July 30, 2015


By Steven Leyden Cochrane

Columnists

Hoop themes

Aboriginal artists explore cultural continuity and exchange

If I asked you to list time-honoured forms of First Nations cultural expression, abstract painting and basketball might not immediately spring to mind. A pair of exhibitions closing Friday at Urban Shaman, however, suggest maybe they should.

Jeff Kahm, an Edmonton-born Plains Cree painter and faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., offers a subtle twist on familiar strains of abstract painting in Paradigm, his exhibition in Urban's main gallery.

With machine-like precision he divides his paintings, which range from small works on paper to imposing groups of canvases, into bold but carefully balanced configurations of hard-edged stripes. In several cases, Kahm methodically repeats identical figures -- chevrons or nested arrangements of bars and boxes -- across entire series of works that differ only in the colours used.

The works draw freely from the history of North American and European abstract art, quoting Colour Field and Minimal painters like Barnet Newman, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Jack Bush. Not coincidentally, they also echo the striking geometries of traditional indigenous art and design, notably the Navajo and Pueblo ceramics and textiles of Kahm's adopted home in the American Southwest.

Today, thanks in large part to the efforts of First Nations artists and scholars, the direct influence of aboriginal esthetic innovations on the course of 20th-century art is widely acknowledged. Artists like Kahm reopen that dialogue, producing works that create new avenues of exploration while enriching our experience of established artistic traditions.

David Garneau, also of Edmonton, highlights a similar example of cultural continuity in Hoop Dancers, a gorgeous video installation on view concurrently in the Media Gallery. The dreamlike footage shows a group of four dancers in full regalia playing a casual game of basketball between performances at the Standing Buffalo School northeast of Regina.

Shot in impressionistic slow motion, the camera lingers on seemingly contradictory images -- the ball hitting the blacktop amid a frenzy of beaded moccasins, dribbling combined with Fancy Dance footwork, brightly coloured fringe worn over Nike athletic shorts -- all shot against the imposing backdrop of the Qu'Appelle Valley landscape and sky.

Garneau's clever allusion to the hoop dance, which is performed today by dancers representing numerous groups, underscores and celebrates the dexterity and skill basketball players and traditional dancers share. It also points to some surprising history.

Native athletes had been shooting hoops for decades when the modern hoop dance was formalized in the 1930s, a period when many established forms of indigenous ceremonial and artistic expression had been outlawed, prompting the creation of new ones. Basketball, meanwhile, was introduced at American residential schools as early as the 1910s as part of stated attempts at forced assimilation. Whether or not it had the desired effect, the sport spread quickly to schools and reserves across the U.S. and Canada, and today there are dozens of tournaments dedicated to "rezball," acknowledged as a distinct, distinctly-aboriginal, style of play.

Born out of necessity, the adaptability and innovation of First Nations cultures too frequently go unrecognized, and the legacies of cultural exchange between aboriginals and non-aboriginals remain tangled and often painful, but both Kahm and Garneau strike a celebratory tone. They highlight the fruits of these complicated legacies while effortlessly demonstrating the dialogue is still ongoing -- the ball is still in play.

 

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2013 C14

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