There's a Métis infinity symbol that glows in white neon.

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This article was published 14/1/2011 (4185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There's a Métis infinity symbol that glows in white neon.

There's a black stealth-bomber aircraft covered with ancient spiral symbols, like the ones seen in Maori facial tattoos in New Zealand.

Raven Chacon installs Repellent Eye in Manitoba Hydro Place.


Raven Chacon installs Repellent Eye in Manitoba Hydro Place.

There's a hovering thunderbird shaped out of computer circuitry.

These are some of the works in a future-imagining exhibition by more than 30 prominent indigenous artists that's about to swoop into Winnipeg.

The landmark show officially opens next Saturday night at its main venue, 109 Pacific Ave. (the former Costume Museum of Canada). It will spread its wings across an unprecedented number of local venues, run for more than three months -- to May 8 -- and likely attract attention from the global art scene.

Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years ranks as the largest international show of contemporary indigenous art ever held in North America, organizers say.

It's the biggest of all the events mounted by the government-funded Winnipeg Cultural Capital of Canada program. Although last year was the city's official cultural capital year, the show -- more than a year in the planning -- is so ambitious that it needed extra organization time.

1Lucinations 2005 by Doug Smarch

1Lucinations 2005 by Doug Smarch

Close Encounters accounts for the largest chunk of the overall $4-million Cultural Capital budget. It includes film screenings, artists' talks, panel discussions and a bus tour to the venues -- all free.

Participating artists include 17 aboriginal, Métis and Inuit Canadians and about the same number from beyond Canada, including three indigenous artists each from New Zealand and Australia, a Brazilian, two Sámi artists from Finland, and Americans from First Nations such as the Lakota, Luiseno, Navajo and Cherokee.

"This exhibition is so important, it almost takes on the quality of a biennale (a high-profile international contemporary show held every two years, such as the Venice Biennale)," says lead curator Lee-Ann Martin, a Mohawk who is director of the Indian and Inuit Art Centre in Gatineau, Ont.

Martin and three other aboriginal curators, including Winnipeg's Jenny Western, assembled the show of roughly 60 works. About 12 artists have created new works specifically for it.

The exhibition's official venues, besides the Pacific Avenue space, are Plug In ICA, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba Hydro headquarters and the Manitoba Museum's planetarium.

"Parallel programming sites" mounting their own indigenous shows are the Urban Shaman, Platform and Graffiti galleries, as well as Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg, La Maison des Artistes and the North End Arts Centre, for a total of 11 sites.

Most of the artists are attending, and the event is attracting out-of-town critics, curators, collectors and other artists, Martin says. Winnipeg is the ideal setting for the show because of its aboriginal history and demographics, she says, and local artists are playing a part.

"We didn't want an exhibition where these international artists just parachuted in, showed their work and left," she says. "We wanted there to be a connection with artists and communities here."

The word "contemporary" is key, Martin says. These are not your grandmother's native prints or carvings. These creators are in touch with the cutting-edge global scene, working in video, film, web-based forms, performance art and installation, as well as painting, sculpture, prints and photography.

The title Close Encounters alludes to encounters between colonizing and aboriginal peoples. The show's theme is questioning what the future will hold for both indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Time, prophecy, utopia, apocalypse, nature versus technology and environmental destruction or salvation are some of the recurring ideas. A painting by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun shows a leaping killer whale that leaves a trail of blood in the ocean. The work references the West Coast style seen in totem poles, Martin notes, but gives it a 21st-century twist.

"Several of the artists draw on traditional cultural values and images, and express them in an almost futuristic way," she says.

A sculpture by distinguished Ontario artist Michael Belmore, called Smoulder, is a circular stone hearth in which gold inlay seems to glow like dying embers. "It suggests a certain ambiguity," Martin says. "What will the future hold? Will the fire die, or will it rise again?"

Cheeky wit plays a part in some works, such as Repellent Eye (Winnipeg), a three-metre-wide balloon with a "scare-eye" on it, suspended in the lobby of the Manitoba Hydro building.

Basing it on much smaller balloons used by gardeners to keep away pesky birds, the U.S.-based Postcommodity collective imagined that "perhaps something on a much larger scale might be effective in repelling Western civilization."

Martin, a veteran curator, says we're approaching a time when indigenous artists are so thoroughly integrated in the contemporary art scene that there will be no need for shows like this.

"But there is still the need, in my opinion, for this forum for the collective (indigenous) voices on certain topics. For us, the future has never been addressed in a single thematic show."

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