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Robert Houle

The Place of Memory in Storytelling (1993)
Jackson Beardy

from the catalogue for the exhibition Jackson Beardy: A Life's Work,
The Winnipeg Art Gallery, October 1993 - January 1994
(in English, French and Saulteaux)

[ 937 words ]

Minjimendamowin Dibaajimowin[text in Saulteaux]
La place de la memoire dans le conte [texte en français]


Growing up on the reserve meant speaking and hearing only Saulteaux, Anishnabe, until I attended school. Later I was to discover that there were language groups other than my own: English, the language of the classroom; Sioux and Cree, the languages of my classmates; and finally, French, the language spoken by the nuns and priest. The realization that the sounds of other languages designate one or another object — bread, meat, sky, demons, trees, flowers, name other objects or designate nothing at all and are simple noise — was an awesome experience. It is a personal odyssey and I continue to marvel at the mystery of different sounds producing similar meanings. For me, Anishnabe was the link between sound and meaning and pertained not only to the natural order but also to the supernatural, inseparable and indissoluble. Language is like a window through which one can understand a culture, the soul and spirit of a society. It is a window to a world of knowledge based on memory and experience

I recall the excitement and apprehension whenever my grandparents or other elders would talk about Wisakejack, the ubiquitous mythological character forever involved in unusual and compromising circumstances. In Anishnabe storytelling or uhdesokade (to orally hand down a story), the listener's memory and experience metonymically affect the meaning of a parable through association and suggestion. The place of storytelling is one of memory, whose mnemonic devices include speaking and hearing a language with specific cognitive conceits codified to represent time and space in an interior landscape of the mind. Memory, through knowing a language, provides cultural signifiers for one's identity. Language is a living history where listening to a story is being present as subject. I realize today that having learned English and a few other languages, minimally at least, that my sense of identity has been shaped by being able to communicate in Saulteaux, my maternal tongue.

My memory and experience of storytelling is governed by the Anishnabe language, with its rhythmical and syntactical structure. And speaking and hearing it inevitably places my most inner thoughts and feeling about the scheme of things in a comfortable and confident disposition. Knowing my aboriginal tongue is something that I have always taken for granted, but as I get older, I consider it to be more of a privilege. Language becomes a medium which dissects nature along lines laid down by culture. The medium as narrative form creates a cultural context for the purpose of teaching a moral about the sacredness of life. Whenever I hear uhdesokun (a parable), I will inevitably remember the traditional values laced in the language.

The tapestry of language is woven with cultural values and mores, and to uhdesokade (to tell a parable) is what Jackson Beardy did through his art. He translated a narrative form into a visual repertoire of birds and animals living in a colourful world of his creation. His illustrations are a conceptual setting where the mischievous Wisakejack and nature idyllically give purpose and meaning to life. There is a delightful recording narrated in English by Beardy wherein Wisakejack invites the fowl into his tipi, with particular interest in the geese. He attempts a musical seduction (here, Jackson actually sings, accompanying himself with a hand drum) to lull them to sleep in order to feast on them. However, his plan is quickly sabotaged by the loon who opens its eyes, contrary to the 'close your eyes' verses. The loon sees the geese killed to sate Wisakejack's appetite and cries out a warning about a misanthropic act. The loon becomes the mother a child needs to protect it from abuse. To Beardy, the loon becomes the uhdesokun (the legend), a conceit used to examine deceit and honesty. As a cultural construct, the legend of the modest loon with its haughty laughing sound becomes a poetic spirit personifying the artist.

Jackson Beardy clearly identified with the characteristics of the Loon in mythology. In one of his smaller works on birchbark, Beardy depicted it as a singular painted image on a raw surface. The bird, although quite small, is masquerading as an eagle. With its wings fully open, the beautiful image of the loon is revealed, identifiable by its necklace, a dead giveaway. I enjoy the beautiful wings with their colourful highlights. The loon is honest, humourous and humble; for me the icon becomes a symbol of hope. This masquerading, unpretentious bird represents hope by forming a visual language which will communicate one important cultural value that Jackson personified, irony.

The Beardy loon as an eagle is a vignette, that moment and time in mythology when a language is universally spoken. In his story telling, Jackson gives everyone speaking parts: the listener, Wisakejack, the geese, and in this particular story, the loon. Transcending a language is one reason why art is made, to communicate and share experiences. Sharing a common language, Anishnabe, helped me to understand Jackson's work and allowed me the opportunity to learn about the culture that nourished him. Hearing the language provided an occasion to see mythological and fantastical landscapes which only memories could paint.

I would like to end this discussion on language with a quote from Convergences, by the 1990 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Octavio Paz.

The search for a language transcending all languages is one of the ways of resolving the opposition between unity and multiplicity that has never ceased to intrigue the human spirit.

In many ways Paz symbolizes the marriage of the Old and New Worlds, while the late Jackson Beardy, a friend, represented a child of a new language art.

December 4, 1993

from the catalogue for the exhibition Jackson Beardy: A Life's Work,
The Winnipeg Art Gallery, October 1993 - January 1994.


Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.

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