blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Iluliaq by Silis Høegh
Last week I went to see the international exhibition of indigenous art at the National Gallery, entitled Sakahán, which is an Algonquin word, apparently, meaning "light a fire." It is meant to challenge our preconceptions, and does that to a troubling extent.

The exhibition has little to do with decorated wampums or dot paintings from Australia depicting lizards. This was thoroughly modern art, served with a twist of anger. Not only are the aboriginal artists saying to us how dare you treat our people like this? but also, how dare you see us like this? One abstract painting by Richard Bell had bold words emblazoned over it: I AM NOT A NOBLE SAVAGE! Unsurprisingly, a recent exhibition of his art in Australia was called Uz Vs. Them.

I found many of the exhibits upsetting and alien. This is difficult art, although the message often comes across quite clearly. Here's a video of an interview with the Australian artist Vernon Ah-Kee about his work, "Cant Chant".

I appreciated that one, with its symbolic sequence of images in the video: surf boards (one side of which had shield designs painted on them; on the other, grey faces) encircled with barbed wire, hanging and swinging like murdered corpses from bare branches in a desert, then being shot at. In the next sequence the boards, still riddled with bullet holes and swathed in barbed wire, float in water, but not the ocean. Next you see older aboriginal men proudly carrying these same surf boards, now restored to their original glory, towards a city beach. At the conclusion of the video are thrilling images of underwater and overwater surfing in the ocean, the aboriginal riders of the surfboards being young men. "I wanted [it] to be about action … fierce competition," says the artist, relating his creation to Australian beach culture. He sees himself as "an aboriginal living in a modern day context."

There were several other video installations. One was a surrealistic sequence of images relating the story of people who were taken to dance their native dances at the French king's court and who succumbed to smallpox, whose souls make a journey home after their death (the lower part of the frames could be seen either as prone bodies covered with a deadly rash or waves or hills at sunset––my interpretation). In another part of the gallery, bubble screens were installed overhead in a dark room where viewers could lie down on dark mattresses to watch images of people going about their traditional occupations underwater, amongst the water weeds... their homes having been flooded to make a reservoir.

Beside a large number of Canadians, indigenous artists from the USA, Mexico, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Colombia, Taiwan, Japan, Norway, the Dominican Republic, Denmark and Greenland are featured. Interestingly a large percentage of them live and work in cities, these days, not the remote wilds.

I must admit that after an hour of exposure to this kind of art, leaving the gallery via the British neo-romantics and the German/Flemish renaissance paintings felt to me like returning home. But it is no bad thing to be disturbed. I must pay Sakahán another visit.

The cover placed over the National Gallery tower this summer, by the way, not only conceals the scaffolding while repair work is being done; it is also a work of art that's part of this exhibition. It is by the Inuk artist Silis Høegh, from Greenland, and represents a melting iceberg.

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