FRANK Shebageget's work explores forms of exchange between First Nations and non-Native people in this country, both the economic exchange of goods, technologies and resources, and the exchange of ideas, of art forms, histories and institutions.
In two installations currently on view at the University of Winnipeg, the Ottawa-based Shebageget employs simple, poetic gestures to incisively reflect on his personal experience and a range of issues spanning trade and traditional ways of life, art history and the status of indigenous artists, and the ways that First Nations people are and are not typically represented by institutions such as museums.
The untitled installation located in Gallery 1C03 is deceptively simple at first glance: an hazy-looking, 21/2-metre white cube appears to float inches above the floor in the dimly-lit and otherwise empty gallery. The "cube" isn't solid, though -- it consists of row after row of nylon gillnet hung with fishhooks from metal poles suspended at ceiling height, held taut at the bottom with lead weights. Openings on either side give access to a central chamber large enough to stand in. The white threads catch the light, and the structure appears to glow from within as it sways and bulges slightly with the breeze from the HVAC system overhead.
Like minimalist sculpture from the 1960s, the piece employs geometric forms that echo the architecture of the gallery itself and a scale meant to suggest that viewers relate to it on a physical level (in this case, inviting us to enter it). In a twist, though, Shebageget trades minimal art's industrial materials for delicate netting, which, while physically insubstantial, is weighted with connotations.
Growing up in northern Ontario, Shebageget and his family fished and trapped for food and to supplement their income, and those experiences provided him with both the motifs and the materials that he uses to unsettle and transform elements, like the minimalist cube, borrowed from recent art history. While the use of fishing gear ties the work to Shebageget's own upbringing, and the installation is undeniably beautiful, there's an undercurrent of parody, too, inasmuch as the humble, everyday objects he employs gently undermine the austerity and presumed authority of modernist artwork.
The critique is more overt (and icky) in the second installation, Castor's Castoreum, located in a vitrine outside the University's Anthropology Museum upstairs. Mimicking conventional museum displays (exhibits in neighbouring windows include "A Collection of Thai Musical Instruments" and "Asian Basketry"), the black-lined alcove features a table spread with a beaver pelt, on top of which Shebageget has arranged a cluster of old-fashioned perfume bottles on a polished silver tray. On closer inspection, the bottles themselves are oddly shaped and oddly... wrinkled. An accompanying text explains how Shebageget's mother would sell castor sacs (gland-like cavities containing a strongly scented secretion that beavers use to mark their territory) to the Hudson's Bay Company for $10 to $15 a pair for use in making high-end perfumes.
By adopting the outward forms of established fine art and the trappings of institutional authority, Shebageget assumes an active voice in settings that have been indifferent of or even hostile to considering the lives of contemporary indigenous people.
Museums have certainly become more responsible, largely thanks to artists who have rigorously critiqued their methods, motivations, and standards of artistic and cultural merit, but among many others, Shebageget's work playfully raises the question of whether people who spend good money to smell like the bodily fluids of a giant rodent are necessarily the best qualified to make those kinds of judgments in the first place.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.
Gallery 1C03 / University of Winnipeg Anthropology Museum
515 Portage Ave.
To Feb. 16