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Native issues provide rich sources for art scholars

by Debbie Hum

Five Master's and PhD students presented research papers on First Nations themes during a two-day Ahkssissttstatoaa (meaning "to honour" in Blackfoot). The event opened with an address by architect Douglas Cardinal on June 16, and included presentations and art by current and former graduate students.

Caroline Stevens, a PhD student in Art History, discussed the architectural "hybridity" of Oujé-Bougoumou, a Cree village in northern Quebec designed by Cardinal, which recently won a community development award from the United Nations.

Mining and forestry have forced the Cree to move their homes in the James Bay region nine times in 85 years. In the early 1990s, the Cree received compensation from the provincial and federal governments to build Oujé-Bougoumou. The design of the village allows the community to define and represent itself to the public, Stevens said, and permits both preservation and growth.

Catherine Mattes, a Métis MA in Art History, explored the controversy that arose in 1991 surrounding the abstract Louis Riel sculpture by Marcien Lemay in front of the Manitoba legislature building. The Manitoba Métis Federation claimed that Lemay's bronze sculpture, a twisted, nude figure with a face contorted in anguish, was disrespectful to Louis Riel and the Métis Nation, and requested its removal to a less conspicuous location.

The contentious situation escalated in July 1994, when the statue was to be removed and relocated. Jean Allard, a former NDP MLA and a Métis who had lobbied for the Riel sculpture in the late 1960s, chained himself to the monument to protest "the sanitized politics of the day." In May 1996, a new sculpture was unveiled in front of the legislature; it portrayed a more statesmanlike Riel wearing a Métis sash, suit jacket and Métis moccasins.

Cynthia Hammond, a PhD student in Humanities, presented a paper on her work-in-progress, The Gathering of Earth: 101 Mountains. In August 1997, the Quebec government's toponymy commission announced plans to name 101 islands created by flooding in the Caniapiscau Reservoir after passages and titles from the works of renowned Quebec authors. Inspired by the efforts of the Cree to retain traditional names for their territory in northern Quebec, Hammond is collecting 101 objects from other people, along with descriptions of cherished and significant places.

"The onus is now on the Cree to produce evidence of original names of the mountains, names that haven't been written into any official Quebec map," Hammond said. "This flagrant appropriation of land and re-naming of territory that has long had traditional names is understood by the Cree as a colonizing manoeuvre."

Alice Cerdan, a student from the Université de Montréal in the interuniversity PhD program in Art History, discussed the work of German artist Joseph Beuys and Métis artist Edward Poitras.

Both used the coyote, the "trickster" animal that holds great spiritual significance for Native Americans, as a commentary on Western expansion and colonization. Beuys used a live coyote in an "action" that he performed in New York City in 1974. Poitras created a life-sized sculpture of the trickster in 1986 using the skeletons of seven coyotes; his photo installations have poked fun at stereotypes of Natives.

Rhonda Meier, a Master's student in art history, discussed the work of Cherokee multidisciplinary artist Jimmie Durham, including his 1986 Self-Portrait. "Far from celebratory, Durham's work continually refuted any kind of monolithic, essentialist or totalizing mean."

The conference also featured an exhibit by Haisla artist Arthur Renwick (MFA 1996) and a screening of the film Power (1996), followed by a discussion with its director, Magnus Isacsson. It was organized by Professor Joan Acland and students Caroline Stevens, Cynthia Hammond, Karen Huska and Martin Kapustianyk.

Some of the Art History students who, with Professor Joan Acland, organized the Ahkssissttstatoaa. Left to right: Cynthia Hammond, Karen Huska and Caroline Stevens.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.