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5th Annual New Sun Conference on Aboriginal Arts:
Interweaving Communities

Carleton University, March 4, 2006

 
P r e s e n t a t i o n s
 

Allan J. Ryan

            New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture Dr. Allan J. Ryan has had a diverse career as a recording artist, graphic designer, television satirist, and professor of Art History, Canadian Studies, Anthropology, and Indigenous Studies. In 2000, his book The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art earned him an American Book Award. Ryan co-curated the exhibition About Face: Self-Portraits by Native American, First Nations, and Inuit Artists at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, bringing together 48 post-WWII works of art, with more than half from Canada. In conjunction with the exhibition, which opened for a six-month run in November, 2005, an extensive catalogue was produced including essays on self-portraiture in the Indigenous and Western-European artistic traditions. The self-portraits in the exhibition range from naturalistic and figurative to symbolic, some of which omit the artist altogether in favour of an alter-ego. While About Face is literally an exhibition of faces, it is also an “authoritative command to turn around abruptly Aboriginal representation.” Ryan presents a selection of work from the show in the context of several main themes. Artistic practice and the art world are explored by artists Arthur Shilling, Gary Miller, Napatchie Pootoogook, David Neel, Roxanne Swentzell, and Rebecca Belmore. Other artists focus on tribal affiliation over individual identity, including Jaune Quick-To-See-Smith, Shan Goshorn, Robert Davidson, and Joane Cardinal-Schubert. Inuit artists Oopik Pitseolak, Mattiusi Iyaituk, and David Ruben Piqtoukun engage with their cultural traditions to honour and transform them in a contemporary context. Similarly, Harry Fonseca, Bill Powless, and Fred McDonald playfully explore contemporary urban Indigenous life, while Allen Sapp reflects childhood memories on his reserve.  Jeffrey Thomas, Carl Beam, Viviane Gray, George Littlechild, Rosalie Favell, and Ukjese Van Kampen challenge stereotypes and outside expectations of authenticity. Some of the artists use their work as spiritual healing, including Ernie Pepion, Norval Morrisseau, Melanie Yazzie, Ron Senungetuk, and Lucita Woodis. Working from a global perspective, Peter Jemison affirms international Indigenous solidarity, while Carm Little Turtle appeals to universal emotions of love and desire. Ryan selects Nisha Supahan’s self-portrait to close his presentation, as an illustration of youthful optimism and a contemporary, empowered, Indigenous identity.

 
Riel Benn

            Visual artist Riel Benn has received national acclaim for his work, including a YTV Achievement Award, a Manitoba Aboriginal Youth Achievement Award, as well as a nomination for the National Aboriginal Achievement Award. A self-taught artist, Benn began painting at the age of sixteen, and within two years his career had taken off. His self-portrait for About Face: Self-Portraits by Native American, First Nations, and Inuit Artists includes his recurring alter-ego the ‘Best Man,’ who is a multivalent figure representing Benn’s ignorance, sense of humour, conscience, and pessimism, as well as being a coping mechanism. In this piece, the Best Man merges with the nude body of Benn himself, emphasizing that nothing is hidden from God. In another painting from The Best Man series entitled The Tiny Surprisal, Benn celebrates the birth of his niece, while Royal Flush rejects vanity, superficiality, and the quest for the ‘soul mate.’ Similarly, Sweeping the Witch depicts the Best Man “using a woman’s weapons against her,” referring to destroying the spell of beauty. An equal opportunity trickster, Benn denounces male vanity in The Puppeteer. This theme continues in Trippin on a Hole in a Paper Heart and Lady Picture Show, both of which lambast the superficiality of the media. Meanwhile, The Romantic Failure evokes a Cubist aesthetic in acknowledging the artist’s troubled romantic history. For Benn, love is a game, and he is the “joker in the deck of cards,” poking fun at society’s expectations of marital bliss. In contrast, his Magazine series coincided with a dark period in his life, after a string of suicides on his reserve culminated in his own brother’s death. To cope with his loss, Benn decided to replace the superficial images of mainstream entertainment media with “something real,” painting historic Indigenous figures in contemporary settings on magazine covers. In all of his work, Benn honours his brother’s memory with a butterfly comprised of his brother’s initials. Benn frequently donates the proceeds of his work to charities and works with schools as a lecturer and guest artist.

Harmony Rice

            Harmony Rice is the publisher and creative director of SPIRIT magazine, a multimedia artist, and board member for non-profit organizations devoted to race relations and intercultural contacts. A Potawatomi woman from the Wasauksing reserve, near Parry Sound, Ontario, Rice was raised by strong female role models to celebrate her culture, traditions, and ancestors. In response to the stereotypes and general absence of Indigenous faces in the media, Rice has been independently publishing the multi-disciplinary magazine SPIRIT at quarterly intervals since 2003, aiming to display positive role models, build connections within the artistic community, and bring exposure to a generation of strong, powerful, and challenging Indigenous people. When working on the “Blood Issue,” Rice reconnected with a previously unknown sister, highlighting the magazine’s role as a communicative device. When SPIRIT was in its gestation period, Rice looked to others in the field for help but was offered little support. As a result, part of her magazine’s mandate is to form an Indigenous media network, recognizing that competition keeps publishers separated and thereby reduces their collective strength. As the storytellers of the communities, Rice stresses their obligation to “clean up their own circle first.” Working with the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts, Rice is implementing community consultation processes in several disciplines designed to heal internal divisions and foster collaboration. In her SPIRIT editorial entitled “The Yes Conclusion,” Rice stresses the power of role modelling and collective activism. She also produced a CBC video collage entitled Go Home Baby Girl, which follows the life of the family of one of the many missing Indigenous women across Canada. Rice hopes to include a section in SPIRIT devoted to telling these women’s stories. SPIRIT magazine is not only a platform for communication, Rice says, but a reflection of cultural and community transformation, and a vehicle for the creation of new traditions and ceremonies.

 
Joseph Boyden

            Educator and author Joseph Boyden has received national recognition for his novel Three Day Road, including the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, as well as being shortlisted for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. He has also published several articles on a range of topics, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where he works as a professor. Dividing his time between Louisiana and Northern Ontario, Boyden is of Métis, Irish, and Scottish descent, considering himself to “have a foot in each place.” Coming from a warrior tradition, Boyden grew up surrounded by legends and myths, which provided inspiration for Three Day Road. A blend of military history and oral tradition, the novel is inspired by the life of Ojibwa hero Francis Pegahmagabow, the most decorated Indigenous WWI soldier and legendary sniper, who, along with other Indigenous veterans, faced government discrimination upon returning from the war. The story chronicles two men’s journey from home to join the army and be deployed overseas during WWI, interspersed with an elderly woman’s account of her life. Originally written chronologically, Boyden “bent the story over backwards” to more closely reflect the cyclical nature of Indigenous storytelling, “beginning at the end to bring the story full circle.” Boyden incorporates the myth of the Windigo, the spirit of starvation, to explore the distinction between honour and madness. The novel also examines the insidious effects of residential school experience, stressing the healing power of family. Despite serious themes, the novel also incorporates humour, which is central to Indigenous cultures. Boyden is currently working on a follow up novel that is a contemporary narrative surrounding the grandchildren of the characters from Three Day Road.

Susan Aglukark

            Inuit singer/songwriter Susan Aglukark is an Officer of the Order of Canada, multiple Juno Award winner, and activist, designing and conducting workshops to address the intergenerational impact of residential schools. The daughter of a Pentacostal minister, Aglukark was raised in the Nunavut community of Arviat and developed her musical talent singing hymns in the Church. After high school, Aglukark left her community for a job in Ottawa doing presentations on Inuit history in schools. As an instructional video for the presentations, Aglukark combined her poem “Searching” with music and documentary images, and shortly thereafter, it mysteriously appeared in heavy rotation on Much Music. She was soon contacted by CBC North for a demo and was included on their Nunavut compilation LP. On her second album entitled Arctic Rose, she opened up about her sexual abuse as a child, sparking interest with major record labels and eventually signing with EMI. While on tour, Aglukark recognized the extent of the social issues within Indigenous communities, which reinforced her responsibility as an Inuit person to share her history and contribute to community healing through music, stories, and metaphor. On the album, This Child, she addressed personal struggles with her cultural identity. While working on the album Unsung Heroes, Aglukark went through a period of depression, questioning her role in the industry and the value of her work, but she emerged from this dark period renewed and empowered by reconnecting with her culture and history. Aglukark then came out with the album Big Feeling, at which point she recognized the importance of her position. After the mass suicides in Nunavik, Aglukark became further involved with community-building and activism, developing a self-esteem workshop, and beginning work in the political sphere, which she hopes will increase in the future. Aglukark asks for patience from the non-Indigenous community, for positive change is taking placing in Indigenous communities, and this will continue to grow with time.

Synopses by Anna Eyler

 
Please note: All presentations have been archived on DVD and can be borrowed individually from the Carleton University MacOdrum Library.  
 
 
A presentation of the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture
with the support of the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and the New Sun Fund
administered by the Community Foundation of Ottawa .