April 23 to July 19, 2020
The Contemporary Native Art Biennial (BACA), 5th edition
Kahwatsiretátie : Teionkwariwaienna Tekariwaiennawahkòntie
Artists exhibiting at La Guilde: Cruz Anderson & Judy Anderson, Ruth Cuthand, Marcy Friesen, Sage Paul, Sherry & Riva Farrell Racette, Skawennati, and Ulivia Uviluk
Text by curator David Garneau
Prior to French and British invasion, people in Northern Turtle Island belonged to separate nations speaking more than ninety languages. They traded, warred, made treaty, inter-married, or lived so far from each other that they never met. However, imperialist rhetoric corralled them as one people, Indians. The racist epithet legislated disparate peoples into a common and degraded body. It was but one of the tools used to divide settlers from Natives, and Natives from land. In the early twentieth century, some tried to rehabilitate the word as a symbol of collective resistant agency. The Canadian National Indian Brotherhood, for example, organized leaders from coast to coast and tree-line to Medicine Line. However, in the 1980s, they renamed themselves The Assembly of First Nations. Too freighted with negative associations, the mistaken and imposed label, Indian, faded and Aboriginal, for a time, was the preferred collective noun for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. This renaming signaled a shift in self-understanding and collective being.
To consciously identify as Aboriginal, Native, or autochtone means that in addition to being, for example, Kanien’keha:ka, Inuvialuit, or Métis, you purposefully align yourself with all non-settler peoples in the territory now known as Canada. Aboriginal is a political identity when chosen rather than decreed. Wearing it recognizes that we are not only shaped by our home communities but also by, and in collective resistance to, a colonial nation. To reject the name Indian is to see yourself as something more than an Indian as defined by the Indian Act.
Recently, Indigenous—as in The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—is the current preferred collective noun. Indians were wards of the state. Aboriginals struggle to gain or maintain self-governance, for sovereignty within but apart from a specific colonial nation. Indigenous people take this a step further and identify with First Peoples around the globe. Indigenous is an inter-national identity uniting people Native to different territories but who nevertheless share worldviews and imposed colonial experience. Indigenous is a name for the world-wide struggle to restore natural law, which includes the end of colonialism, patriarchy, predatory capitalism, racism, and environmental degradation. Indigenous people rejuvenate non-colonial practices and adapt them to the present age and their specific location. While Native nations, iwis, tribes, etc., are communities bound by blood, language, tradition, ceremony, and territory, there was always fluidity in these relations. They were enriched by inter-tribal marriages, adoptions, and migration. The development of rapid communication and travel has further increased the web of Native relations. In the Indigenous era, kinship includes not only blood, soil, and non-human relations but also extra-familial, extra-territorial, even virtual kin. For those whose communities are devastated by aggressive assimilation—by Indian Residential Schools that sought to exterminate Indigenous languages and culture by separating children from their families and re-educating them into non-Native ways of knowing and being; by Christianization of the sort that demonizes traditional spirituality, gender fluidity, and non-patriarchal societies; and predatory capitalism that ruins ecosystems, displaces and divides communities, and creates wealth disparity; for those families that continue to struggle with the fallout of genocide, who suffer poverty, food and water insecurity, substance abuse, violence, suicide, children seized by government agencies, adopting out, and disproportionate incarceration—for these folks, family and community relations may be untenable. Some need to create kinship beyond kin, connect to communities and people to find like minds and actions; to find and give support.
The 4th edition the Contemporary Native Art Biennial (BACA), níchiwamiskwém | nimidet | my sister | ma sœur, curated by Niki Little and Becca Taylor, explored the relations between Indigenous women that extend beyond blood. The 5th edition of BACA continues to bead this thread. Curated by myself with the support of rudi aker (Wolastoqiyik) and Faye Mullen (Anishinaabe), Kahwatsiretátie features the work of more than fifty artists in six Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyang/Montréal locations who engage intergenerational relations, alignment with ancestors both past and future, connections with other than human beings, folks looking for ’home’ in territories not home to their ancestors, friendships, and mentor and mentee affiliations, among other interrelations.
Recognizing that these exhibitions take place on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keháka, and that Faye, rudi, and I, and many of the artists, are not from here, we sought council with the stewards of this territory. We, and the BACA Board, met with Elders and artists at the Mohawk Trail Longhouse in Kahnawà:ke to begin an alliance. In a subsequent meeting with Faye, Elder Otsitsaken:ra (Charles Patton) and Faith Keeper Niioieren (Eileen Patton), entrusted us with the title Kahwatsiretátie: Teionkwariwaienna Tekariwaiennawahkòntie. The words picture a continuous circle being held together hand in hand, nation to nation, lifting weight together. These Kanienʼkeha words carry the values of a sustained kinship, of continuously holding matter together. BACA 2020 endeavours to give material form to these words, to express the interconnectedness of all things while acknowledging that sustaining good relations is a weighty matter, and is a matter of will, love, kinship, and friendship.
An important aspect of maintaining good relations is reciprocity. We came to the community to ask for their blessing, and to ask them to open Kahwatsiretátie. BACA offered to provide transport for community members who want to visit the exhibitions, and we commissioned Kahnawà:ke beaders to create gifts for all the artists. At the Longhouse, we connected with community artists and have included them in the show. Ongoing reciprocity between urban and reserve communities will be sustained throughout the months of BACA. This will take the form of gatherings, workshops, hide scrapping and garden projects that Faye is working with the community of Kahnawà:ke and Kahnestà:ke to build. Kinship includes Indigenous people from different nations meeting each other’s needs where they are. It is an open heart, an open hand, and a promise of future engagement.
Kinship is not just the subject of Kahwatsiretátie, it also informs our curatorial method. In addition to choosing fine works of art and placing them in good display relations with each other, we also asked many of the senior artists to invite “kin” to exhibit with them. These may be family, community members, mentees, or other kindred folks. This redistribution of curatorial agency is a form of non-colonial practice. Like a ceremony or party where invited guests invite their own guests, we want to expand the circle to include relations we did not yet know. As a result, Kahwatsiretátie includes a few artists who have never shown their work in Quebec, or outside their community, or as art.
Kahwatsiretátie includes a full range of art media: drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture, photography, audio installations, video, digital media, performances, etc., but there is an emphasis on beading and textiles. A substantial aspect of the Indigenous renaissance is the resurgence of traditional art forms repurposed to include engagement with contemporary experience. Beading is accessible. You don’t need an MFA to pick up the skills and make something special; though having a mentor helps. It is also accessible in that beading occurs in nearly every culture. Everyone appreciates beautiful handmade things. Most of our beads come from beyond Turtle Island, as do some of our patterns. Beading is a metissage, a mixing of materials and influences. Making by hand, using traditional techniques learned from watching and doing, creates a haptic connection with previous generations.
While Kahwatsiretátie certainly has a lot of things in rooms, an equal focus is on relations beyond objects. We are also interested in the people in these rooms—and outside of them—in music, performance art, workshops, talks, panels, and other gatherings in and around the exhibitions. Kahwatsiretátie: Teionkwariwaienna Tekariwaiennawahkòntie reverberates with a phrase familiar within Native circles. “All our relations” is evoked at gatherings to acknowledge persons present and absent and includes non-human beings as kin. It recognizes the privilege of presence. Faye, rudi, and I have been invited to curate these spaces and relations. In two years, it will be other people, other works, and other ideas. While we take our roles seriously, and bring our best selves here, it is with humility. We are visiting, not settling in these places.
Sovereign Indigenous display territories are permanent or contingent sites where the display of Indigenous creative production is managed by Indigenous people. In the case of BACA, we temporarily occupy spaces not ours to offer glimpses of what is ours. Art, in the sense of special human-made things and performances separated from everyday life and touch, and put in rooms for ocular contemplation, is a colonial habit. A challenge of working in these spaces and with the legacy of these habits is to find ways to indigenize them. Indigenization, as it is currently practiced in the TRC era, usually means bringing Indigenous teaching and things to non-Native places like universities and museums under the institution’s terms. Ironically, this appropriation is the opposite of the original sense of indigenization, which was the idea of Native people taking and adapting those aspects of colonial culture that suited their needs. At our best, we work with these spaces and their keepers to develop new modes of curation based on Native ways of knowing and being. Each exhibition is a step toward creative sovereignty.
i. These last three sentences are Faye Mullen’s understanding of the teachings gifted her from Elder Otsitsaken:ra (Charles Patton), and faith keeper Niioieren (Eileen Patton).
The Contemporary Native Art Biennial (BACA) is a key event to recognize and support contemporary Indigenous art and artists. Initiated in 2012 by the Art Mûr gallery, the BACA pursues its mission as a non-profit organization, in order to better respond to the scale of the event. In each of its editions, Montreal / Tiohtià:ke once again becomes for two months the place of convergence of Native artists in North America.