Contemporary Native Art Biennial
La Guilde / Stewart Hall Gallery
The fourth edition of the Contemporary Native Art Biennial, co-curated by Niki Little and Becca Taylor, has an enveloping theme: níchiwamiskwém / nimidet / ma soeur / my sister. Taking sisterhood as an expansive feminist space of gathering, collaboration, connection and knowledge-sharing, Little and Taylor suggest this biennial is a place “with and for our sisters” and of “belonging to one and for another.” The biennial convenes 40 Indigenous artists who identify as female, non-binary or two-spirit at four venues in and around Montreal, QC—including Stewart Hall Gallery, La Guilde, Art Mûr and the Sherbrooke Museum of Fine Arts— to grapple with topics ranging from traditional stories and imagery to searing contemporary commentary. As a result, the selected works by both established ar tists and emerging voices position sisterhood as a shared responsibility.
At La Guilde many of the works are installed in close proximity in the central hall of the gallery, making the escape to their vast inner worlds a much-needed relief. Opening to spaces far beyond the physical confines of the gallery, the emotional spheres within these works extend from and collapse into one another, creating complex intersections where viewers are challenged to look at and inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously.
Particularly striking is the arrangement of Caroline Monnet’s reimagined European group portrait Renaissance (2018) next to Napachie Pootoogook’s (1938–2002) figurative lithograph of three women with a nursing child Myth of the Tuniit (2000). Drawing from oral histories and intergenerational knowledge, Pootoogook’s lithograph presents the shared domestic space of Tuniit women, the ancient people who inhabited the Arctic before the modern Inuit. Stones line the perimeter of their shared home, while the black and white chine-collé produces a background to the sleeping women, charged with intricate textures and objects. In Monnet’s image, First Nation and Métis women in Renaissance-style clothing pose in shared strength. Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin,
OC, GOQ, actress Dominique Pétin and Monnet herself, among others, occupy the photographic space both conceptually and physically. In kinship, their gaze is set directly upon the camera and us, the viewer. Nearby, Mayoreak Ashoona, RCA’s lithograph Cleaning Fish (1981), depicts
a quotidian moment of women working, coloured in yellows and soft browns, bridging physical space as well as content. Taken as whole, these three works support each other by transforming a historical chasm (intergenerational resurgence, ancient domestic routines and traditional Inuit life) into a shared narrative of collaboration.
A second of Ashoona’s prints, Raven’s Domain (1995), featuring an abstract image of ravens—perhaps the final stage of a shamanic transformation—is on view nearby at Stewart Hall Gallery. Although this work does not neighbour Sorosilutu Ashoona’s Her Crowning Glory (1993), a shared story continues across these enchanting works that can be read as a separated diptych. Her Crowning Glory illustrates the initial moment of a shamanic transformation—a woman moves through the wind, a large comb in her hand with billowing, wing-like hair about to take flight—appearing as a prologue to Raven’s Domain. The shared emphasis on spirituality, stonecut printing and the ethereal blue-green gradients further their formal as well as thematic connections. The works take strength from their intersections, each from a different time and place but bound by their shared accounts, histories and conceptions of communal feminine being: sisterhood.
The emotional spheres within these works extend from and collapse into one another, creating complex intersections where viewers are challenged to look at and inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously.
Despite a strong overarching curatorial framework, there are some pairings that are less successful than those outlined above. In one instance at La Guilde, Ningiukulu Teevee’s Mythical Kudlik (2017) is placed within the enclosed site of Community Tattoo Action (2018), an installation for the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project that was used by founder Hovak Johnston at the opening preview to give Inuit visitors traditional kakiniit (tattoos) and tunniit (facial tattoos). The canvas tent functions as a support structure for both the biennialspecific event and the larger project it represents. When not in use by Johnston, visitors are invited to fetch the illustrated book on the revitalization project and sit on the secluded bench within to read it. Teevee’s stonecut, featuring two arms adorned in kakiniit cradling a kudlik (oil lamp), functions as a visual and symbolic link to the ancestral ties at the core of Johnston’s project. When absent of the activity it was constructed to frame (Johnston tattooing in situ), however, the resulting “site” (featuring a largely empty tent) fails to consistently activate the Teevee print within, while arguably hindering Mythical Kudlik from conveying its own distinct narratives beyond its relation to the deactivated site. The shared space of these two works is further complicated as a nearby print—rotated during the run of the biennial—urges visitors to view it, alongside Teevee and Johnston’s work, as part of a series.
Still, this strategy—of rearrangement, layering and interruption—can be read as a deliberate curatorial decision to provide new interrelations through opposing works. The curators’ feminist methodology seeps into the space here by purposefully disrupting the expected linear viewing experience. If linearity is a trait of patriarchal and colonial forces—monarchies, dynasties and the like—can sisterhood be better conceived as a cosmos?
In gathering and collaborating, the works transform one another by adding branches to existing narratives, or to those left unfinished, and as a result give agency to the stories each inner world contains by holding space and moving across it. Taken as a whole, níchiwamiskwém / nimidet / ma soeur / my sister is experienced as a galaxy with no centre, the entirety of which is bound by Indigenous sisterhood itself—each work and artist orbiting around another. In each venue and through each work the message echoes: “In care, we carry our sisters.”
Caroline Monnet Renaissance 2018Photographic print 101.5 × 152 cm
Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002 Kinngait) — Myth of the Tuniit2000Lithograph and chine-collé 52 × 45 cm