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Exhibition a frustratingly incomplete look at groundbreaking performance artist

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/6/2015 (742 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Sacred Clown & Other Strangers, British Columbia artist Skeena Reece's 10-year survey at Urban Shaman, offers frustrating glimpses of a performer doing innovative, funny and bracingly confrontational work -- very little of which we actually get to see.

Reece, whose background is Tsimshian/Gitksan and Cree, integrates storytelling, stand-up comedy, ceremony and theatre, embodying a persona modelled after the Sacred Clown and other indigenous Trickster figures -- mischievous, impertinent characters who call out society's failings and indiscretions. Featuring audio-visual components and elaborate costumes and staging, her performances suffuse painful personal and collective histories with absurdist, antagonistic humour.

 portrait mask of Marlon Brando as The Godfather by the artist’s father, late Tsimshian carver Victor Reece.

portrait mask of Marlon Brando as The Godfather by the artist’s father, late Tsimshian carver Victor Reece.

In the sensitively filmed Touch Me, Reece carefully bathes a white woman on a darkened soundstage, an ambivalent exchange that seems at once painful and cathartic, tense and tender.

In the sensitively filmed Touch Me, Reece carefully bathes a white woman on a darkened soundstage, an ambivalent exchange that seems at once painful and cathartic, tense and tender.

Re-exhibiting this kind of work in the gallery presents distinct challenges, however, and, disappointingly, the exhibition makes no effort to address them.

In Tim Buck Two: Kingston Free Zone and Meditation Centre, Reece's audience follows her drawn-out transformation into the "Red Buddha." Eventually installed on an altar festooned with Dollarama bric-a-brac, she takes questions and dispenses humorous advice.

Among other things, the performance lampooned new-age preoccupations with Eastern and indigenous spirituality. It also demanded endurance on the audience's part: the setup alone lasted more than an hour, and what might have been tense but meaningful in person loses its grip as video. Nicely shot but insufficiently edited documentation plays on a loop, so we pick up on the action (such as it is) at random, with no sense of what's going on or how long it might last. If the gallery provided a useful description of the performance (the exhibition texts were all scraped, unedited, from the web) or bothered to note the length of the video, visitors might stand a chance of sticking with it.

In Sacred Clown, Reece appears onstage wearing nothing but a Pueblo ceremonial figure's traditional black-and-white striped body paint ("I feel so naked," she confesses to titters from the audience). As a projection of her face, sans makeup, barks criticisms and whispers apologies, she delivers an alternately plaintive and uncomfortably funny routine touching on subjects of self-doubt and child molestation. "Stand-up comedy is weird," she observes. "I can make it weirder."

Even alone in the gallery, the sound was too muffled to make out effectively, but the video is available online.

Elsewhere, we get only fragments: photos that served as the backdrop for a 2004 performance (but no documentation of the performance itself), Reece's costume from another -- a vampy pastiche of West Coast and Plains regalia, including a button blanket bedazzled with the image of a hand grenade in place of the usual clan insignia.

I would love to have been around to witness Like a Boss, in which Reece channelled both Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather, the civil-rights activist who memorably refused the actor's 1973 Academy Award on his behalf in protest of Hollywood's degrading portrayals of Native Americans. Instead, we have to settle for the (admittedly stunning) Godfather portrait mask carved by the artist's late father, Victor Reece, and a lossy YouTube video of Littlefeather's speech.

The exhibition highlight is also the only standalone video. In the sensitively filmed Touch Me, Reece carefully bathes a white woman on a darkened soundstage, an ambivalent exchange that seems at once painful and cathartic, tense and tender. Stories of hurt and forgiveness play out on the two women's faces, no further context required.

Urban Shaman should be commended for giving groundbreaking indigenous artists such as Reece the retrospective treatment they deserve, but Sacred Clown is, on the whole, a shoddy, phoned-in mess. Reece (and the rest of us, frankly) deserve better.

 

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

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History

Updated on Thursday, June 18, 2015 at 4:28 PM CDT: Corrects photo captions.

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