Re­mem­ber­ing “Na­tive Love,” an ex­hi­bi­tion that con­fronted the war­rior rhetoric sur­round­ing the Oka Cri­sis through con­cepts of love, sen­su­al­ity and care

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Lind­say Nixon

Re­mem­ber­ing Na­tion to Na­tion and “Na­tive Love” by Lind­say Nixon

When I met with Ryan Rice and Skawen­nati to talk about Na­tion to Na­tion, an In­dige­nous art col­lec­tive they formed with Eric Robert­son in 1994, it felt fit­ting that we gath­ered to­gether at Skawen­nati’s house not far from the Mon­treal build­ing (now the Nord­elec Con­dos, in Pointe-sainte-charles) where Na­tion to Na­tion held the first in­stal­la­tion of their land­mark “Na­tive Love” ex­hi­bi­tion in 1995. Skawen­nati and Rice shared an apart­ment nearby on Mcgill Street in the mid-1990s, but this was be­fore “any­one even knew where Old Mon­treal was,” Skawen­nati told me, Old Mon­treal be­fore it be­came all up­scale eater­ies, con­dos and bou­tiques. “Na­tive Love” came only a few years af­ter the 350th an­niver­sary of Mon­treal in 1992. This mile­stone in Que­bec’s colo­nial his­tory not only marked a mo­ment of rapid eco­nomic growth for the city, but also a pe­riod of over­whelm­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. The big ques­tion on the minds of the gen­er­a­tion of artists and cul­tural thinkers who were be­ing pushed out of their bo­hemian Mon­treal artist ghet­tos was, as Rice re­called: “What’s next?”

Ahasiw Maskegon-iskwew pre­dicted the im­por­tance of Na­tion to Na­tion in a 1996 piece on “Na­tive Love” for FUSE, call­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion “the child of a new gen­er­a­tion.” There was a di­vide at the time be­tween older gen­er­a­tions of In­dige­nous artists, de­fined by the So­ci­ety of Cana­dian Artists of Na­tive Ancestry (SCANA), and younger gen­er­a­tions who sought to carve out a space for them­selves within In­dige­nous art. Skawen­nati and Rice re­mem­bered pil­ing into Rice’s car—with­out a map—sure that they would even­tu­ally make it to Halifax where SCANA was hold­ing their last con­fer­ence in 1993. They did make it, only to have their com­mu­nity-based art ac­tions be­lit­tled and called “stu­dent art” by SCANA artists.

The rem­nants of SCANA’S crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture were fore­warn­ings to Na­tion to Na­tion. The col­lec­tive re­jected the in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion and in­su­lar in­fra­struc­ture of SCANA, which they saw as ul­ti­mately lead­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s down­fall. “I wasn’t part of any par­tic­u­lar artist com­mu­nity and felt very out of touch,” said Rice in a talk writ­ten for “Na­tive Love.” “We de­cided that we shouldn’t and can’t wait for op­por­tu­nity to be knock­ing at our doors, be­cause in the real world it was just not hap­pen­ing.” This was a gen­er­a­tion of In­dige­nous artists ready to “force their way in,” as Skawen­nati put it.

Na­tion to Na­tion saw them­selves as com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers who fa­cil­i­tated col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween In­dige­nous artists, and ac­ti­vated their com­mu­ni­ties through art. The col­lec­tive be­gan or­ga­niz­ing art ac­tions at a time when In­dige­nous art was just be­gin­ning to find its way into the white cubes of con­tem­po­rary-art gal­leries.

Na­tion to Na­tion didn’t want to limit them­selves to tra­di­tional or con­tem­po­rary meth­ods, pre­fer­ring in­stead to sub­vert that bi­nary by in­te­grat­ing themes like love and sex with tra­di­tional prac­tices, and in­clud­ing new me­dia and per­for­mance through­out their ac­ti­va­tions.

“Na­tive Love” came only a few years af­ter the Oka Cri­sis, at a time when gal­lerists only wanted art­works about “ma­chine gun, ra­zor wire,” said Rice, and stereo­types about the Mo­hawk and Hau­denosaunee peo­ples were per­va­sive. De­spite the an­tag­o­nis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of In­dige­nous peo­ples that pro­lif­er­ated in the early 1990s, love was in the air. New gen­er­a­tions of In­dige­nous artists and cul­tural thinkers didn’t want to be at war any­more—they wanted to make love. As Au­dra Simp­son wrote in the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing es­say, “Mak­ing Na­tive Love”:

If we were to trust pop­u­lar and schol­arly rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Na­tive Peo­ple we would have to con­clude that they, un­like any other peo­ples in the world, are with­out love. Na­tive peo­ple are rep­re­sented in mech­a­nis­tic and ul­ti­mately love­less terms: as hunter-gath­er­ers and hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists of yes­ter­day and cul­tural re­vival­ists of to­day. They are writ­ten in pop­u­lar press as ac­tivists (trou­ble­mak­ers), as artists-with-a-mis­sion, as cig­a­rette smug­glers. In new age jour­nals as nat­u­rally in tune with the earth, in movies of the seven­ties as shape-chang­ers. They are In­dian Princesses, sav­age squaws, brave hearted men and guerilla war­riors. Rarely how­ever, are they in love (the tragedy of Poc­a­hon­tas aside), rarely are they con­tem­plat­ing love, act­ing out of love or sim­ply be­ing, as they are—their Na­tive selves in love or out of love, in the funk out of the funk. How can this be?

Simp­son’s writ­ing reads more like a man­i­festo of love than a cat­a­logue text, and is writ­ten with the same sense of ur­gency and grass­roots In­dige­nous fem­i­nist move­ment build­ing that res­onated through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion’s DIY foun­da­tions. Artists and writ­ers col­lab­o­rated on art­works in the ex­hi­bi­tion, and many par­tic­i­pants ended up work­ing with fam­ily

mem­bers—rice and Skawen­nati, for ex­am­ple, each pair­ing with their broth­ers. The loft used for the in­au­gu­ral show in Mon­treal had wall-to-wall win­dows and no walls—to dis­play the art, or­ga­niz­ers im­pro­vised with book­shelves that had been left in the space. At sun­down, they re­al­ized there were no lights and rushed out to buy a dozen desk lamps from Cana­dian Tire, which would promptly be taken back the next day.

From this mod­est in­au­gu­ral event in Mon­treal, “Na­tive Love” be­came a se­ries of shows in artist-run cen­tres and gal­leries across the coun­try. As the ex­hi­bi­tion moved, lo­cal artists would join the quickly ex­pand­ing ros­ter, which by its end in­cluded Ge­orge Lit­tlechild, Mary Longman, Paul Chaat Smith, Thirza Cut­hand, Ruth Cut­hand, Bradlee Larocque, Lori Blon­deau, Shel­ley Niro, Daniel David Moses and Ch­eryl L’hi­ron­delle.

Mary Anne Bark­house, Florene Bel­more and Michael Bel­more’s in­stal­la­tion Lick, Kill, Frolic (1995) play­fully en­gaged themes from the BDSM com­mu­nity by po­si­tion­ing a set of mir­rors op­po­site a line-up of dog col­lars: when the view­ers looked into the mir­rors they be­came the sub in a puppy-play kink dy­namic. In In­di­ans Af­ter Sex (1995), Rose Spa­han and Jean­nette Arm­strong con­test the dis­ap­pear­ing imag­i­nary of the North Amer­i­can In­dian at the level of Na­tive sex­u­al­ity. Two North­west Coastal– style masks lie in bed to­gether, as one smokes a post-coital cig­a­rette. These masks are far from the inan­i­mate and ster­ile rep­re­sen­ta­tions of In­dige­nous ma­te­ri­al­i­ties found in mu­se­ums—they are sex­ual and agen­tial be­ings.

Ar­guably the stand­out art­work from the show was COSMOSQUAW (1996) by Blon­deau and Larocque. Larocque, who pho­tographed Blon­deau, is well known for the iconic photo taken of him at the Oka Cri­sis as the cam­ou­flage-clad war­rior who went face to face with a Cana­dian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer. With its tongue-in-cheek por­trayal of Blon­deau’s hy­per­sex­u­al­ized body, and cor­re­late stereo­types of Na­tive wom­an­hood, COSMOSQUAW grap­ples with com­plex is­sues of gen­der, sex­u­al­ity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion as played out on Na­tive women’s bod­ies.

As In­dige­nous love and kin­ship be­come trend­ing the­o­ries that aca­demics and writ­ers in­creas­ingly squab­ble over to mo­nop­o­lize, Na­tion to Na­tion beck­ons to us from the past as a cap­sule of this love imag­i­nary. “Na­tive Love” is an early ar­tic­u­la­tion of In­dige­nous resur­gence en­acted through sex, love and care.

Truly be­fore their time, Na­tion to Na­tion are hardly cred­ited within the dom­i­nant can­on­iza­tion of In­dige­nous art, and within In­dige­nous the­o­riza­tions around love. In­dige­nous the­o­rists have lost sight of the con­nec­tions be­tween ma­te­rial life and In­dige­nous thought, which re­mains mas­culin­ized and vig­i­lantly fo­cused on is­sues of pol­i­tics and gov­er­nance. With “Na­tive Love,” Na­tion to Na­tion re­minds us that love is much more than the­ory—it’s a life­way, an­i­mated through our en­gage­ments and re­la­tion­ships with one an­other. Af­ter sev­eral decades of hear­ing this call, it’s time we take heed and make Na­tive love, not war. ■


In­stal­la­tion view of Ge­orge Lit­tlechild and Aaron Rice’s Since You’ve Gone Away (1995) in “Na­tive Love” or­ga­nized by Na­tion to Na­tion in Mon­treal, 1995

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