PRAIRIE TO PICTURE : SELF-PORTRAITS OF JACKIE TRAVERSE AND JOI T. ARCAND by Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, Co-Curator
There isn’t any one Canada, any average Canadian, any average place, any type. -Miriam Chapin, 1960
Dynamically unique portrayals of prairie life are depicted through self-portraits created by First Nations artists, Jackie Traverse and Joi T. Arcand. As a component of Ottawa’s Prairie Scene festival,1 Pimâskweyâw, the Cree word to describe the land from prairie to woods, is an exhibition that opened at Gallery 101, April 2011.2 Pimâskweyâw explores the voices, people, experiences and lifestyles of the Canadian Prairies from female Aboriginal perspectives. I, myself, am from the grasslands of Alberta, and must say, the Prairies left a bitter taste in my mouth. Childhood conjures up memories of endless dull drives from the city of Calgary to the reserve of Siksika, dry, brown summers and howling, cold winters. Now living in Winnipeg, I have a different experience and outlook on Canada’s frosty desert. My incentive for relocating to Winnipeg was to immerse myself in the art, the exhibitions, the programming, the discourse and the dialogues sparked by the city’s First Nations and Métis artists, curators and communities. Pimâskweyâw is an exposé on two artists who use portraiture to discuss the complex relationship between place and identity from this particular perspective.
Jackie Traverse’s family (Anishinaabe) moved to Winnipeg from Lake St. Martin in 1954, where she was born, raised and continues to live an urban lifestyle in the city. Joi T. Arcand was born in Hafford, a small town with a population of about 500, located near her reserve of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan; a reserve with a history of farming, she is the daughter of farmers who worked the land for over 30 years.
Both Jackie Traverse and Joi T. Arcand use childhood moments and memory to express opposing yet complimentary experiential views of Central Canada: the rural farm lifestyle and the urban city experience. When compared, the differences and similarities of the two works, Cultivate 4 by Joi T. Arcand and Mungeeshtagon by Jackie Traverse, can be seen to reflect the diversity of First Nations people not only from the Prairies but of Aboriginal cultures across Canada. The two artists bring to light a truthful, present perspective that offer positive alternatives to the non-Native or clichéd view of the “Prairie Indian.”
Traverse’s illustration, when I was a little girl they used to call me mungeeshtagon, I always thought that was my Indian name until I found out it meant big head........… is a painted self-portrait, from her series entitled "Childhood Memories". Made in 2005, the series is comprised of large acrylic paintings coupled with handwritten notes that operate as titles. The use of the handwritten note coupled with the portrait is characteristic of the playful humour that permeates Traverse’s paintings. Arcand’s Cultivate 4 from her “Cultivate Series,” of 2005 is a large-scale arrangement of colour photographs. Cultivate, means to foster growth, to prepare the land and echoes the delicate, patient and thought-out approach to her portrait. Both titles and works denote learning and a maturing process. The works, either through the medium of paint or photograph, conceive a type of biography that transports the viewer to the world-view of each artist.Formally, Mungeeshtagon is a simple composition with a few prominent horizontal lines, flattened planes and bold outlines with bright colours. Traverse’s style of combining simple shapes and lines is offset by the richly textured grey-white background. The work gives a minimal illusion of depth in combination with a strong economy of lines to pronounce and highlight the caricatured figure of the young Traverse. The body floats in the centre of the canvas, topped by an oversized oval head with pigtails, perched atop a long neck. Arms crossed, pointed toes, the figure seems to hover in the square block of white-grey a possible allusion to the vastness of the prairie sky. The pared down composition allows the viewer to contemplate the subtle details that give the portrait its inner psychological strength offering us insight on this figure’s emotional state, her curled lip hinting at exasperation. Light falls on the figure’s face, the side of her neck and the tops of her bare feet. Her royal blue dress is embellished by two bands of colour: one yellow, the other orange.
Cultivate 4 is Arcand’s self-portrait and is made up of seven photos; one large format image with six smaller photos that line its base. In the large and central image, the artist stands right of centre in a sea of cut wheat crowned by a grey-blue sky. The composition of the image is a rich play of horizontal lines and planes, divided into blocks and segments that are repeated in the smaller photos at the base of the arrangement. The entire tableau repeats the composition of her figure standing amongst the cut wheat field. The largest image is a recent photo of the artist taken in 2005 wearing a black shirt, while the six smaller repeated images were captured in 1987, the lines of the wheat field drawing our eye to her red jumpsuit. The main image acts as a canopy to the bottom row of smaller pictures, which in turn, create a double colour band or base border.
The skyline is horizontally cut with a thin band of green hills sitting on the large rectangular ochre land. The sky is overcast and no obvious shadows appear except for the textured grass creating depth and giving us a sense of the vastness of the landscape. Arcand’s body is immersed within the wheat, her face sits in front of the distant strip of trees behind her while the clouded, grey sky grazes the top of her head. The solitary figure produces a harmony and a unique sense of balance with the younger portrait series below. The image of the artist as adult rests upon the row of her younger self, who is in turn, protected and overseen by her adult self. Her formal and conceptual memory creates a powerfully dramatic composition, archive and mood.
Traverse and Arcand’s portraits share the grey-blue found in Arcand’s skyscape and acting as a background in Traverse’s work. Traverse’s is enveloped in the colours of the overcast prairie city sky as if plucked from the wheat grass and blown to be planted elsewhere in the city. Not as a matter of disconnection, but as a symbol of change and the realities of city life, focusing on inner human psychology and appealing to the viewer for dialogue.In comparison, the grassland swallows Arcand’s feet, as if she is growing and rooted to the prairie landscape. Terrain and sky create most of the photo and she appears miles away from any hint of metropolitan existence. A quiet and still atmosphere is created allowing Arcand’s experience of memory to gently speak between the images. She appears serene and quiet, echoing the distinctively-paced, rural farm life; emphasizing a land to human relationship. Both artists create a potent illustration to powerfully reflect their environments, urban and rural.
Other similar yet diverse traits can be found in these artists' use of the figures' gaze. Traverse’s portrait confronts the viewer head-on with a smirk reinforced by her crossed arms and an intense spark in her eyes. The figure concomitantly projects the innocence of a child with the leery, knowing look of an experienced adult. In comparison, Arcand’s figure ignores the viewer in quiet, contemplative silence; the young adult version of herself watching over the repeated, younger renderings underneath her, tucked safely in the grassy ground. Arcand merges and collapses time by juxtaposing her childhood memory with her adult memory. The adult comes out of the child whose repeated singular presentation mimics the process of memory selection and repetition. The reverse occurs with Traverse; the child manifests onto the canvases from the adult. She approaches her memory with a humorous representation of her child-self that is reinforced with her animated treatment of the image.
Both emphasize personal reflection by invoking childhood memories through self-portraits that share similar formal traits; Arcand highlights her experience by articulating memory as a connection to land and place, initiating these to breathe life into her memory and composition while Traverse’s portrait suggests memory through humour and human interaction signifying the energy and movement of the urban lifestyle. Both artists use landscape to create atmospheric moods that foreground subtle psychological portraits that seek to communicate the inner workings of the individual characters of the artists. By combining the infinite landscape that embrace the figures in each portrait, Arcand and Traverse emphasize a comfort and confidence that is supported by the grass and sky, memory and words. The formal eloquence created by each artist mirrors the complexities of individual experience of being a First Nations woman in Canada. The clichéd depiction of 'Indian’ life is absent and in its place, an intimate glimpse into modern and real lives. Similarities exist and are appreciated, at the same time; differences among Native Canadians are limitless, ever changing and unique.
PETER BRASS, ROBIN BRASS & HELDER MAURICIO CARVAJAL : PRAIRIE ARTISTS By Leanne L’Hirondelle, Co-Curator
Culturally, one is taught that naming one’s place starts any serious discussion. Your audience can understand that the opinion given comes from a particular point of view, that is, the expression is contingent. Hence, I place myself as a Métis person from the Prairie region. Sometimes, I confess, I find myself listening to MBC radio in Cree, not because I can speak, but because I miss the conversations between my grandparents, the sound and rhythm of their voices and occasionally I can pick out a word or two. Sometimes, I dream in Cree, surrounded by Nehiyawak and Métis people. Hence, I have been thinking about what it means to be defined as an Iskewew. The basis of the exhibition Pimâskweyâw is focused on the lived experiences of women and includes works by performance artist Robin Brass, and videographers Peter Brass and Helder Mauricio Carvajal.
The word 'Aboriginal’ is a contentious one, easily used to generalize people whose ancestors lived here before the great colonial contingency of Canada. The word imposes definitions with a myriad of possibilities that exist within it, status, non-status, Métis, possibilities of definitions, yes, but not complexities of cultures, societies nor individuals. 'Aboriginal' replaced previous terminology in perhaps an attempt to rid and cast off excess assumptions and expectations that had held fast to former words, 'Indian', 'savage' and so on. The changing of terms has not succeeded in eliminating prior assumptions, as once concepts become systemic and are part of the building blocks of a society they become difficult to challenge. Judith Butler writes, “Domination occurs through a language which, in its plastic social action, creates a second-order, artificial ontology, an illusion of difference, disparity, and consequently, hierarchy that becomes social reality.” 1 Therefore, it’s possible to assert that the violence that is systemically inherent becomes part of the lived reality for Native women.
Driving alone along Highway 16, an alert issued from F.S.I.N. 2 played on the radio. Native women were warned not be alone in public places after a number of people had disappeared within weeks of each other. 3 The vast beauty of the land, the only place that ever felt like home, surrounded me. The opening scene of The Valley, by artists Peter Brass and Helder Mauricio Carvajal, opens in a familiar place, one that I have passed through perhaps thousands of times. In the scene, a lone car drives along the empty road that cuts through the Battlefords, part of the notorious Highway of Tears that some believe stretches from Prince Rupert to Winnipeg. A path for what is believed to be taken by a number of serial killers who are responsible for the deaths of countless women over a 40-year span.4 The film is silent except for everyday sounds, a motor, the slam of a car door, birds singing and others not so common, a shovel cutting through the earth, flies gathering around the presence of death, the cry of an owl. If you live in the country, the sounds are not alarming. The short film plays through, the shocking absence of the human voice is eerie, and alludes to the silence that surrounds the missing and murdered women in the general public’s consciousness.
The main character is a white male and the other, the lifeless body of an Aboriginal woman. Her identity is obscured throughout, only a passing glance of a foot or hand is offered. The woman could be a friend or loved one, a mother, daughter, partner or sister. The audience, if Aboriginal, is left to easily fill in her identity, as the work sits despairingly close to reality for most. I have not met anyone while living in the Prairie, whose life has not been touched by these acts of violence.
The man continues to a wooden area in the Qu’Appelle Valley to complete the final task of his gruesome act. A hand falls as the body is dragged through the scrub brush. The imagery is haunting and disturbing. The woman is objectified by the male, a representative of the hierarchal construction of society, and her voice, and identity are stolen. While he robs her of her voice, he doesn’t have the power to define her, this is left to the community of viewers whose lives have been touched by loss. The gaze is reversed, he becomes the focal point of the scrutiny of the audience, and the role of voyeur has left us powerless to stop him. The work successfully draws the viewer in without further exploitation. We are left to question the values of a society that would allow, indeed tolerate, such silence around such horrific acts upon bodies that we love, are attached to, and could be our own.
The work of Robin Brass is only similar to The Valley in that it is time based. Her performance piece is titled Mi Ima Ehkosit, which translated from Nakawe means 'There it Hangs'.5 Robin’s work is not about referencing the gaze of the colonial power. Rather, there is a sense of empowerment that comes from the knowledge that the greatest determinate to self-actualization is recognition of the strength of community and self. She creates her work with her community in mind. In this multi-layered piece, she uses materials, symbols and language that are culturally recognizable.
A projection of a ruffed grouse loudly flapping his wings in a mating dance lights the artist as she creates a circle on the wall. An image of spring, birth and regeneration. Her voice in Nakawe in part repeats:
I do not understand much of all we have been given Tell me: Tell me stories There is no end to the stories There is no end. We do not stop
The image and sound multiply and repeat throughout the performance. The audio, an important part of the work, envelops the audience creating a visceral presence. The tail feathers she used to create the circle are left on the wall when she is finished. The title of the piece is beautifully poetic and reflects the belief that stories continue to be told by others, they never end. Just as there is no word for 'goodbye' in Cree or Nakawe, the work references the continuity of life. Creation, living, death are continuous, repeating in patterns to be picked up by the next generation as signified by the tail feathers that are left hanging for others.
Language, Robin explains, is in the process of reclaiming her, not the other way around. There are no words for 'he' or 'she' in Nakawe, as the language is not gendered. If language reveals structures of power in the Western sense, all are equally important in this worldview. Gender is not subservient, one to the other. The work of Robin Brass is a rediscovering and uncovering of her experiences and separation from her language as it reconnects her to the community. Peter Brass and Helder Mauricio Carvajal provide tangible realities of the violence that continues to be enacted on Aboriginal bodies. bell hooks states that individual experiences are important signifiers “to create engagement and critical dialogue.”6 For only then can the many complexities be acknowledged and dialogue created.