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Share the land

Métis artist takes landscape painting in a more meaningful direction

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WALKING into the gallery that houses Christi Belcourt's show, the viewer is immediately struck by the sound of voices, one after the other, speaking in the languages of Canada's Aboriginal Peoples in a video that's part of the exhibit.

Anyone who stops long enough to watch to watch the video will realize that it features an array of people of all ages, all apparently of aboriginal descent, reciting the pre-European place names of various Canadian locations.

These voices never leave the viewer's consciousness, remaining just loud enough to be heard throughout this whole exhibit of some two dozen paintings, one of the more impressive shows our city has seen in some time. The voices serve as a reminder of the theme that unites the entire show: the idea of mapping, naming and claiming land; who has done it, and for what purpose.

In a sense, the exhibit presents the contrast between two cultures' treatment of the same land -- the aboriginal residents of pre-settlement Canada, and the Europeans who usurped them.

Take a work like The Good Land, in which this self-taught Métis artist -- who currently lives in the tiny community of Whitefish Falls in Northern Ontario -- contrasts the naming and use of the exact same bit of land through two identical maps. They depict the region of the Great Lakes that is currently one of the most populated pieces of real estate in Canada, but at different times in history.

On one side of the work, we see the land before European settlement, on the other, we see the more modern landscape, where everything is divided and labelled according to its value as a natural resource.

Essentially, it presents a contrast of outlooks on the land, either as an object of respect or a space to exploit. Fasting Rock, for example, a sacred point that is noted in the first map, disappears from the second -- it has no economic value, and therefore becomes irrelevant.

In the first, borders don't exist, nor do the grid lines that are imposed over the second map. And the vast areas of clear-cut forests in the second work, where timber is endlessly hauled off to market, show the inevitable result of a world view that sees the land only in economic terms.

While a work like this takes a bird's-eye view of our treatment of the natural landscape, the pair of works What the Sturgeon Told Me and Extirpated examine similar ideas from a close-up, ground-level view.

We see a sturgeon presented first as a sacred animal, right next to a work that hints at the delicate balance upon which their life cycle relies, and the devastating effect of building dams.

Not all the works deal directly with the natural landscape, though. In a number of portraits from her ongoing Great Métis of My Time series, Belcourt shows her seemingly effortless skill as a painter. Not only are her subjects rendered in photo-realist detail, but she has filled the borders of the paintings (or, in some cases, the subject's clothing) with countless tiny dots of paint that beautifully reproduce traditional Métis beadwork.

It's this skill that helps Belcourt's show rise above the crowded field of artists who have commented on these same ideas. Whether she's depicting Tony Belcourt, a respected leader of Canada's Métis community, or local lawyer Jean Teillet, who has taken a lead role in Métis legal rights issues; whether it's in the nature-themed works that borrow from the Woodlands style or from European artists such as Gustav Klimt, the show succeeds as art.

And since it deals so brilliantly with ideas that I've discussed in various ways over my four years as the Free Press art critic -- such as the need to completely rethink our relationship to the natural world -- Belcourt's show seems a perfect one with which to end my tenure.

Off the Map: Perspectives of Land, Water, and Metis People, by Christi Belcourt

Urban Shaman Gallery, 290 McDermot Ave.

To March 1

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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