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Family ties

Connections bind pieces together in indigenous curatorial exhibition

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/1/2016 (584 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

By drawing connections, curators give us a wider view of the work artists make, deepening its impact. Exhibitions trace influences, fill gaps in the record and chart new developments, but sometimes all that's needed is to put two artists in a room and see where the conversation leads -- or to point out an overlooked family resemblance.

Niki Little does each of these in Enendaman Anminigook, the exhibition she organized as part of the Aceartinc.'s first Indigenous Curatorial Residency. Beyond formal parallels and thematic links, the show examines how ties of kinship, and motherhood specifically, might inform ideas of artistic "authorship." (The Oji-Cree title invokes related concepts of "intention" and "worth.")

Kenneth Lavallee's 'Peacock,Ram and Hunter'

Kenneth Lavallee's 'Peacock,Ram and Hunter'

Hot Dance by Wendy Red Star

Hot Dance by Wendy Red Star

Billings, Mont.,-born artist Wendy Red Star made Hot Dance for her daughter, who modelled the glitzy, gold-fringed blue dress in a fashion show last summer. Suspended and spotlit near the entrance, the garment marries runway looks with the stylings of traditional Crow regalia while tenderly recording the transfer of knowledge and care between mother and daughter.

Winnipeg's Kenneth Lavallee is on the receiving end of such a transfer in Peacock, Ram and Hunter. The imposing triptych recreates three long-lost murals his mother painted on the outbuildings of her family's home in St. Laurent decades ago. Using the same materials -- shoe polish on salvaged plywood -- Lavallee transposes the human and animal figures into his own distinctive hand. Like Woodland School pioneer Jackson Beardy, whose mural across from the Selkirk Avenue bell tower provided another early touchstone, Lavallee's sinuous, semi-abstract forms combine indigenous image-making with a modernist sensibility. The loveliness and impact of the clean lines and burnished, blue-black tones are matched only by those of the gesture itself.

A Métis artist from Rich Lake, Alta., Amy Malbeuf reflects on severed and surviving ties in The Length of Grief, a spare but unsparing video installation. A friend braids and then cuts the artist's hair in one projection, teary-eyed at first, then with stoic resolve. In a second, Malbeuf and her cousin stand at the edge of a field: wind whips the hair around their faces, which fall in and out of shadow as clouds pass overhead. High on the wall, Malbeuf's braids are mounted on white buckskin, echoing traditional moose-hair tufting. Though the piece specifically mourns Malbeuf's aunt, who had been a hairdresser, its substance is readily mined, embedded in cycles of loss and renewal as universal and as mutable as the weather each woman wears on her face.

Amplified through contact microphones and guitar effects pedals, the hum of a portable dehumidifier swelled to an eerie chant in Gwich'in artist Jeneen Frei Njootli's opening-night performance, Melanosite. Dressed in a white canvas parka, she harmonized with the appliance, using water from the air to dye her naturally auburn hair a "Disney Pocahontas blue-black." As the colour developed around her scalp and neckline, she pressed her face into a red Plexiglas frame, leaving an imprint, before tossing her hair to send a zip of black dye up the wall.

Frei Njootli sketches out an artistic lineage for herself spanning body-based performance and expressionist painting, all while working through the lived experience of cultural stereotypes (with her face against the glass, both she and the audience "see red"). Though only scattered residue remains, it ties the exhibition together, suggesting unexpected ties to Lavallee's shoe polish, Red Star's regalia and Malbeuf's exploration of ceremony and hair's emotional resonance.


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


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Updated on Thursday, January 14, 2016 at 9:27 AM CST: Replaces photo

2:27 PM: Tweaks headline.

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