Take Back the Streets

Indige­nous street art is un­sanc­tioned, un­cen­sored and re­jects the colo­nial re­stric­tions of the in­sti­tu­tional art world

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Lau­rence Des­marais and Camille Larivée

Indige­nous street art re­jects the colo­nial re­stric­tions of the in­sti­tu­tional art world by Lau­rence Des­marais and Camille Larivée

Con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous art con­tin­ues to gain in­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion in Canada. We can look to solo ret­ro­spec­tives of Indige­nous artists, such as Alex Jan­vier at the Na­tional Gallery of Canada; An­nie Pootoo­gook and Duane Lin­klater both win­ning the pres­ti­gious Sobey Art Award; and the ap­point­ment of Indige­nous cu­ra­tors, arts ad­min­is­tra­tors and artists into key in­sti­tu­tional po­si­tions, such as Greg Hill at the NGC, or Wanda Nanibush at the Art Gallery of On­tario. But at the mar­gins of con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous art writ­ing and his­tori­ciza­tion, there are also al­ter­na­tive de­colo­nial sto­ries be­ing shared—through un­sanc­tioned Indige­nous graf­fiti, mu­rals, sten­cils, wheat­pastes and other street-art in­ter­ven­tions.

Indige­nous street art side­steps the West­ern in­sti­tu­tions that de­ter­mine for­mal­ized recog­ni­tion of a pro­fes­sional artist: the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, gal­leries, arts jour­nal­ism, grant­ing bod­ies. Some­times anony­mous, some­times col­lec­tively signed, grass­roots Indige­nous street art re­jects the re­stric­tions of the in­sti­tu­tional art world that can con­fine di­a­logue and ex­pres­sion to colo­nially des­ig­nated spa­ces. With street in­ter­ven­tions, there is no mu­seum guide, me­dia, ad­min­is­tra­tion or teacher to struc­ture the viewer’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the art­work. Indige­nous street art fa­cil­i­tates a di­rect, un­cen­sored prop­a­ga­tion of an­ti­colo­nial dis­course to a wide pub­lic view­er­ship.

Be­cause of a re­sis­tance to in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers and re­stric­tions, street art cre­ates space for the ex­pres­sion of marginal­ized voices. In a video for the Unceded Voices street-art project, the artist be­hind the moniker Red Ban­dit speaks of street art as empowering for Indige­nous women and women of colour: “My fa­ther was a Six­ties Scoop kid from the West Coast. Like my fa­ther, I grew up in the city with­out a Na­tive par­ent to look up to. With­out any kind of thread to lead me home. I’m a mixed baby. I be­long nowhere. I am no­body, re­ally. I am un­wanted ev­ery­where I go. I am a Na­tive child in a world that seeks to erase me, but I will be heard.” For ur­ban Indige­nous youth, tak­ing to the streets is an ex­pres­sion of lib­er­a­tion that al­lows them to by­pass the strug­gle of in­te­grat­ing into the colo­nial art es­tab­lish­ment.

By fore­ground­ing voices that are typ­i­cally marginal­ized within the arts, street art in­ter­venes in colo­nial space with al­ter­na­tive his­to­ries. Secwepemc cu­ra­tor Ta­nia Wil­lard ex­plored the use of street art to mark Indige­nous pres­ence in pub­lic space in the tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion “Beat Na­tion” (2008 –14). In one of her cu­ra­to­rial state­ments, Wil­lard wrote, “Brand­ing the cityscape with spray-bombed Indige­nous cul­ture res­onates with the idea of ter­ri­tory and re­claim­ing space in a city whose Indige­nous roots are of­ten hid­den or dis­guised in a prov­ince of unceded Indige­nous ter­ri­to­ries.” “Beat Na­tion” was such a suc­cess within gallery walls be­cause it came from the streets: along the city’s al­leys or high­way un­der­passes, where you can stum­ble upon Haida form­line mu­rals and graf­fiti by Haida artist Corey Bul­pitt (Akos One) and Ojib­way artist Larissa Healey (Gurl Twenty Three).

An­ti­colo­nial street art re­minds us that cities are also Indige­nous ter­ri­to­ries, and that Indi­gene­ity can­not be con­fined to stereo­typ­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tions with nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments, thereby dis­rupt­ing the na­ture-cul­ture di­vide. As Tagé Cho Hudän artist Lianne Char­lie wrote in the Unceded Voices zine: “Our con­tri­bu­tions to the wall, to­gether, at­tempt to counter the era­sure of Na­tive peo­ple, places, and life­ways from parts of our homelands that are cur­rently ur­ban cen­tres.” Gwich’ya Gwich’in artist Nigit’stil Nor­bert’s Un­der­ground Re­sis­tance (2013), a se­ries of wheat­pastes, marks ur­ban spa­ces with flower de­signs based on her grand­mother’s art­works. Nor­bert ap­plies her wheat­pastes in ur­ban lo­cales where nat­u­ral el­e­ments—signs, she says, of “re­silience in the ce­ment ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment”—can also be found. The in­tri­cate flo­ral pat­terns stem­ming from Athabas­can tra­di­tion are a form of re­sis­tance to daily con­fronta­tions with ur­ban colo­nial sys­tems. They em­body the pos­si­bil­i­ties of re­sis­tance in­her­ent in Indige­nous sto­ry­telling.

Indige­nous graf­fiti and mu­rals func­tion as a visual and pub­lic re­in­force­ment of re­silience in the face of set­tler colo­nial­ism. In Gar­den River First Na­tion, near Sault Ste. Marie, a train bridge is em­bla­zoned with the anony­mously painted words “This Is In­dian Land”—an act of re-in­scrib­ing Indige­nous vis­i­bil­ity onto a col­o­nized land­scape. Af­ter This Is In­dian Land be­came widely known, it in­spired sim­i­lar di­rect ac­tion onto col­o­nized land­scapes, such as Mon­treal’s No Olympics on Stolen Na­tive Land mu­ral by Zig Zag. No Olympics on Stolen Na­tive Land is a strong de­nun­ci­a­tion of the so­cial cleans­ing of street-in­volved com­mu­ni­ties by the city of Van­cou­ver in prepa­ra­tion for the 2010 Olympics, and the games’ per­pet­u­a­tion of re­source ex­trac­tion in the sur­round­ing ter­ri­to­ries. Anishi­naabe artists Su­san Blight and Hay­den King have been like­wise restor­ing an Indige­nous pres­ence to Toronto streets by re­plac­ing colo­nial street names with signs fea­tur­ing Anishi­naabe­mowin names. For this on­go­ing street in­ter­ven­tion project, the artists re­move the city’s sign­posts and furtively af­fix sim­i­lar-look­ing signs that bear Anishi­naabe place names and sto­ries. In the first ac­tion of the se­ries, in 2013, Queen Street was re­named Ogi­maa Mikana—ogi­maa trans­lat­ing to leader and Mikana to path. The use of Anishi­naabe­mowin to mark pub­lic space changes the con­text in which ur­ban place names are un­der­stood, and thereby opens up the pos­si­bil­ity for a de­colo­nial un­der­stand­ing of place.

De­colo­nial street-art prac­tices are a form of grass­roots em­pow­er­ment. Be­cause street art op­er­ates out­side of dom­i­nant art spa­ces, it de­fies the ne­ces­sity of in­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion. Street art is an un­medi­ated sto­ry­telling medium for marginal­ized voices to take con­trol of their in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive self­hoods. It en­ables a thriv­ing con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous ur­ban cul­ture that is ac­ces­si­ble to all. ■

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