Reading The Talk: Wampum, Covenants and History

It’s not that Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s Relationship or Transaction is the “best” work in Reading The Talk, at Rodman Hall Art Gallery: but it encapsulates succinctly — and sharply — many ideas that suffuse the entire show.

Talk is curated by Lisa Myers and Rachelle Dickenson, but it’s more a “collaborative” exhibition. The artists communicated back and forth in the time leading up to installation (it’s a touring show, and has been installed differently in different venues, like a living, shifting thing – like language, perhaps), and considering the calibre of the artists (Michael Belmore, but also Hannah Claus, Patricia Deadman, Keesic Douglas and Melissa General), Talk is more about multiple voices acting in tandem than in an hierarchical, prescribed manner. This is appropriate as “Talk brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory. Through a variety of practices […these] artists consider distinct indigenous perspectives on the history of treaties in the land now referred to as Canada.”

More from Myers and Dickenson: “Inspired by the historical Dish with One Spoon Treaty […] each artist [was invited] to consider the effects of this specific treaty as well as the function of wampum beads as mnemonic devices [techniques a person can use to improve their ability to remember] used by leaders to “read the talk” of agreements between nations […] Talk raises questions of land use and value, and elucidates the continuing role of both treaties and the wampum for Indigenous peoples.”

Transaction is installed in a manner that enhances, in a lower bracketed alcove, and the nature of the sculptural assemblage (screenprints, jute twine, but primarily five dollar notes, all blue and shiny and bluntly enticing) will entice. Made in 2014, Transaction “reconfigures the 1764 Covenant Chain wampum, used to establish a key agreement between Indigenous [Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee] and British nations. Dion Fletcher weaves together a combination of printed bills on paper signifying the quahog and whelk shells customarily used for wampum belts. The paper currency also references treaty annuities still paid each year to members of treaty regions and highlights the exploitive values placed on treaty land.”

It’s a wide floor work: the imagery of the “belt” may elude you until you stand further back, and see the “1764” and the two figures clasping hands defined by the blue and white pattern. This formal dichotomy enhances the work: many will only see the money, the five dollar bills (or may show up with a pair of scissors to steal it), and not see the whole “belt” as a commentary on the Covenant Chain wampum’s history, its successes and failures. All the debate about the recent changes to “Oh Canada” remind me of how many Indigenous artists I know sing it as “our home ON Native Land…” Meanwhile, the terra nullius in A Painters’ Country, in another room at Rodman, presents fertile, abundant landscapes that were all “empty” and “unclaimed.”

After seeing Transaction, walk Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is Still Green on Rodman’s front lawn. But more on that in a later issue. Though I use it here to insert Chitty’s observations about how in the colonial tradition “what is usable is primarily [what is] saleable.” So, is it a relationship, or a transaction? And how is the text of the wampum belt to be read?

Reading the Talk runs until the end of August, 2016, at Rodman Hall, but originated at the RMG.