The Child Taken / Mendel Art Gallery

I’ve been reading Boris Groys’ excellent book The Art of Stalinism, and it’s fascinating not just for it’s unvarnished look at a much misunderstood period in the history of art, but also for some of the asides (often barbed) he makes about “Western” art history. One of these is the idea that “real art” is somehow separate of economy, or class, or the other strictures and structures of society. The writing you’ll see in Canadian Art is a good example of this: but ignoring class just makes very clear the higher position you hold, that others “below” you can’t ignore.

That hypocrisy is in my mind for this reason (and another I’ll mention later), when I experience The Child Taken in the auditorium space at the Mendel Art Gallery. This was a partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council and the Department of Art and Art History at the U of S that happened this summer. The works had been exhibited in the Snelgrove Gallery on campus, but this is a more appropriate site. I mean this in terms of potential attendance numbers (the Mendel always does well, which makes political discourses a bit stronger) but also in terms of a metaphorical site as the Mendel is not so conflicted (or bluntly hypocritical) about race as the Art Department.

The description of the project is as follows: “The Child Taken art commemoration project honours the resilience of the children taken from their families and homes for generations and placed in Indian Residential Schools. This exhibition of senior student artwork was created in response to Indian residential school stories told by Elders in a unique project partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council and University of Saskatchewan Department of Art and Art History”.

The downstairs space is somewhat sparse, and the works are few in number, but often quite powerful in affect and content. The room is dominated by Kayla Prive’s New Child, and you can see why this is the work that was chosen to be enlarged to a massive and powerful size. It’s hopeful: and in that respect it does look forward, as we live in a country that is being made appropriately uncomfortable about its history, and where Idle No More has not “fizzled out” so much as focused and expanded (or consider that the upstairs exhibition of Contemporary Drawing from the National Gallery is very heavy on works from Cape Dorset, which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago…)

Corinna Wollf’s The Fourth Hill presents imagery both familiar and haunting, and Wollf’s words, alongside the image, are eloquent and evocative. Hill is dominated by an image of Alvin Cote, whom you may remember from an award-winning piece in the SP that talked about him, and his life on the streets, and what brought him to that space, as well as his recent death. Wollf writes very clearly and honestly about her encounters with Alvin, and how we sometimes see people, and see their histories, or how sometimes we chose not to see them at all. This is a more localized version of what is considered “history”, or truth, or what is not. Consider that the National Post recently polled its readers (as it so often does, on many polarizing topics) about Residential Schools, and there was no lack of individuals willing to declare them “not so bad” when they had neither experienced them, or knew anyone who had…

This brings me back to the aforementioned hypocrisy, as another work of note is Nicole Paul’s Unwanted Children of the Indian Residential Schools. Nicole samples text from artist Cathy Busby, specifically Busby’s appropriation of the PM’s apology for residential schools. Some of you may remember Busby’s Budget Cuts billboard that was on 20th Street several years ago, which has become a touchstone (for me and many others) about how politicians are gleeful liars. Budget Cuts listed all the Aboriginal focused programs eliminated by the Harper Gov’t™ since the “apology”. Talk is cheap when the actions that follow are the same, or worse.

This raises another point: it’s odd the Art Department is engaged in this project. If you’ve seen the TransformUS report that came out of that area, you’ll note section 5.1, BFA honours program, “Faculty Member awarded SAB Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.” That’s obviously Ruth Cuthand, who last taught there in 2005 (since none of the rest of them have ever even been in the running for this award) – as a sessional, not faculty. Ruth also expressed exasperation to me about when she did apply for a tenure position at the U of S…

I add this screen grab with the appropriate areas highlighted, as there’s been some “controversy” regarding this assertion and it has led to some bullying from respective parties. You can click on it, to see a larger version.

BFA.Hon.TransformUs.

There’s no finer definition of institutional racism than passing of the work of others as your own, while keeping those same individuals away from genuine power. Further: Adrian Stimson (whose works about his residential school experience was featured in a recent Canadian Art) has severed his relationship with A + AH, due to their “handling” of an accusation of systematic racism / academic bullying…

But let’s speak of positive things: and the works in Taken are a necessary and poignant bridge. There’s also a video in the corner, with participants (Elders and the artists). The aforementioned debate in the NP was marked by pre-existing rigid assertions, and how Taken is more one of communication, and ensuring that history is honoured, unpleasant truths intact. Too often institutions – especially “educational” ones – are willing manufacturers of ideological excuses. But many institutions (and individuals) in as the rest of the country are being dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, towards an acknowledgement that one must go forward, before you can move ahead…

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *