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Boundary-defying art combines traditional indigenous knowledge, Star Wars references

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In its broadest sense, "decolonization" is about indigenous people questioning boundaries and limitations imposed on them by others, redrawing borders or erasing them altogether. It can take sweeping forms -- governments ousted and maps reorganized -- but it's just as often a private undertaking: one person learning her traditional language, refusing to internalize others' damaging preconceptions, asserting her place in the world purely on her own terms.

This spirit of boundary-testing is central to Idle No More, which continues to reimagine what forms a protest or political movement can take, drawing on activism, art, the family, traditional history, ceremony, and the land itself to advance its goals.

This unconstrained, "interdisciplinary" approach is also central to Tahltan artist Peter Morin's remarkable, impossible-to-categorize Ceremony Experiments 1 through 8, currently at Urban Shaman. With poetic, often playful gestures, Morin charts new territory at the intersection of indigenous and "western" approaches to art-making, knowledge, and experience, in the process demonstrating that "decolonization" can be a profoundly creative act.

Four identical, unprimed canvases hang towards the rear of the gallery, a small, tongue-shaped piece of leather delicately stitched to each. The scraps (pieces of unfinished moccasins) have floral motifs carefully sketched out, but the beadwork is a mess -- just a few woozy, meandering rows of red and gold that stray from the pattern and cut off abruptly.

Like everything in the show, these are tangible byproducts of one of Morin's "Ceremony Experiments," quirky improvisations that are part ritual, part performance art, part craft project and part science experiment. He outlines the procedure for each one in handwritten texts posted near the entrance. Going into Ceremony Experiment #6, he writes, "I wanted to see my grandmother." The "ceremony" he'd perform to try and establish contact would be to bead moccasins for a period of three hours -- while blindfolded (hence the mess). "After three hours," he continues, "I heard her voice."

"She said, 'I never did beadwork. I did embroidery.'"

Over four years, Morin and two collaborators made 88 pairs of moccasins for aboriginal kids living in foster care (Ceremony Experiment #1), exhibiting only the scrap leather. He built a drum, on display in the gallery, in the basement of the former Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, now home to Algoma University. "We sang with this drum. We sang What's Love Got to Do with It by Tina Turner" (#2). Following a discussion about Star Wars, he and elder Judy Elk crafted beaded "regalia" for the anti-imperialist Jedi Forces (#4). He repurposed a shipping crate and a tin horn to construct a kind of anti-recording device, a "machine to return the songs to the land" (#5). "The machine" he writes, "is broken."

Morin frames his work, with its uninhibited sampling of western artistic and academic conventions, traditional Tahltan knowledge, and popular culture, as a form of research into "the problem of colonization," and he's being gently provocative in doing so -- pushing at boundaries. Yet at every turn he matches his impish, intellectual curiosity -- each bit of irreverent humour -- with palpable affection and respect.

For all its manic complexity, its eagerness to challenge expectations, its weirdness, the work is remarkably inviting and approachable, even sweet.

Like both science and ceremony, art provides space for testing out improbable ideas to see if there's any truth in them. Morin's unusual "experiments" -- solemn, silly, or both -- uncover more than their share.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 C7


Updated on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:59 AM CST: replaces art, adds fact box

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