JOI T. ARCAND
WALTER PHILLIPS GALLERY, BANFF
The first time I saw one of Joi T. Arcand’s illuminated signs in Cree syllabics was at Wood Land School’s second gesture for “Drawing a Line from January to December.” It bathed Elisa Harkins in pink light as she performed electronic rave music about a peyote ceremony, and shone on Tsema Igharas as she handled rebel-rock rattles made of clay and sewn hide. The hot-pink electric glow of the neon encompassed Marianne Nicolson’s The Sun is Setting on the British Empire (2016)— positioned over Brian Jungen’s drawings of gay subculture inspired by Grindr profiles, so that the fall of the British Empire is brought about by gay sex—creating an ambience for the Indigenous feminist performance and curation throughout.
After the gesture, Indigenous women and non-binary folks lined up to take photos in front of Arcand’s work. When I asked Arcand if she had created it for such an audience, she said, “The content and underlying meaning of the words may get lost when folks are using it as a prop. In that context, it could say anything. But what it does say is very deliberate and intentional.” While each installation in the series takes on a different meaning depending on where it intervenes, Arcand’s intention with her series is also to illuminate an ongoing and internal dialogue that centres on her personal relationship with the Plains Cree language.
Arcand’s Banff installation, which spells out a phrase given to her by Cree teacher Dolores Sand, will be the third in a series, and there is a fourth underway. The artist resists translating her syllabic installations into English—an adamant assertion of Indigenous presence. While the colour of Arcand’s Banff installation matches the snowy tops of the national park’s mountains, thereby creating an association with the known touristic and commercialized landscape of Banff, this is a familiarity disrupted.
Advertising aesthetics become a medium to intervene on colonized space and unsettle presumed ownership over the territories Banff now resides on. For a fleeting moment, the settler viewer who can’t read syllabics and doesn’t know the Plains Cree language is Other. They are forced to uncomfortably consider their relationship to the land they stand on, and what their presence has cost Arcand and the Plains Cree people: their words. —LINDSAY NIXON