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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
Wood Land School at SBC Gallery
July 26, 2017

Montreal’s SBC Gallery is awash with the light of Joi T. Arcand’s neon channel sign reading “Don’t be shy!” in Plains Cree syllabics. Pink beams shoot back a few feet behind it to a poster of an all-Crow Indian rock band from the sixties called The Maniacs, and forward with diminishing intensity to a drawing by the late-Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook titled Coleman Stove with Robin Hood Flour and Tenderflake.

Beyond the din of numerous national and municipal celebrations, artist Duane Linklater and his partners Tanya Lukin Linklater, cheyanne turions, and Walter Scott have initiated Wood Land School, a yearlong project in three parts (or “gestures”) to “centre Indigenous agency” and nurture “Indigenous-to-Indigenous relationships” across the Canada/US border. Pootoogook’s charming drawing of the equipment required to make the traditional flat-bread bannock (or palauga for Inuit) will remain in the gallery until December as a conceptual anchor and in honour of a woman who, for Montreal-based art historian Heather Igloliorte, “broke the ethnic art ceiling” for Inuit artists. One hears faint echoes in Pootoogook’s work of the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s appeals to Algerians to fight for bread and land. But Wood Land School’s struggle is quieter, and its gestures are less militant. As a key to the exhibition, the sharp and neutral style of the drawing and its themes of disappearance, resilience, and mobility are most resonant. In the first two parts of this project, participants focused on sharing the means or “ingredients” of Indigenous self-determination and withheld fixed images of Indigenous identity.



Wood Land School at SBC Gallery, installation view

Strategies of conceptual and post-conceptual art are adapted to draw attention to the recovery of language, knowledge, and traditions that animate struggles for Indigenous rights. According to New York-based art historian David Joselit, the proposition, the readymade, and the document have proliferated in global contemporary art because, unlike other avant-garde forms that locate forces of artistic innovation in Euro-American centers, they are not perceived by their users as derivative. Rather, they enable “urgent and eloquent enunciations” by Indigenous artists and people of colour in their specific locations.

The appearance of these forms in the exhibition bears out Joselit’s claim. In their video The Plains Indian Sign Language, Elisa Harkins and Nathan Young tell a story about a drowned camper in gestures used historically to mediate between the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Wyoming. The pictorial language in the video is familiar even before we read the subtitles. Accessible language-based works in the exhibit like this and Arcand’s neon sign reflect Wood Land School’s goal of observing “tenets of treaty” such as “reciprocity and relation across difference” without compromising a “starting position of Indigenous self-determination.” Indeed, the politics of language in the project are insistent. The home-page of the Wood Land School website displays a statement in Mohawk rendered by the Director of the Kanesatake Language and Cultural Center, and an audio work by the art and research group ReCollection Kahnawake included in the exhibition’s first part under the title Fine, but don’t shove it down our throats records Indigenous responses to the “language of instruction, public signage and advertising” articles in Quebec’s controversial Bill 101.

The readymade and the document also serve to describe the local experience of artists and communicate Wood Land School’s political goals more broadly. Flags positioned across from one another in the gallery utilize the readymade form to open a dialogue about symbolic and economic forces of global capitalism upon Indigenous communities in the US and Canada. Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s Orinoco Note is made entirely of tobacco leaves (“precursors to the US bank note”) whose dimensions are mimicked by the flag. In another restorative gesture, Marianne Nicolson’s The Sun is Setting on the British Empire replaces sun and water lines that appeared in the original BC flag to “reflect the language of the earliest treaties.” The most striking document in the first two iterations of the exhibition is Wendy Red Star’s Tyvek rock-band poster titled The Maniacs (We’re Not The Best But We’re Better Than The Rest). The carefree makeshift studio atmosphere of the image conceals racial tensions the musicians endured on tour outside their Lodge Grass, Montana reservation – tensions that would result in the 1977 murder of bass guitarist Wendell Red Star Jr.



Wood Land School at SBC Gallery, installation view

For the exhibit’s first and second iterations Brian Jungen contributed a series of gesture drawings on gently folded loose sheets of sketchbook paper. Like Pootoogook’s work, Jungen’s drives home a key point of this initiative - that Indigeneity like any expression of personal or cultural identity is mobile, adaptive, and suggested through actions or gestures rather than fixed in stereotypical images. In Jungen’s ephemeral figures drawn from gay dating app profiles, we see contours of men donning sunglasses and mustaches, cowboy hats, and wrestling masks, painfully alone in their desire, insecurity and vanity, but composed by the artist into something resembling a community. Another of Joselit’s key terms for post-conceptual art suggests itself here: “aggregator” comes closer than “community” to describing the spirit of Jungen’s work and of Wood Land School’s collection of art, writing, conversations, and events at SBC Gallery and on their website. Like the readymade, the document, and the proposition, aggregators for Joselit have the special capacity to bring rooted elements into a dialogue across cultural and national boundaries.

Post-colonial critic Edward Said argued in 1979 that the media environment’s saturation with images of Palestinian “victimhood” or “aggression” left no neutral position from which to make claims for Palestinian statehood. The cool and neutral look of the artworks in Drawing a Line from January to December respond to a similar bind for the Indigenous people of Turtle Island all these years later. Wood Land School provides a crucial opportunity for dispassionate and informed dialogue about current and recent approaches, artistic and otherwise, to Indigenous self-determination.


SBC Gallery: http://www.sbcgallery.ca/wood-land-school-gestures-c19i2
Wood Land School continues until the end of December.


Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.

 

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