Exhibit showcases current Aboriginal art
// Claire Vulliamy

An institution like the Vancouver Art Gallery has an implied obligation to honour the cultural history of the land on which it exists, and equal obligation to be true to the current culture of the city that it represents.

In some ways, it has done so. In the last decade, on unceded Coast Salish territories, the VAG has shown the works of Osoyoos First Nations youth, who created drawings while in Inkameep Day School on the reserve, in the '30s and '40s. They have shown Haida art created within the last two centuries, including the work of Bill Reid, also featured in a 2006 exhibit that celebrated 75 years of collecting Aboriginal art. Local artist Rebecca Belmore has had a solo exhibition at the VAG, as well as Brian Jungen, the first living Aboriginal artist to have his work shown as the Smithsonian National Museam of the American Indian.

Now, Jungen’s masks made of Nike shoes are also part of the VAG’s new exhibit, called Beat Nation. Beat Nation, which opened on Feb. 25, is the VAG’s most recent exhibition of Aboriginal art. However, with its wide range of young Aboriginal artists who are all currently active within their field, incorporating hip hop, and a strong youth culture, the Vancouver Art Gallery has brought in an exhibit that seems to look forward at the future of Native art, rather than the past.

Beat Nation features multiple types of artwork: sculpture, photographs, paintings, video installations, and music. While emphasizing West Coast artists, the show also incorporates artists from across the nation. In total, 27 different artists are showcased in the exhibit.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the VAG began collecting Aboriginal art on a regular basis. Instead of focusing on the anthropological aspects of collecting, and giving the works a museum treatment, the VAG has focused more on collecting contemporary works, paving the way for this exhibit.

Beat Nation itself has been in the works for some time. The Beat Nation show really began in 2008, when the Grunt Gallery developed an initiative to create a website that showcased the merging of hip hop with First Nations cultures.

The curators of the website were Tania Willard, now a co-curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit, and Skeena Reece, who now appears on promotional material for the VAG exhibit, in traditional regalia that she had created called Raven: On the Colonial Fleet, which combines traditional elements of different First Nations groups with a corset printed with Northwest coast designs, and a button blanket with a grenade sequined on the back. The piece, which is used as part of Reece’s performance art, is on display at the exhibit.

Reece also spoke at the opening of the event: “Are you guys all having a good night?” she asked, upon coming out at the FUSE opening. The crowd cheered. “You guys all own your own land,” she replied. Reece explained to the lukewarm audience, “I don’t want to be memorable,” following it up with, “I might go missing.”

The talk, billed as comedy, took on a more serious tone. Reece said that she was happy this exhibit could happen, and that there was a place for it. She explained that she does not have a lot of energy beyond that of just survival, and made a plea for those who actually do have the energy to defend the creative spaces in Vancouver so that meeting grounds like Beat Nation may continue to happen.

The variety of work in Beat Nation is staggering; however, one of the most hard-hitting pieces in the exhibit are the video installations by artists Bear Witness, and Jackson 2Bears.

2Bears, based in Victoria, BC, “uses the form of the remix as a tool for cultural critique” by taking images and videos of Aboriginal representation in the media and weaving the audio and visuals together. In his work Heritage Mythologies, 2012, he combines parts from news reports, commercials, still images, and movies, to “explore popular mis-representations of First Nations culture.” All of this is seen with a red overlay, which pulls back to reveal that the viewer is looking through a transparent Canadian flag.

Bear Witness is a member of a Tribe Called Red who combine dubstep and Pow Wow music to create Pow Wow Step, and who performed at the FUSE opening as well. His work is shown in the same theatre as 2Bears’, and primarily uses clips from movies spanning old westerns to recent releases. A line from Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), “Do we discover the new world, or does the new world discover us?” is repeated over and over. Also used is a scene from Inglorious Basterds where Lt. Aldo Raine is talking about scalping Nazis. Contrary to popular belief, scalping was an act committed often against the Native peoples of America by the colonial settlers.

Reece recently told the Globe and Mail that she wasn’t aware that the exhibit was so large, but that she hopes it signifies the start of something.

“I didn’t even realize we were taking over an entire floor – whoa,” Reece said. “I almost feel like somebody missed a memo. Was there a mistake made? How did native people take over a floor? And then I was thinking, as a native person not feeling very represented at the gallery, are they just putting all the native artists on one floor to get it over with? Or is this genuinely the beginning of more recognition?”

Beat Nation will be at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jun. 3, 2012

//Claire Vulliamy, arts editor
//Graphics by Katie So

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