The Canadian Art Database

Carol Podedworny

Okanata [Robert Houle, Jane Ash Poitras, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Rebecca Belmore, Ron Benner, Isabelle Bernier, Bob Boyer, Jamelie Hassan, Star Horn, Brenda Gabriel, Brian Marion, Robert McNealy, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Joe David, Chuck Heit, David Neel, Diane Pugen, Wayne Skye, Greg Staats, José Bedia, Carol Beaulieu and Arthur Renwick.]
A Space and Workscene Gallery, Toronto 1991

C Magazine #32, Winter 1992
[ 984 words ]

'okanata' promised to be an interesting exhibition, not just because the work in it would consider a highly charged Canadian event, but because it had the potential to shatter accepted norms about how contemporary First Nations art can or should be exhibited. Historically, this art has been marginalized, ghettoized, and finally integrated and/or assimilated. 'okanata' suggested the possibility of altering this established history because it not only included the work of both Native and non-Native artists — it offered a thematic focus that did not premise inclusion / exclusion on the basis of an artist's ethnic specificity. If, in the mainstream art world, this is not an astounding premise, in the realm of 'Indian' art it is — or has been.

'okanata' focused on issues of injustice. Of the 50 artists invited by the five-person curatorial team to partake in 'okanata', forty contributed works. Many of the established artists such as Robert Houle, Jane Ash Poitras, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Bob Boyer, Robert McNealy, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Joe David, as well as emerging or less known artists such as David Neel, Wayne Skye, José Bedia, Carol Beaulieu and Arthur Renwick contributed work consistent with their production to date. A few works are of particular note.

Chuck Heit's Oka Golf Classic (1991) is a contemporary house post that incorporates traditional west coast design practices. It considers the old and the new in its design, materials and function. This work intimates how the past plays a continuing role in the present, and speaks of what once was in terms of property, ancestry and sacred commitments. Ultimately, it reveals the history behind the events that took place at Oka and Kahnasetake in the summer and early fall of 1990.

In Effigy, Rebecca Belmore projects an image from a news item about Oka onto a rectangle of sand on the gallery floor. In the sand are stones, which cause the surface of the sand to bump and curve quite naturally and sensually, like the land. In the bottom left corner of the sand / image is a small pile of smooth stones to which paper has been added and a fire set. Effigy recreates the horror of events in their actuality, but it also suggests that, even in the 1990s, the Canadian government and many Canadians believe that it does not matter how the First Nations are treated. Effigy, as a result of its title, imagery and materials (sand, stones and ashes), is about people, cultures and the land over which the conflict was waged.

A number of the artists in 'okanata' focused on the issue of land. Diane Pugen's installation, for example - comprising two parts: a drawing titled Kanasetake, the Pines (1991) and a collection of needles, twigs, leaves, pine-cones and sticks titled Forest Floor, The Pines (1991) — takes the land rather than the 'battle' as its focus. So too did works by Jamelie Hassan, Star Horn, Brenda Gabriel and Brian Marion, among others. But it is in Pugen's work that the significance of the land is most tellingly presented, for she creates a distinction between art and its source. By juxtaposing a framed 'work of art' with an actual square-metre section of forest floor, Pugen sets up two dichotomies: one between culture and nature and one between high art (the gallery) and popular culture (daily reality).

Ron Benner literally crosses the boundary from high to popular with a work that takes the form and role of a billboard advertisement. Benner's Native to the Americas (1991) hangs on a wall on Portland Avenue, between Queen and Richmond Streets in downtown Toronto. The work comprises a photo image on either side of which is listed that which is 'native to the Americas.' Benner's work 'sells' to a popular clientele the First Nations product, perspective / reality or existence. It acknowledges the impact of that which was / is indigenous to the building of the 'New World' and to the shaping of present-day Canada. The mural stands as a statement regarding the exclusivity of history — not only of that which has been written, but also of that which has been experienced. And in this regard, Native to the Americas exposes the fallacy of the Eurocentric (or dominant) worldview.

Isabelle Bernier is similarly concerned with revealing truth. Plus Tard (Later) (1991) comprises twelve sections of text (Mohawk), set over image, set over text (English). The installation combines Bernier's texts with a photographic reproduction of texts and artifacts in a museum exhibit. Bernier effectively recreates the exhibit, but removes us from the museum and its context. With the altered context and with the events of Oka swarming around us, we easily read the Eurocentric history for the construct that it is.

Voices from the Six Nations Confederacy (1991) by Greg Staats is a pair of portraits of chiefs accompanied by sheets of birch bark on which their words of direction have been written. There is something very subtle about this pair of photos, something that makes them stand out strikingly from all of the other works in the exhibition. Quietly understated and sincere, these photos make us consider — amid the turmoil of the events, emotions and power plays of the Oka crisis — that the struggle was not merely about land, but more importantly about culture. Indeed, all of the artists in the exhibition created work that in some way acknowledged the history of the various First Nations cultures, whether as regrettable past, exclusionary premise or challenge, and perhaps this was appropriate because in a sense, so too did Oka.

The work in 'okanata' was somewhat uneven, but in spite of this and the cramped installation, I hope the premise of the show will stand as an example for future curatorial projects.

C Magazine #32, Winter 1992

Text: © Carol Podedworny. All rights reserved.

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