Personal, Political, Pop.
By Dana Qaddah
Long has Indigenous cultural production been represented through the guise of temporal entrapment, denying its participation in the contemporary art sphere through its seclusion into fields like archaeological and museological studies. Through such, many artists have been unwillingly disengaged with the discourse through colonial isolation. While the Western art world has more recently focused on production by Western voices, particularly in contemporary art, Indigenous artists have been practicing at the crossroads of past, present, and future. While maintaining the generational techniques and knowledge of their culture, their engagement forefronts modern-day concerns of political activity, environmental advocacy, and conditions of generational grief and displacement within Indigenous communities.
In an effort to challenge preconceived notions of Indigenous cultural production, Fazakas Gallery has put together the work of four artists: Audie Murray, Rande Cook, Corey Bulpitt, and Marcy Friesen, who have been at the forefront of redefining the status quo of Indigenous artistic practice through their reinvention of global symbols, materials, and formal attributes. Having consolidated the overlapping concerns of the artists and their extended communities alike, land-based practices coincide with pop art and ready-mades in the experiences of rural and urban Indigeneity, forming expansive dialogues within the personal, political, and pop art.
Hailing from Alert Bay, BC, Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cook has always been heavily connected to his culture and land by the teachings of his grandparents and several master craftsmen, including carver John Livingston (1951-2019). His dedication has earned him two chieftainships, the Hamatam and the Gigalgam, recognizing his dedication to Kwakwaka'wakw life values and the sacred ceremonies of Potlatch. Throughout his education, he became familiar with a range of material and conceptual thoughts through exposure to Western traditions of art, and from there began his practice of synthesizing his strong background with more contemporary languages of art-making. Cook’s concern for the environment has long been at the forefront of his work. More recently, his reconfiguration of traditional forms and materials indicate his dedication to environmental advocacy.
The expansive deforestation of some of the last existing old-growth cedar forests has specifically prompted a series of works which speak directly to the relationship between humans and the land they occupy. In Last Ancient Breaths, Cook strategically combines glass forms, blown by himself, into cedar tree stumps which were found on a logging site. The holes in the stumps are indexical of the pulling of cedar bark to use in the making of other objects, a practice which dates as far back as 1,500 years. As such, Cook outwardly seeks spiritual guidance for the protection of the great forests while reconfiguring Indigenous cultural production to include new materialities, as elicited in Emerald Forest, comprised of MDF and automotive paint, contrary to the traditional cedar panel and acrylic paint.
Through ideas of duality and connectivity, Audie Murray draws on time-honoured techniques and contemporary concepts to elevate the status of everyday objects, evolving their cultural significance through their material treatment while engaging with her predecessors in the artistic sphere. As a multidisciplinary Métis artist from Saskatchewan, her practice primarily draws influence from more recent predecessors -- her parents, grandparents, and popular artists like Eva Hesse. This sphere of influence illustrates an intimacy in her approach to observing her interests and direct surroundings. For instance, prior to their decoration with beads, ink, and porcupine quills, Audie’s Treaty 4 Gloves were a relic of her parent’s garage. The personal is rendered political through the titling of the work, in direct reference to the treaty signed by the Cree and Saulteaux First Nations and Queen Victoria’s government to compensate for having negotiated territory and its development into transcontinental railways without the consultation of the Indigenous people. Expansively, the story references the environmental concern which railways have exposed today, being the reason for displacement of a majority of Indigenous communities due to climate crises repercussions.
Coming from a lineage of prolific artists and carvers, including Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) and Louis Collison (1881-1970), Haida artist Corey Bulpitt, also known as Taakeit Aaya (“Gifted Carver”) developed a respected carving practice alongside an engagement with other materialities. While simultaneously promoting Haida culture and his dedication to many facets of it, like dancing, tattooing and carving, Bulpitt paralleled his interest in practicing traditional form-line with a more political and socially-oriented interest in hip hop, pop art and urban culture. His motivations have driven him to involve urban youth in his processes creating large-scale paintings out of spray paint – indicative of his personal values towards the posterity of Haida culture through engagement with the community, especially youth. Bulpitt’s history engaging with graffiti and hip hop culture is very clear in his most recent works. While maintaining the guise of traditional Haida production, Bulpitt overlays the traditional form of the elk drum with a reinterpretation of popular cartoon figures, stylizing them to integrate Haida form-line. Furthermore, he adapts the form of British rapper MFDOOM’s mask to be carved out of red cedar, with a piece of abalone laid in the forehead, as an homage to the influence of hip hop to his world-view, while maintaining the foundations of his practice as Taakeit Aaya.
With a more recent introduction to the contemporary art scene, Marcy Friesen brings forth her traditional Swampy Cree practices of beadwork and sewing in new and inventive ways. From her farm in Carrot River, Friesen has kept true to her lineage, coming from a long line of talented master beaders, and developed a business out of traditional moccasin and glove making, until she decided to subvert the expectations one may have of such an art form. She began beading individual moccasins and gloves, as opposed to pairs, transforming their utilitarian form to become a site for contemplation and reflection. Loaded with intention, her recent works focus on using similar materials, such as beads, leather and furs, in new and inventive ways to reflect on her family history, mental health issues and general concerns of Indigenous peoples in modern-day Canada. Her use of bright colours nicely situates the work in the contemporary realm, all the while keeping true to her dedication towards reflecting her own story, the stories of those she relates to, all through incredibly intuitive material and conceptual inclinations.