Canadian Indigenous Artists at Heard Museum (1994)

Phoenix, Arizona



 It is difficult enough -- nearly impossible -- for mainstream Caucasian artists in North America to develop a significant art style and statement in the midst of long-term artistic decline and increasingly rapid societal disintegration -- the destruction of values and ethics in life and art. But imagine what it must be like for minorities -- Canadian natives, in this case -- struggling with issues of personal and cultural identity, as well as trying to deal with the larger human and societal issues that face all of us...and then, on top of everything, trying to find the creative means to do so in the midst of worldwide artistic confusion?


 Such is the challenge of the indigenous Canadian artists represented in this exhibition, entitled "Indigena: Perspectives of Indigenous Artists," at the Heard Museum. Using all of the schools and styles of contemporary art, filtered through their own sensibilities, they seek to establish their human and artistic identities -- their human rights and those of their people -- in the face of five centuries of European domination.


 Columbus and his descendants, and what they have done -- in these artists' view -- to harm animals, the land and other peoples, again come in for some serious bashing through video, conceptual, installation, expressionist, collage-grafitti and personally poetic works.


 In addition to expressing their own outrage at particular injustices, and their quiet or outspoken call for change, these artists are voicing concerns of all thinking people opposed to the dehumanization and destruction that threaten the world.


 While some of the art may not be the most significant, the sincerity of the artists is unquestioned.


 Among stronger artists, Rick Rivet paints savage, full-length portraits of "conquistadors" of all eras, whether Columbus or Custer. Rivet's "Wounded Knee #2," acrylic, 1991, nails a rogue's gallery of oppressors from settlers, Mounties, Nazis, Communists, Ku Klux Klanners and British colonialists in pith helmets, painted in a powerful Lovis Corinth, realist-expressionist style, standing in and around a huge trench into which the piled bodies of massacred Indians will be pushed.


 Lucy Tasseor, by contrast, subtly carves series of small heads on primal, notched and curving limestone, alabaster forms. Her sculpture looks as much like natural, gently irregular, pillared stones as they do the result of an artist's labors. She also scratches snow-block segmented, igloo-like domes on their surfaces that seem to express her Inuit heritage. Tasseor creates a quiet, private poetry that speaks as much for what she is and needs from life as others' more strident demands.


 In a mixed-media triptych, "A Sacred Prayer for a Sacred Island," 1991, Jane Ash Poitras uses strong colors and expressionist, nature-oriented calligraphy overlaying elements of collage to deplore, in an art of genuine passion and creative form, the restriction of native spirituality and culture by the dominant society.


 Domingo Cisneros creates a savagely hypnotic and strangely poetic installation with the rib cage, spine and skull of a large animal, a moose, in chains, and a seeming mummified human foot sticking out of a stone, also with a chain around it. Above and to one side, hanging from five ropes, are five deer legs and hooves cut off at the knee, with a pair of shears hanging from a chain and hook -- as if to say we will all go down the tubes, man and beast, if we persist in our mindlessly destructive ways.


 In 1979, Cisneros said, "I am not nostalgic for days gone by, nor do I advocate the death of technology. But I do believe that when we deny our origins, when we separate ourselves from nature, something in us is castrated. In this sense modern life diminishes me."


 Who can argue with that?




Copyright by Don Gray


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