December 8, 2019

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Shape-shifters

Indigenous artists find new ways to connect with past in WAG exhibition

Puppets from Amanda Strong’s stop-motion film Biidaaban, inspired by author Leanne Simpson’s writings.</p></p>

Puppets from Amanda Strong’s stop-motion film Biidaaban, inspired by author Leanne Simpson’s writings.

When Bracken Hanuse Corlett was approached by Julie Nagam, one of the curators of Insurgence/Resurgence, the groundbreaking contemporary Indigenous art exhibit currently at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, he started thinking about what those two words meant.

"For me, an insurgent is someone whose battling against a colonial force, or a force who’s taking over, and resurgence would be the re-emergence of maybe something ancient or maybe something that was taken away," he says.

Those ideas resonate deeply with the 37-year-old Vancouver-based multimedia artist, who will be at the Winnipeg Art Gallery tonight for a pop-up talk alongside fellow Insurgence/Resurgence artist and frequent collaborator Amanda Strong. The talk starts at 5 p.m., and will be followed by a panel discussion at 6 p.m. featuring Insurgence/Resurgence exhibit designer Destiny Seymour, Insurgence/Resurgence artist Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, father-daughter designers David and Cheyenne Thomas and artist Sébastien Aubin. Both events are free.

Hanuse Corlett is of the Wuikinuxv and Klahoose Nations in British Columbia. He grew up in the Sunshine Coast region before moving to Vancouver at 18.

"My family was forcibly displaced through the residential school system," he says. "My mom was removed at the age of five and didn’t get to return to the community until she was an adult. That created some disconnection and displacement for our family."

Amanda Strong is showing some of the puppets from the film Biidaabin — which is still in progress — in Insurgence/Resurgence.</p>

Amanda Strong is showing some of the puppets from the film Biidaabin — which is still in progress — in Insurgence/Resurgence.

It was Hanuse Corlett’s mother who encouraged him to reconnect with his culture as a youth, but he found that many pieces were missing, lost to years of cultural suppression. While he was earning his bachelor of fine arts at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, he began studying Northwest Coast art with acclaimed Heiltsuk artists Bradley Hunt and his sons Shawn Hunt and Dean Hunt. It was through those studies that he reconnected to the art of his community.

"I’ve made it more of a priority to make my work more aligned from where I’m from," he says.

It’s in that spirit that his Insurgence/Resurgence work, Electricity BlanketCrest Prototype 004 (Family Crest) was created. Hanuse Corlett was asked by his uncle Dennis to create a new Hanuse family crest.

"He’s the one who’s been pushing me to take my aesthetic closer to home," he says.

The original Hanuse family crest features the Kolus, the sister of the Thunderbird, with an egg perched on the top of her head. The original crest was lost — a casualty of colonization and the potlatch ban, a racist piece of legislation that made it illegal for Indigenous Peoples to participate in their ceremonies.

Hanuse Corlett’s modern reimagining incorporates Kolus, as well as the Wuikila translation of his last name: "He who dances naked." For him, his work is an example of both insurgence and resurgence; after all, his peoples’ art was driven underground — and survived.

Bracken Hanuse Corlett's Electricity Blanket – Crest Prototype 004, 2017 (Supplied)</p>

Bracken Hanuse Corlett's Electricity Blanket – Crest Prototype 004, 2017 (Supplied)

As he writes in his artist statement: "Resurgence is the revival of ceremony after a period of sleep."

"I work in contemporary spaces, but I choose to work with the traditional symbols and stories. For me, it’s because that artwork was outlawed, and I feel a responsibility to continue to work with the people who fought to keep the stories and the art form alive," he says. "That’s how I relate to the word resurgence."

Strong, meanwhile, drew inspiration from the writings of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg author Leanne Simpson for her latest stop-motion film Biidaaban. The Vancouver-based Michif filmmaker is showing some of the puppets from the film — which is still in progress — in Insurgence/Resurgence.

"I thought it was a good opportunity to put the works that I make — not just the film, but the actual elements from the films themselves — on display," says Strong, 33. "People don’t really get to see all the puppets, sets, props. It’s such a different experience when you see the physical elements. You get a sense of scale, and the hours, time and love that goes into making these from the team that I work with."

Biidaaban is an amalgamation of three different Simpson stories, and tells the story of its titular protagonist — a young, non-binary Anishinaabe who, along with their shape-shifter friend Sabe, returns to an urban neighbourhood to collect sap from the old-growth maple trees and must ­"overcome the suspense of being caught."

Biidaaban raises questions about land ownership — whose tree is it, anyway? — as well as the effects industrialization and urban sprawl have on the winged and four-legged who call the same land home. (Hanuse Corlett wrote the screenplay.)

Bracken Hanuse Corlett </p></p>

Bracken Hanuse Corlett

"It’s supposed to echo some of the challenges that Indigenous people have faced, especially in the past, with doing their ceremonies," Strong says. "There’s still embedded fears inside people that it’s still wrong in some way or, in this case, who owns this tree? It’s on private property, but it’s also part of a ceremony."

For her, too, the work speaks to both insurgence and resurgence.

"I feel that the work I’m doing is both," she says. "In some ways, maybe a bit more insurgent, especially with Biidaaban. In my mind, they’re this badass rebel who’s here to go against the grain and go into these private properties and not really care, and prioritize what the tree symbolizes for them."

Strong says she feels honoured to be included in Insurgence/Resurgence.

"I think it’s a really important show, and I hope it propels more of these big celebrations of many artists," she says.

"My grandmother is from Winnipeg, and that’s where my Métis roots come from. I’m really looking forward to actually being there and taking it in."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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