We Lost an En­tire Gen­er­a­tion

Indige­nous peo­ples re­main ghet­toized within, and largely ab­sent from, what we con­sider to be AIDS art. Here, we high­light four artists lost to the dis­ease

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Lind­say Nixon

Indige­nous peo­ples re­main ghet­toized within, or ab­sent from, what we term AIDS art by Lind­say Nixon

Is­sues of white supremacy as they per­vade queer and trans com­mu­ni­ties were brought to na­tional at­ten­tion dur­ing the 2016 and 2017 Toronto Pride pa­rades when Black Lives Mat­ter – Toronto in­ter­vened to de­mand an end to the cor­po­rate in­te­gra­tion of uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cers into Pride fes­tiv­i­ties. In do­ing so, BLM – TO firmly re­minded us that be­fore Pride be­came a pa­rade, it was a riot: Stonewall protestors were queer and trans Black, Indige­nous and peo­ple of colour, and they were led by trans women of colour who armed them­selves with bricks and rocks against an in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent po­lice force.

Is­sues of in­clu­siv­ity within queer and trans com­mu­ni­ties aren’t lim­ited to Pride fes­tiv­i­ties. Ul­ti­mately, they per­me­ate the arts as well—such as through AIDS art. The necrop­ol­i­tics of AIDS art flared up in 2015 when the ex­hi­bi­tion “Art AIDS Amer­ica” opened at the Ta­coma Art Mu­seum with rel­a­tively few Black artists in the show, even though the Black com­mu­nity ex­pe­ri­ences some of the high­est HIV rates in the US. Die-ins at TAM were or­ga­nized in re­sponse.

Within the bor­ders of Canada, Indige­nous peo­ples are cur­rently fac­ing an AIDS cri­sis, and rep­re­sent the high­est statis­tics per capita of Hiv-pos­i­tive in­di­vid­u­als and those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing low CD4 lev­els as­so­ci­ated with AIDS. Yet Indige­nous peo­ples re­main ghet­toized within, and largely ab­sent from, what we con­sider to be AIDS art. The dec­i­ma­tion of our com­mu­ni­ties ex­pe­ri­enced at the height of the AIDS cri­sis is a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to Indige­nous era­sure in AIDS art. Jo­lene Rickard once tear­fully told me, “When you lived in New York [in the 1980s and 1990s], you just lost so many friends.” A par­tic­i­pant in Archer Pechawis’s Bi­gred­dice cor­rob­o­rates, giv­ing a greater sense of the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact: “Not many peo­ple re­al­ize that we lost an en­tire gen­er­a­tion.”

Queer Indige­nous artists who have re­sponded to love, sex, death and AIDS con­tinue in the oral his­to­ries of con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous art com­mu­ni­ties. This sam­pling of Indige­nous AIDS art can­not cap­ture the enor­mity of its scope: all the AIDS quilts made in Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across Tur­tle Is­land; the tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion “Na­tive Sur­vival: Re­sponse to HIV/AIDS,” cu­rated by Joanna Os­bourne Bigfeather, which first ap­peared at Gallery of the Amer­i­can In­dian Com­mu­nity House in New York and fea­tured work from Ryan Rice, Skawen­nati and Nadema Agard—the doc­u­men­ta­tion for which was de­stroyed in a fire; or the Hiv-pre­ven­tion bas­ket Doris Peltier gifted me that was part of a se­ries wo­ven by rel­a­tives in what is now known as colo­nial New Zealand.

What I hope this se­lec­tion of works can of­fer, at least, is a win­dow into the beauty, grit and truth th­ese Indige­nous artists, and so many oth­ers, of­fer to AIDS art.

René High­way, New Song… New Dance, 1982/88

June Scud­eler has done ex­ten­sive work his­tori­ciz­ing the work of Tom­son High­way’s long over­shad­owed brother, René High­way. New Song… New Dance, chore­ographed by René High­way in 1982, was per­formed in 1988 with Ale­jan­dro Ron­ce­ria and Raoul Tru­jillo. It was or­ga­nized into three acts. In the first act, An­dante, the dancers grow from be­ing young boys in res­i­den­tial school ex­pe­ri­enc­ing un­speak­able abuse—al­ways in­ter­min­gled with mo­ments of boy­ish won­der and gay cu­rios­ity—to be­ing men in the city, where they strug­gle to find a space for them­selves and nav­i­gate the temptations of city life, like the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of anony­mous sex in pub­lic wash­rooms.

René High­way’s cu­ra­to­rial notes for An­dante con­tain words like, “hang­ing ad­dic­tion/de­sire”; “shit/wash­room sex”; “bondage”; “slapped down”; and “sham­ing.” High­way was con­cep­tu­ally mak­ing a con­nec­tion be­tween BDSM sex—the erotic fas­ci­na­tion found in acts of bondage, sham­ing and anony­mous sex—and com­pli­cated his­to­ries of sex­ual abuse as­so­ci­ated with res­i­den­tial school. In do­ing so, he was cre­at­ing a space to work through his­to­ries of trauma in a safe and con­sen­sual en­vi­ron­ment. In one scene, the chore­og­ra­phers vi­su­al­ize the ten­sion of strug­gling to fit their Indige­nous bod­ies into white cus­toms by get­ting tied up and choked by

New Song... New Dance was con­cep­tu­ally con­nect­ing BDSM sex to abuse as­so­ci­ated with res­i­den­tial school, cre­at­ing a space to work through his­to­ries of trauma in a safe, con­sen­sual en­vi­ron­ment.

their neck­ties—what High­way called “neck­tie abuse.” In an­other, the dancers re­peat a squat­ting mo­tion when the men en­gage in pub­lic sex, which re­lates back to the same squat­ting mo­tion the dancers evoke when be­ing rubbed in shit at res­i­den­tial school. New Song… New Dance was a de­fi­ant form of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma play and agen­tial sex­u­al­ity at a time when stigma and fear reigned.

An­dante’s open­ing scene has naked dancers basked in white light, and this is de­scribed in High­way’s cu­ra­to­rial notes as, “the ques­tion of life and death and why...i reach up for the death fig­ure...we mir­ror each other...i ac­cept fate and con­tinue.” As Scud­eler thought­fully notes, “It’s hard not to think of his Hiv-pos­i­tive/aids sta­tus as he sym­bol­i­cally goes into the light, since ef­fec­tive an­tiretro­vi­ral drugs were not avail­able un­til 1996, six years af­ter his death.”

Ahasiw Maskegon-iskwew, archived works, late 1980s to early 1990s

Cree-french-métis art the­o­rist, cu­ra­tor, writer, new-me­dia prac­ti­tioner and per­for­mance artist Ahasiw Maskegon-iskwew left this world in 2006. He was a sem­i­nal fig­ure within con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian Indige­nous art’s shift to­ward dig­i­tal and me­dia art, and the Indige­nous Net art and net­worked art move­ments of the 1990s. Though Maskegon-iskwew is well known for his writ­ing and Net art, there is a ro­bust archive of his ear­lier in­stal­la­tion and pho­tog­ra­phy works com­pleted from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, main­tained by Van­cou­ver’s Grunt Gallery.

In Body Wrap, for in­stance, Maskegon-iskwew would wrap him­self with white, cloth-like ma­te­rial, and pho­to­graph his body hang­ing in var­i­ous po­si­tions in a ware­house in East Van­cou­ver. In do­ing so, Maskego­niskwew com­pares his body to a corpse, at times even po­si­tion­ing his body on a wall as if it were art, with a some­what hu­mor­ous ef­fect.

The hu­mour is in the irony, of course. It’s a full-cir­cle ex­pe­ri­ence: Maskegon-iskwew at­tempted to cre­ate work that re­an­i­mated the queer Indige­nous body dur­ing his life, but what re­mains of him in this world are com­mod­i­fied rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the dy­ing In­dian propped up on gallery walls.

In an­other se­ries, Maskegon-iskwew pho­to­graphs him­self naked in a bath­tub that is only half-filled with water. He is wrapped in a plas­tic bag and gasps for air. Red twine binds him. Plas­tic wrap also ap­pears in an­other photo se­ries taken of var­i­ous land­marks on Hast­ings Street in the Down­town East­side—a ground zero for the AIDS cri­sis in Van­cou­ver dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s. One par­tic­u­lar photo was taken in front of the Roo­sevelt Ho­tel, and shows a fig­ure whose head is wrapped in plas­tic walk­ing down the side­walk. Van­cou­ver is the back­drop to an in­vis­i­ble but omi­nous cloud that suf­fo­cates and en­tan­gles Maskegon-iskwew—he needs con­dom-like pro­tec­tion from it.

Archer Pechawis, Bi­gred­dice, 2005

Bi­gred­dice, and Archer Pechawis’s prac­tice as a whole, is an archive of the si­mul­ta­ne­ous shift in Indige­nous art to­ward dig­i­tal medi­ums and themes of love, sex, gen­der and in­ti­macy. This shift be­came pro­nounced dur­ing the late 1990s, but was al­ready un­der­way in the early 1990s with work by artists such as Ahasiw Maskegon-iskwew, Pechawis and Sheila Ur­banoski’s Net art project isi-pikîskwewin ayapihkêsîsak.

Bi­gred­dice is an in­ter­ac­tive web­site and, much like Pechawis’s work it­self, is an archive of sorts: an HIV/AIDS archive that trans­ports the viewer through a col­lec­tion of con­sid­er­a­tions, fears, de­sires and provo­ca­tions about HIV/AIDS that are recorded in video re­sponses. The vis­i­tor re­peats the mo­tion of “rolling the dice” by click­ing on an im­age that plays a video loop of dice be­ing rolled, and then nav­i­gates a col­lage of video clips that are pop­u­lated de­pend­ing on what num­ber the vis­i­tor “rolled.”

Bi­gred­dice uses the In­ter­net as a space for con­nec­tion and peer ed­u­ca­tion around HIV/AIDS—A web of con­nec­tion re­mark­ably close to the con­cept of ex­tended kin­ship. This web be­comes a cat­a­lyst for in­ti­macy, knowl­edge shar­ing and com­mu­nity re­sponse to HIV/AIDS. But this isn’t your mama’s HIV ed­u­ca­tion video. Pechawis makes a point of col­lect­ing re­sponses that are heady and com­plex, and grap­ple with provoca­tive is­sues such as HIV cul­pa­bil­ity, per­va­sive stigma­ti­za­tion around sex re­sult­ing from the AIDS cri­sis and the pub­lic’s mis­per­cep­tions about AIDS. One of the video par­tic­i­pants even baits the judg­men­tal viewer and plays on their bi­ases, say­ing, “You know ob­vi­ously I’m a ditch pig you can see se­men ooz­ing out of my ass. I’m get­ting loads af­ter loads of cum. C’mon. Put two and two to­gether fig­ure it out. Where do you think I’m at?”

With Bi­gred­dice, Pechawis fa­cil­i­tates a di­a­logue be­tween peo­ple of var­ied re­lat­ed­ness to HIV/AIDS, mir­ror­ing the on­line di­a­logue around HIV/AIDS that be­came ac­ces­si­ble with newly avail­able web tech­nolo­gies.

Terry Haines, The Abo­rig­i­nal Video Quilt, 2005

Secwepemc-welsh-tsil­hqot’n-french artist Terry Haines’s work is con­sid­ered sem­i­nal in the realm of Indige­nous AIDS art, and Haines’s part­ner, Aaron Rice, now holds the archive. Haines homed in on is­sues of HIV/AIDS through­out his mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary prac­tice, and he had built a rich ca­reer that was poised to ex­plode. Haines picked up the new-me­dia prac­tices of the gen­er­a­tion of Indige­nous artists be­fore him who de­fi­antly split from the Indige­nous art com­mu­nity that pre­ceded them, cre­at­ing a strin­gent gen­er­a­tional di­vide be­tween those who moved into dig­i­tal medi­ums and those who did not.

The Abo­rig­i­nal Video Quilt is a mixed-me­dia in­stal­la­tion com­pleted by Haines for an artist’s res­i­dency at VIVO Me­dia Arts Cen­tre (then Video In) in Van­cou­ver. The con­cept for The Abo­rig­i­nal Video Quilt de­rives from the AIDS Memo­rial Quilt project, in­tended to memo­ri­al­ize, square by square, the in­di­vid­u­als lost dur­ing the height of the AIDS cri­sis, and those whose lives have been af­fected by their Hiv-pos­i­tive sta­tus. Haines’s in­stal­la­tion was meant to be a dig­i­tal ver­sion of an AIDS quilt, and con­sisted of five mon­i­tors as well as mixed-me­dia panels made of fab­ric, beads, Scrab­ble tiles, rib­bons and fun fur, mak­ing for a hu­mor­ous in­ter­min­gling of cer­e­mo­nial, trade and aes­thetic ma­te­ri­als—an ur­ban Indige­nous raver vibe, if you will. Haines com­pleted his last work, Coy­ote X, in 2013, weeks be­fore his death. Coy­ote X finds Haines on a Van­cou­ver beach spray-paint­ing rocks col­lected from the shore with red pos­i­tive signs: a homage to the city that de­fined his ex­pe­ri­ence of con­tract­ing and liv­ing with HIV, nearly 30 years af­ter Maskegon-iskwew sim­i­larly marked East Hast­ings. In mak­ing The Abo­rig­i­nal Video Quilt and Coy­ote X, Haines cre­ated his own dig­i­tal squares for the AIDS quilt, which is now pieced to­gether by his lover Aaron Rice, just as the squares of tex­tile-based AIDS quilts were sewn into place by the kin who mourn those we have lost. ■

Ahasiw Maskegon-iskwew Un­ti­tled ca. 1990s COUR­TESY GRUNT GALLERY

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.