by Francisco-Fernando Granados
The early November Vancouver night felt like something out of Anne Sexton’s The Fury of Sunsets.
I gladly left the dark, wet outside for the artificial warmth of the Emily Carr building. Somewhere else in the city, this once school, once college, once institute was officially becoming a university. The rituals of long-established Western academic masculinity were being performed: long robes were worn and honorary doctorates handed out. Everyone who had paid tuition for the term, myself included, had also bought the right to an invite to the event. I had no interest in it.
Instead, my friend Vidalia and I were heading to see “Auntie-Hero”, a performance program curated by Maria Hupfield as part of this year’s Aboriginal Curatorial Collective colloquium.
The show proposed kinds of epic bravery that did far more than simply stand in opposition to the overstated masculinism of the university status ceremony also happening that night. The heroes in “Auntie-Hero” stood outside, on top, within and without that patriarchy, finding and creating spaces that were all their own.
The evening’s program started with Merritt Johnson, who offered a richly layered allegorical work that showcased her painterly and sculptural sensibilities. Two partially gilded chests, each guarded with a lock, were set down in opposite sides of the room. Between them, parallel police-blue barricades sent one message: DO NOT CROSS. Overtop of the barricades, a ladder hovered like a bridge above a thick red line drawn on the floor that split the space in half. On each side, lean structures referencing rifles faced out towards the bridge/barricade, and towards one another.
The artist’s figure entered the space wearing beaded moccasins, grey tweed pants, and a black velvet jacket. A coyote hide peaked out from underneath the latter. The artist’s long hair flowed straight down from a dark hat that covered the upper half of her face. Maybe a hybrid, maybe an undercover agent. Through the sound system, Mohawk-English translations were recited.
(…) her house
our house (…)
She unlocked the chests. Small stuffed birds poured out. Then, a tender gesture: she folded in the creatures’ legs and cradled them in her mouth, two to three at a time. Crossing the makeshift bridge, she took them across the border. Once on the other side, she shaped newspaper sheets in the form of roofs to cover the birds. Sheltered naked refugees.
Johnson’s transgression extended to affect the structure of the border. Using a tooth-encrusted brush, she scratched through the thick red line. Barricades and ladder fell on to it. While backing up, one of the rifle-sculptures took her by surprise. In a deft move, she tackled it and threw it on the ground. As Johnson walked out, the performance ended with an image of beautiful destruction: a border collapsed in a harmonious arrangement flanked on each side by the little birds.
After a pause, Skeena Reece came into the space with a black head covering, little white feathers on each temple and an earth-colour floor-length dress. It was Emily Carr. But she was carrying a paper bag and a laptop. She broke the silence by nonchalantly reminding us that this was her school. The tongue-in-cheek comment set the mood for the performance, putting the room in good spirits.
Out of her bag, a 1979 Dempsey Bob print and a felt marker. She ripped the bag into a rough-edged brown sheet, put it next to the print and started re-drawing Bob’s image. An artist copying an artist copying an artist. With this action, Reece seemed to address the history of appropriations of Northwest Coast aesthetics and objects with sharp humour, while creating a place in time where the work could be recovered and reclaimed.
The viewers had become silent. The artist playfully chided us for it. From the audience, Rebecca Belmore started a conversation with Reece. The two (or three) artists wittily bantered back and forth to everyone’s amusement. Then, Dempsey Bob himself entered the performance space. He tried to help with the drawing, but there was only one marker. Instead, he told us the story that had inspired the image. It captured the moment when Traveling Raven had transformed himself so that the Whale People would not recognize him. She kept drawing.
In a sudden twist, Reece put the marker down and disrobed her Carr character. She revealed a tatter-clad punk rocker with a makeshift mini electric guitar. She sang along to the Sex Pistols playing from the laptop.
I was one of the first people to run out of the room to follow her, as soon as I heard loud bang. She’d toppled a bookshelf. What followed was a running rendition of the song through the Emily Carr halls.
“God save the Queen…
Posters on walls and leaning mops did not stand a chance against Reece; they were ripped and pushed out of the way.
… she ain’t no human being!”
For that brief run-around the halls, the steel and concrete space of the school was filled with exciting possibility, especially as she ran through the Concourse Gallery, where an expensive-looking show on the subject of Education had just been put up. She roused the little punk in me too: There was something very satisfying about seeing an artist fucking shit up.
The closing piece for the evening was a bodily study in light, sound and movement by Cheryl L'Hirondelle. Across from Johnson’s collapsed border, a white cloth dwelling with an opening running down the middle hung from ceiling. She entered the tent. Before she began pinning shut the opening, the artist said something that sounded like an invitation. I later found out the language was Cree. I didn’t know the words, which made me second-guess what my body had perceived. My friend wasn’t as stiff. Vidalia accepted the artist’s invitation and moved closer to her house. I followed.
Inside, backlighting formed a three-dimensional screen that amplified the stature of the already tall artist. A grand female silhouette projected onto the audience. Sampling herself, L'Hirondelle sang melodies that layered over one another, forming lyrical beats. She moved with cadence to her own rhythms. I still did not recognize the words, but the way she sang them made it feel like it was the Blues. I was becoming more comfortable with knowing, but not necessarily understanding.
She continued to dance, seemingly taking her clothes off. She then took long strips of black material and put them through symmetrically placed openings in the cloth. It formed a kind of modernist fringe along the front of the house. Although our viewing was mediated, there was a sense of intimacy created between L’Hirondelle and her public.
She unpinned the house open, revealing, not nakedness, but a flesh-colour body suit with painted-on nipples. Once out, L'Hirondelle incorporated the audience as a layer of sound. The call-and-response pattern formed the names of the lands that we inhabit:
Coordinated, with enthusiasm.
The night ended in collective song. On the bus, on our way to the Skytrain, Vidalia and I talked about the different ways in which artists relate to space. The houses we are given, the ones we take over, and the one we create with our bodies.
[weblink to the youtube video, comming...]