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Dignity and defiance

Two shows by First Nations artists uncover the past and imagine the future of aboriginal identity

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At Urban Shaman, a row of colourful posters echoes a tired, troubling idea: "The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population."

"This," it concludes ominously, "is the policy of our government."

The quote comes from Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, and the poster serves as a reminder that the systematic dismantling and erasure of First Nations identity and culture was, until very recently, an acknowledged national priority. (It's a reminder some need more than others: a nearby banner quotes Stephen Harper's cynical, widely denounced claim that Canada has "no history of colonialism.")

The posters are the work of Kwakwaka'wakw artist Sonny Assu, whose current exhibition, There Is Hope, If We Rise, showcases digital prints that blend contemporary graphic design and traditional West Coast First Nations motifs. The text-heavy works highlight key aspects of Canada's troubled history and, moving forward, work to foster a spirit of community and resistance. One group of prints repurposes Shepard Fairey's now-iconic Barack Obama "HOPE" poster in service of Idle No More, while another skewers U2 singer Bono's iffy Product Red campaign, rebranding it "Product Res."

The show's most compelling works grapple with the specific history of forced assimilation in British Columbia, invoking the 1885 ban of the potlatch ceremony and a 1921 raid in which police arrested dozens of participants, seizing masks and other priceless cultural objects that wouldn't be repatriated for decades. Two posters reminiscent of Nashville-style letterpress handbills highlight the words of Kwakiutl Chief O'waxalagalis: "We will dance when our laws command us dance." Live from the Latch is a cheeky, pitch-perfect mock advertisement ("Door prizes!") for the fateful 1921 event.

Like Assu, Winnipeg artist KC Adams also borrows from mass media to push back against pressures to assimilate and disappear, while also tackling damaging stereotypes. Cyborg Hybrids, currently on display in the mezzanine of Neechi Commons, features highlights from an ongoing portrait series that adopts the conventions of fashion photography to explore the complexities of multiracial aboriginal identity.

Adams photographs each her subjects -- fellow Euro-aboriginal artists, writers, curators and activists -- against brightly lit, white backdrops. Each wears a white LED choker and a white T-shirt beaded with an stereotype, insult or misconception they've encountered -- "gang member," "savage," "sniffer," "FAS" and, on a lighter note, "ask me about my sweetgrass."

Like their real-world counterparts, these glamour shots are heavily retouched. Unlike most fashion photographers, however, Adams darkens her sitters' complexions to highlight rather than hide their aboriginal features (a reversal of the whitewashing treatment people of colour are often get in real-world glossies).

At once defiant and ambiguous, the works maintain a proud, forward-looking, boundary-defying perspective, striking out against marginalization and prejudice while still acknowledging the complicated realities of self-perception.

Adams shot the first Cyborg Hybrids a decade ago, and the most recent works on display are from this year. In that time Adams' photographs have emerged as some of the most widely known, iconic works of recent Winnipeg art.

At the same time, ideas about mixed heritage continue to shift. (To give just one indication, the percentage of Canadians identifying as Métis more than doubled between 1996 and 2011). Ten years on, it's possible that we're starting to catch up with Adams' futuristic vision.

The public reception and artist talk for Cyborg Hybrids is Thursday, May 29, at 6 p.m. at Neechi Commons.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2014 C12

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