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One of the Prairies' most important contemporary artists takes an unflinching look at Canada's uneven history of cultural reciprocity

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/11/2014 (1020 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ten feet tall in witchy black pumps, Ruth Cuthand's monstrous White Liberal Lady #1 looms over the entrance to Back Talk, the Saskatchewan artist's commanding mid-career retrospective at Plug In ICA. Scrawled in pencil up a column of sickly white translucent vellum, she snakes her neck to leer at us, extending a grotesquely taloned hand.

Part schoolmarm, part storybook hag, the "White Liberal Ladies" who terrorize the 1990 series Misuse Is Abuse are familiar embodiments of cartoon wickedness, but for Cuthand they represent something complicated and deeply personal. She draws on experiences growing up near the Blood reserve in southern Alberta, where the "free" pencils distributed by Indian agents came engraved, "Misuse is abuse: Property of the Government of Canada," as well as later experiences navigating the racist expectations and everyday aggressions of ostensibly "liberal" non-indigenous women. As the drawings attest, she came out of these encounters guns blazing, if not entirely unfazed.

Ruth Cuthand’s White Liberal Lady #1 looms over the entrance to Back Talk.


Ruth Cuthand’s White Liberal Lady #1 looms over the entrance to Back Talk.

Bubonic plague

Bubonic plague

The Ladies toss featureless "Indian" dolls across the page, issuing proclamations and meting out punishment. First commandment: "Never disappoint a white liberal." Second: "White liberals are here to help us." "Nobody likes an uppity Indian," another chides. Broadly, the drawings "talk back" to self-styled progressives who "only want to help" -- but only on their own terms. Uneasy with expressions, like anger, that don't flatter their good intentions, they cluck their tongues at "inappropriate," "counterproductive," or "hostile" gestures -- as if articulating generations of trauma and resentment could be anything but difficult or messy.

Cuthand doesn't shrink from confusing and sometimes ugly emotions; the work is candid, sarcastic, plainspoken and electrifying for it, painfully funny and sometimes painful to look at. She doesn't stand down to criticism, either: when visitors to an early exhibition found the Misuse drawings "inappropriate" (and presumably "hostile" and "counterproductive" also) she retitled them after Group of Seven paintings. Then, I'm guessing, she dropped the mike she was holding and casually walked offstage.

The work's "crudeness" belies the depth of Cuthand's concerns and the sensitivity of her approach. A cluster of drawings from the same year, Living-Post-Oka-Kind-of-Woman, is a dense, seething reflection on the Oka crisis and its representation by the media, one tackling issues of violence, self-perception and self-preservation. Though rough in appearance, Cuthand's illustrations show an intuitive knack for caricature. She works back into the slick graphite with erasers, introducing smudges and smears that muddy the aggressive marks, lending them the sharp, smoky contours of firecracker stains. The stilted, stencilled, all-caps captions anticipate the affectless humour of online image macros 15 years before the first LOLcat.

Back Talk spans decades of diverse activity, and other works take a more measured approach. The oldest, paintings from Cuthand's "dress series," evocatively fuse First Nations, Mormon and personal iconography. A mock educational video, Word for Word employs shaky translation and the low-budget esthetics to reflect on language and identity. For her Indian Portraits: Early 21st Century, Cuthand asked her sitters to imagine utopian possibilities for indigenous people.

Among Back Talk's most captivating and incisive works, Trading is a series of 12 glittering beaded microscope images depicting pathogens (influenza, smallpox, etc.) carried across the Atlantic in the "Columbian Exchange." Though strongly associated with First Nations art and decoration, the tiny glass beads were, like 11 of the 12 diseases pictured, originally European imports. Underscoring the deadly inequality of the "exchange," Cuthand renders the syphilis bacterium, the only one present in the Americas before contact, using the older, indigenous porcupine-quill beads.

Together with Eat-All, Minneapolis-based artist Andrea Carlson's concurrent (and brilliant) drawing show, Back Talk is easily one of this year's standout exhibitions. It opened in September and stays up until January, but if you haven't had a chance to take it in, Cuthand's free artist talk Nov. 13 at Plug In marks the perfect occasion.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based white liberal lady.


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Updated on Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 9:13 AM CST: Replaces photos

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