Patricia Deadman and Paul Seesequasis, Staking Land Claims

Citation: Deadman, Patricia and Paul Seesequasis. Staking Land Claims. Banff, Alberta: Banff Centre Press, 1999.

Argument:

This is the book that accompanied an exhibit called Staking LAND Claims, curated by Patricia Deadman, at the Walter Phillips Gallery in 1997 (Banff Centre for the Arts). The exhibit is the product of a collaboration – a “cultural partnership” – between the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance and the Banff Centre for the Arts. The collaboration also resulted in the Aboriginal Arts Program (1).

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

The book is made up of brief chapters, written by exhibit organizers and artists. Lynn Hill writes about the centrality of land – a focal point that orients the exhibit. “A myriad of cultural, social, political, and religious ideologies have shaped our relationship to the land. They have erected boundaries, begun wars, and caused separation. The only unifying factor has been the importance of the land to our identity and existence” (3).

Implicit here is the possibility that art can affirm the centrality of land to Indigenous being. This centrality reminds me of Deloria’s writing: Indigenous people “respected the land as part of a much larger continuum. The land was central to their self-perception” (3). Of course, I am a bit uncomfortable with her use of the past-tense here.

Michael Belmore is one of the artists, and his work suggests that Indigenous peoples can carry their identity with them, which is a claim that resists notions that Indigenous peoples cannot authentically live in urban / foreign spaces: “location does not limit identity. Place can contribute to identity but it does not necessarily define it” (6-7).

Belmore and Mary Anne Barkhouse collaborated on a work, entitled Reservoir, for which they created oft-appropriated material objects using salt and copper; here they “reference both the original integrity of the iconography and history, and the formal properties of salt. With the unfolding of negotiations over land, culture, and government, a fine line is being drawn between that which communicates and that which commodifies” (10). I’ll need to unpack this more, but clearly art more broadly serves a role in both communicating and commodifying.

In her curator’s statement, Patricia Deadman writes that “common elements of reclaiming a sense of history – not to be confused with nostalgia – become part of a complex process of incorporating and maintaining a balance in our memories of the past” (19).  I am aware, reading Deadman’s statement, that Indigenous artists must be frequently aware of the looming threat of appropriation and other forms of misreading. “Hybrid narratives of tradition and personal experience are the basis of reclamation, while art that encourages only difference is a form of ethnocentrism. […] Cultural differences are systematically organized for the benefit of Western consumption while cultural appropriation, and the constructed notion of exotic aesthetics, continue to be promoted” (21).

This creation of difference is related to Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, as well as lots of other scholars who write about the construction of Indigenous difference. “An imbalance in the power relation between the observer and the observed occurs as the object stakes its claim and intervenes in the narrative that is being told” (21).

She seems to suggest that art might cause viewers to self-reflect to such a degree that they might turn back upon their own viewing process: “A sense of authority becomes the voice that decides which fragments are interesting and to whom. Through the new context in which the objects have been placed, the way in which they are viewed becomes paramount. Western thought must question their difference – not to the point of being noticed and acknowledged, but how they have become aestheticized and by whom” (22).

At the stake is the possibility that art might “provid[e] a point of departure for individuals to question their place and connection to the land” (34), as Staking LAND Claims sought to do, according to Deadman. Is this what Inuit art seeks to do? She later continues her critique of Western viewing principles. “There is a theory that art is common property – but the creative process is not about achieving an absolute universalism. Western critical thought may define art solely according to its political action or spiritual intelligence. The merit of these characteristics reflects a paternalistic idealism that ignores and contradicts another value system: one that embraces questioning of, and searches for, spiritual depth and social meaning. The artwork created by the ‘other’ becomes disempowered through this Western political manoeuvre, which also subjects individuals to degradation” (29).

Points of Importance/Interest: 

  • The Western gaze and the construction of difference in viewing (and displaying?) art.
  • The possibility that the role of the Western gaze in shaping what it sees is also something that art can and / or must reflect upon.
  • I like Deadman’s assertion that “hybrid narratives of tradition and personal experience are the basis of reclamation” (21)     

 

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