Edmonton residents signed this document before it was sent to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In this same era Bowen’s ancestors traveled north from the U.S. and founded Amber Valley, one of the three settlements of Black families near Edmonton…Individual signatures legitimize the content of forms and official papers. Bowen’s deeply researched practice makes visible elements of the archive that expose the racist hostility that many would refuse to acknowledge, especially in written historical accounts that implicate Canadians.”

Whereas Claxton fractures our historical ignorance / assumptions by “showing” what is hidden, Bowen rattles us from a Canadian complacency by showing us more than we want to see (an intersecting tangent, again. Bowen’s work plays to how Canadians will still proclaim we have no history of colonialism, or racism, and if we do, it’s not “as bad as the States.” This is an embarrassingly frequent excuse, intrinsic to our national imaginary: but in looking a Bowen’s work I wasn’t reminded of Donald Trump, but Doug Ford and his words regarding “illegal immigrants”…).

Further: on the far side of the gallery is a small lithograph, delicately and inoffensively titled Primrose Flower, by Barker Fairley, who’s history with the KWAG (where the show originated) and in the larger sphere of Canadian art is well known. And his signature is to be found among the “concerned citizens” in the Anti Creek – Negro Petition. My reference to Stronger Than Stone (STS) at the beginning of this piece was not just indulgence, or the taint of my two decades in Saskatchewan, a palimpsest whose varying histories bleed and blend and where “erasure” and “liberation” are not just on paper, but in reality. (But let me be fair: the Saskatoon Police Service faced their histories of Starlight Tours straight on, and is a site more cognisant and respectful of contested histories than the University Art Department in that same city….).

By his artwork and history, Fairley exists in one way. His signature is documentation of another version of the man. Fairley is banal: yet we’re faced with the same problems as with someone like John A. MacDonald. A friend recently lent me Barry Lord’s The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art, a text two years younger than I and shamelessly Communist. In it, Lord talks of Robert HarrisThe Fathers of Confederation (which hung in the Railway Committee Room of the House of Commons until it was destroyed by fire in 1916) as “the most successful propaganda picture for the…bourgeoisie in the history of Canadian Painting.” Lord indicates that “Harris had set out to paint what he called “a valuable historical document.” The italicized emphasis is mine.

Carry Forward Installation shotMaria Thereza AlvesThe last of the three works that shape my interactions with Carry Forward has no words, or text – whether official governmental typeset formalism or scrawly angry tribalistic scribbled signatures. “When they come, flee“, said my Grandmother to my Mother. “When they come, flee“, said Mother to Me is a conversationally long title for Maria Thereza Alves’ two sculptures, whose dark silent solids rest on a raised white wooden flat. Smooth and suggestive of dark waters in their polish, When they come, flee might be the strongest, yet most quietly subversive, “document” in Carry Forward. There are paintings on the wall to the side, as you circle the bronzes; but the sharp formal contrast of the solid dark ovals, below the monochromatic reflections and depths of Claxton and Bowen, are so simple that they serve as a triangle on the left side of the gallery that was, to me, the locus of the show. I returned to this space again and again.

Again, I shamelessly collage in Myers’ curatorial statement (her “document”) into my “document”: “Plants and food items move across the globe as people do….the displacement of indigenous flora chronicles a history of both people and plants as currency in trade. Seeds are key players in the ecology of migration. Seeds can lay dormant for years, or be carried and dispersed with little effort. Referencing the history of Indigenous people and African slaves in Brazil, “When they come, flee“ monumentalizes the seed of a Jackfruit. Used as an efficient and calorific food item to feed slaves, the Jackfruit was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese colonizers. Enlarged and rendered in a material often used in monuments, the Jackfruit seeds symbolize colonial dispossession and the intense impact that an invasive species can have on native flora. Alves unpacks the social and environmental injustices that intersect with food history.”

And, as alluded to by my shameless citing of Solzhenitsin, we are repeating history with how, in Niagara specifically but many other places, migrant farm labour is indentured slavery in all but name. When they come, flee is an historical marker, an object that is invested with history and a story. Alves’s bronzes are documents that eschew words, ignores writing, as the sculptures are permanent versions of something that is within and on the land. These heavy bronze “seeds” by their presence allude to a story of slavery – of how this plant is a commodity, like the slaves pressed into a similar migration. The modernist heft of When they come, flee makes it a strong historical “document” by its immediacy, its realism: just like the speakers in Beaucage or MacDonald’s works, an “approved” historical “text” (like those referenced by Youngblood Henderson) that seems a bit weak, less true, than Alves’ weighty works. “Proper” documents persuade, while Alves’ works simply are, simply declare.

There are other works to interact with: either Beaucage or MacDonald’s pieces merit a visit exclusive focused on these video based works, as they’re dense. You’ll want to listen and look and consider, then return to see how works by Jamelie Hassan occupy a different historical space, whether in the gallery or in your head, or even when you next are in a conversation about contested historical tropes. My repeated visits have placed me frequently before Alves’ “seeds”, looking to see my reflection in Claxton’s C Prints, and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the names and pages in Bowen’s Petition.

Art Galleries, like libraries or other “official” cultural sites, are spaces for what Althusser called “ideological state apparatus” to be in play, or in force, depending how persuasive. In plain speak: ideological state apparatus are the soft, subliminal ways that aren’t openly acknowledged, that reiterate or reinforce societal “norms” or the dominant social narrative.

In this case of Canadian history, in Carry Forward – with our “national imaginary” – fractures what “we” believe ourselves to be, as a society, versus what we may actually be, and how we actually act. Again, we come to sites of contested narratives of history. They’re implicit, for to acknowledge disagreements is to legitimize them (hence the horrid trope that “residential schools weren’t that bad”). To respect dissenting opinions is to understand – despite what former petro statist PM Harper has averred – that saying “Canada has no history of colonialism” is patently and evidently false.

So, we see Harris’ The Fathers of Confederation, or we see a Group of Seven where the landscape is always empty, as terra nullius “insists” that the land was just waiting here, empty, for the “taking.”

Carry Forward is an exhibition, an exploration, that offers multiple points of entry and from these multiple conversations. Not all the works resonate in the same way, and in the same sense: a piece on the far side of the gallery, that was initiated by Duane Linklater but is now credited to John Hampton (Histories of Cape Spear) seems to fall prey to the seductive power of “documenting” moreso than attempting to challenge or excavate these often opaque spaces for a sense of truth or reality. Or perhaps presenting us with a many inches thick binder of what’s essentially an argument with faceless (and, as I know from trying to correct pages for Saskatoon spaces, often ignorant) Wikipedia “administrators” lacks any aesthetic lure, and seems more an exercise in ego and authority than the more visually enticing dialogues around “documents” that Alves, or Claxton, invite us to partake in. But that’s my “reading” of this “document” and as always, I reserve the right to change my mind, to re evaluate, and “read” it differently. But, in a nod to transparency, any reader will note how often links to Wikipedia are employed in this article…but perhaps I’m attempting to spur your critical reading, just as Myers and Rodman Hall are doing.

In closing, at her tour and talk for Carry Forward, Lisa Myers put forth a series of questions that, in my furious scribbling notes are recorded as follows (I am an unreliable source for my documentation, I admit): What do these collections contain? Not just speaking in terms of objects, but how those objects are repositories of ideology and metaphor, and are in fact aspects of ideological state apparatus instead of repressive state apparatus? What do we carry forward, how do we carry it, and what is left behind?

These are questions the artists answer in a variety of ways. But they offer other questions regarding what we “carry forward”, individually or as a societal position, that we’ll have to answer for ourselves.

Carry Forward, Installation ShotCarry Forward is on display at Rodman Hall until September 25th. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall Art Centre, taken by Jimmy Limit.

Curated by Lisa Myers, this show originated with the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG).There is also another component to this endeavour by Myers: Post Script was on display at the KWAG, that, in the words of Myers, was “continuing conversations with Carry Forward.”