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Arthur Renwick

Faye HeavyShield: Into the Garden of Angels
The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Ontario, June 24 - September 1994

from the exhibition catalogue
[ 1,892 words ]


Faye HeavyShield has produced a series of works that address a particular part of Canada's history. In 1876, the federal Parliament passed the 'Indian Act' to 'administer the affairs of Indians and their lands,' as identified in the British North American Act of 1867. This law authorized church authorities (Protestant and Catholic) forcefully to remove Native children from their parents and place them in various residential schools. Some of these were situated on the reserve, as in HeavyShield's case, while other schools were located far from the children's original communities and cultures. Thus began a long and painful road towards the goal: 'to eradicate aboriginal cultures and languages, to eliminate the indigenous foundations of ritual, ceremony and spirituality, and to assimilate these children into Christianity.' (1)  It is from here that we depart and where Faye HeavyShield's 'garden' begins.

Into the Garden of Angels is a compelling exhibition comprised of seven sculptures that draw upon HeavyShield's dual cultural background: on the one hand, her Roman Catholic education at St. Mary's residential school, and, on the other, her Blackfoot heritage and upbringing on Stand Off, a Blood reservation in southern Alberta. This duality creates a set of complex, contradictory and multi-layered relationships within HeavyShield's monochromatic, minimal sculptures. Her subtle, meditative and self-reflective sculptural installations recreate sanctioned places of memory where demons are pacified by the artist's desire to avenge her past.

Located at the entrance to the North Gallery is Now I Lay Me Down, a work consisting of five semi-abstract, monochromatic holy water fonts affixed to the wall. The suite alludes to the Catholic ritual of blessing oneself before entering the body of the church and recalls, as well, the night time prayers by which residential school children ward off real and imagined dangers. Equally, this iconic piece suggests states of vulnerability and receptivity; it invites the visitor into the exhibition / garden as into a space for contemplating tensions linked to the act of touching as both violation and benediction.

Once in the exhibition, which may be taken for HeavyShield's 'garden,' one will notice the presence of Passion: a graphite drawing of an androgynous torso etched directly onto the surface of the wall. The iconoclastic figure, headless and armless, is wearing a rosary or 'abacus' around his / her neck: two wires coming out of the wall looking as if they are coming from behind the shoulders. They are joined as a triangular point below, piercing the torso's nondescript groin area. This piercing could represent the denial of the human body and the suppresion of sexuality that is prevalent within the Catholic religion, but at the same time could refer to the piercing ritual of the Sundance ceremony which is integral to the Plains culture. HeavyShield once wrote a poem recalling a night in the dormitory at St. Mary's when she had lain down to sleep:

nun

she stalks the dorm at night
gliding in quiet
between the rows of beds


all still

except for the sound
of her rosary beads
her counted prayers


an abacus clicking
closer
nearer my god to thee


never a hitch
in that bitch's patrol.
 (2) 

One wonders about the state of anxious wakefulness that the presence of the 'nun' generated while 'gliding in quiet'. Furthermore, when Passion is looked at from the side or at an angle, the rosary extends itself much farther than could be perceived when one is standing directly in front of it. A single spotlight from above casts the viewer's shadow onto the figure's abdomen, causing the visitor to become a part of the drawing within the wire rosary. Positioning oneself closer or farther away creates a play of perspective and perception, a trompe l'oeil. As the shadow and the rosary play a trick on the eyes, the illusion becomes an allusion: the 'rosary' may be a symbol for a snare used for trapping.

The 'bitch' in Passion who 'stalks the dorm at night' has a 'brother', Spade: a shield like cruciform with a clerical collar that is hanging high on the wall. This ominous figure carries simultaneous references: the Christian cross, a priestly figure and a spade type shovel. These works are placed in close proximity to Sisters, a circular configuration of six pairs of high-heeled shoes with cloven toes pointing outward, representing, once again, the conflicting Christian and Blood ideologies. Significantly, the circle of shoes is a metaphor for one of the most important structural forms of the Plains culture, again the Sundance. Symbolically, the Sisters are protecting themselves and their spiritual / sexual identity from the presence of these figures. This defensiveness extends far beyond the boundaries of this church, since, as HeavyShield observes, 'women have to protect themselves from so much more than men do.' She says that 'Sisters stands for the strength and power within women and the empowerment in looking towards ourselves for protection.' (3) 

On the wall beside Sisters is a work that is like a protective device, derived from thoughts of HeavyShield's childhood. Curiously titled When I grow up, this playful piece resembles an auger: a tool used to bore a hole into the ground in preparation for the construction of a fence. Although, at the bottom where the spiral should be, the auger is overgrown with a bulbous heart shape that is analogous to a women's body in effect, causing the tool to be dysfunctional. At the same time, this auger plays with a homonymous pun (i.e., hard and laborious work augurs a better future).

For HeavyShield, the handle of the tool symbolizes the limitations that men have traditionally placed on women within a larger society. The artist elaborated on When I grow up during a lecture at the gallery, mentioning that

the choices that women have to look forward to when they grow up, are not choices in the true meaning of the word...The options that they are given are...made by someone else...usually men. Even though [these options were given to her] years ago, [she] finds that [today, women] are still being told what to be when they grow up [and] they are being shaped by the conventions that have been in place for too long. (4) 

HeavyShield prefers to view this auger / augur as the detonator for a bomb, the empowerment to create her own future by metaphorically destroying the 'tool' created by man.

Standing alone in the Fleck Clerestory is a columnlike structure which is filled and covered with dried grass (not sweet grass.) Originally, Worship was to have been constructed as a convex arch filled with grass and covered with a wire screen to resemble a window or a sculpture niche in a cathedral. However, through the artist's working process, it was slowly transformed from a wall piece into a free standing column, thus leaving room for the viewer to walk around it. HeavyShield gathered the grass from around her home at Stand Off, on the Great Plains, during a time when the new growth had started, allowing it to come out of the ground and into her hands with very little effort. The cathedral like Fleck Clerestory becomes a site for this pillar of grass to stand for the artist's redefinition of 'worship'. In her words,

The garden of angels, as it was presented to me by my guardians at St. Mary's, was not somewhere I wanted to be. True, parts of it were inviting: the cool calm of the chapel, the ecstasy of martyrs frozen in plaster, and the stories of Jesus as a never ending cool dude. The rest was simply hell. Fortunately for me, there were visions of an 'other,' a way of seeing that was strengthened by my parents and grandparents, by the land and by my language. I celebrate this in Worship. (5) 

Worship is no longer a prayer towards something 'saint like,' but acts as a form of intervention. As 'a way of seeing that was strengthened by [her] parents and grandparents, by the land' and by her Blackfoot 'language,' it has left the wall and moved onto the floor; it is in the round and rises above. People will take their gaze three metres up and beyond, past the glass arch, to the sky and to the sun. Worship becomes inclusive. For HeavyShield, this is not about reclaiming a past as much as it is a 'celebration,' for, as she has said in conversation, 'the past for me is always there, I haven't lost anything, so there isn't really anything to reclaim.'

Finally, outside the gallery and on the south lawn, there is HeavyShield's Wing, an abstracted plough blade resembling a human-size wing lying in a furrow on top of a mound of earth. Ironically, it is constructed not of steel but of fibreglass, steel wire mesh and auto-body filler — the types of materials usually employed to repair a damaged vehicle after an accident. This plough, as a farm instrument, brings with it notions of steady and laborious digging, cutting, lifting and breaking up of the earth. As an angel's wing undressed of its feathers, it appears fleshy in its red-oxide coating, causing one to think of an angel that has been stripped of its plumage, fallen. Standing back from the mound, one may think that the remainder of its body could possibly be underneath, in a cocoon-like stage. The work is motionless, yet it contains the suggestion of past or imminent movement.

HeavyShield does not believe in angels but, either as a plough blade cutting the earth, abandoned wreckage on a farmyard or as a discarded angel's wing, this sculpture evokes notions of abandonment and of regeneration, of being buried and of excavation. The bed of earth / garden is a symbolic site for both death and growth. Within this work, as in the six other sculptures in this exhibition, disparate symbols and materials are manipulated to the degree that the completed works present the illusion of being in a state of self-transformation.

The work of Faye HeavyShield is imbued with both a Christian and a Blood ethos. Most of all, it is well grounded within a tradition that was destined for eradication by the government. This was to have been accomplished through the dehumanizing process practised by the residential school system and its Christian ideology. However, in the same way that many residential school children survived and resisted this process of elimination, HeavyShield also succeeds in bringing us back into her 'garden of angels,' where she is free from painful memories. This is a garden wherein she can display the inspired tenacity that has allowed us to share her experiences as a Blood, as a woman and as an artist.


from the exhibition catalogue

Text: © Arthur Renwick. All rights reserved.

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