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Redrawing the map

Three indigenous female artists find new ways to explore identity, experience and place

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/9/2014 (1071 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There's no pretending the map of Canada was drawn with indigenous rights or needs in mind. There's no need to hold a press conference to remind us that few in positions power give much credence to indigenous knowledge and perspectives (our current government clearly never got the memo).

It's no surprise, then, that Memory Keepers: Methodologies of Memory, Mapping and Gender, which opened recently at Urban Shaman, might forgo conventional mapmaking altogether. Instead, the three indigenous female artists brought together by curators Erin Sutherland and Carla Taunton work to develop new ways of understanding and categorizing identity and place, vocabularies that honour traditional knowledge and personal experiences that defy classification.

Tanya Lukin Linklater's Site Sight.

Tanya Lukin Linklater's Site Sight.

Julie Nagam's Singing Our Bones Home

Julie Nagam's Singing Our Bones Home

Tanya Lukin Linklater's Site Sight.

Tanya Lukin Linklater's Site Sight.

Ursula Johnson's L'nuwelti'k (We AreIndian) consists of upturned baskets displayed reverently on plinths. Gradually, these reveal themselves to be smooth, featureless busts. In place of typical title cards, the sculptures are captioned "Female, Status 6.2, Urban Migrant," or "Male, Non-Status, Off-Reserve," echoing the convoluted government codes delimiting individual rights under the Indian Act.

Johnson poetically conflates the categorization of living people with the cataloguing of museum artifacts, highlighting how these external classifications erode and mask individual identity, but the work is more nuanced than that. In the gallery, Johnson wove the baskets directly over the heads and shoulders of volunteers, employing traditional Mi'kmaq techniques passed on by her grandmother. While unmistakably an act of erasure, the performance (documented in a looped video) is also intimate, odd, protective and surprisingly tender.

Julie Nagam touches on similar themes in her evocative installation singing our bones home. Viewers enter a wigwam built from bent saplings and white fabric, the floor carpeted in fragrant evergreen boughs and the support poles garlanded with sage leaves. Slowly shifting video projections provide indistinct, 180-degree views of "empty" landscapes -- lonely marshes, forest scenes and scrub -- while a rolling soundscape of ambient noise and song wafts in from all directions. Inside the tent, one feels rooted in time and place by texture, sound and scent, but the landscape "outside" appears unstable and otherworldly.

The work is a tribute to First Nations ancestors whose remains were (and continue to be) taken, traded, studied and displayed by museums and university collections. Gently, Nagam uncovers the bitter, bewildering irony that land heavy with the bones of indigenous people was once deemed "terra nullius" -- "land belonging to no one."

Tanya Lukin Linklater's experimental dance- and movement-based works attempt physical responses to history and place. In works inspired by cinematic representations of girlhood, dancers interact directly with the landscape, while In Memoriam grapples with the history of Linklater's Alutiiq ancestors on Kodiak Island in southern Alaska. Filmed 5,000 kilometres away in North Bay, Ont., where Linklater currently lives, the piece represents a haunting, abstract response to the massacre of at least 500 (and as many as 3,000) Alutiit by Russian fur traders in 1784.

The dancers' movements are fitful and erratic, only intermittently in sync, variously frenzied and catatonic. In English, the site of the massacre is known as "Refuge Rock," but In Memoriam speaks to the darker understanding preserved in its older, Alutiiq name: Awa'uq, "to go numb."

Johnson, Linklater and Nagam attempt to "map" traditional knowledge and personal experience onto a changed and changing contemporary landscape. It's not always easy to navigate the reserved and richly layered works, but their unique approaches offer piercing insight and emotional depth to those who take the time to orient themselves.


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

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