Monday, 10 February 2014

Decolonize Me: Six Artists at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

     Decolonize Me, at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery takes on very humanist issues using a variety of materials and approaches; mixed media, photography, collage, video instillation, sculpture, found objects, and more. The show displays the variety of contemporary methods used to express oneself to encourage the viewer to reflect on the subjects broached within each piece. As a result it takes a bit of time to adjust from one piece to the next but the effort is certainly worthwhile.
     Heather Igloliorte, the curator of Decolonize Me (a title inspired by the film, Supersize Me) hopes the show will “make visible the history and legacies of our shared colonial past while highlighting the politics of resistance that have sustained Indigenous cultures through to the present day.”
    Underlying each of the six artist’s works is how their humanity is either taken away, reclaimed or sustained. These artists manage to do so without anger, without the attempt to shock, belittle, or condescend.
     My own personal bias enjoys a more dramatic and in your face protest art when it comes to serious disenfranchisement. If my descendants were victimized for hundreds of years and felt the reverberations of colonialism I might produce art like that of the American Expressionist movement.
     This movement was aided by the Works Progress Administration, a federal art project set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression at the suggestion of an artist friend and inspired by the Mexican government's dramatic support of artists that helped beautify nearly every public institution and church in Mexico.
     Before World War II when artists, many communist, sought recognition and equal treatment for women, African Americans, and other immigrants, they boldly criticized their corporate bosses, governments, the police, the military, etc, with shocking imagery.
By employing strong drawing and painting skills, with the bolder technical approaches of early modernism, they were also able to capture loving and sentimental images of motherhood, fraternity, partnership, and nature. They fought for their rights and for respect.
     The efforts showed brilliantly in their art, and it was distinctive enough to be very different from the kind of art produced before the movement and after, although there are a few individual examples of similar artists dotted throughout history, such as Daumier, Goya, Delacroix, and others.
     Immediately after the Second World War, when Roosevelt died and Harry S. Truman took over, there was a sudden shift in support for the arts. The United States government was terrified of communism spreading worldwide, especially in Europe. The CIA used the Guggenheims and the Rockefellers to fund artists and writers with a mission to make the United States appear as modern and as progressive as possible, while McCarthyism reigned within its own borders. The contrast was dramatic. While the CIA funded symphonies, operas, black musicians (large musical ensembles included), progressive literary magazines and modern art, McCarthy was part of a horrible witch hunt for communists in a country that continued to "hyper" segregate African Americans.
      Because American Expressionism honestly and brilliantly revealed to the public many of the internal problems the U.S. was having, this kind of art was not in the interest of the U.S. government, and it didn’t help that some of the artists were communist. Critics, like Clement Greenburg and Harold Rosenberg denounced the realism and subject matter of the pre-war artists. Socially conscious art was passé. The CIA toured major American abstract expressionists throughout Europe, and the CIA considered this type of propaganda the most successful method of making the Soviets appear backwards and far from progressive.
     A huge influence on the fierceness with which modern art took over in the United States was the appeal of meaninglessness in modern art. Millionaires and billionaires who previously never collected art, due mostly to its subject matter, which often criticized the intolerance and negative influence of the wealthy, suddenly shifted to a form of art that could be collectible because it was "safe" non-political art. In a 1950 Fortune Magazine article titled, "The Businessman and Picasso," wealthy collectors were told to forget about art with subject matter. And with tax incentives to collect the art, CEOs rushed into buying modern art, not for the love of it, but for the investment.
     The result is that pre-war artists were ignored and nearly forgotten. They could no longer sell their work. Some became abstract artists. Some stopped painting altogether, while others lived in obscurity till their death. More than a few committed suicide. Only recently, in the last ten years are museums and galleries searching their basements and looking for private collections of pre-war art to hang on their walls.
     The value of pre-war art can still be a valid reference point for how disenfranchised people can better express themselves with a ferocity and directness that the public could respond to that isn’t nearly as subjective or coded as our contemporary art. Or supported by millionaire and billionaires. It was a people’s art.
     However, possibly the greatest aspect of contemporary art is that it allows for any individual to creatively express themselves, as subtly or as dramatically as they like, in a contemporary gallery avoiding the pitfalls of an easy “good guys versus bad guys” scenario. Contemporary art also allows artists who don’t have traditional drawing or painting skills to make statements. Photography, collage, video projection, digital works, found object art, etc.,  – all those non-traditional skills can make great creative pieces. 
     These works may lack a hard punch, or employ beauty to celebrate a culture, but that is not what they are up to. They are six experienced and creative contemporary artists who do a great job of taking on subtleties of self-expression using contemporary methods and contemporary galleries. This is a kind of soft-pull into issues that otherwise would be hard to stomach if they were statements of anger, cries for justice, compensation and reconciliation. This is not the art of Rebecca Belmore or Pamela Masik or Lawrence Paul Yukweluptun. 
     Nigit’stil Norbert, from Yellowknife, explains how he would feel “as though he would cease to exist,” if he didn’t regain his knowledge of his “grandmother’s specific beading style,” which he lost as a result of the horrors of residential school. Norbert also creates work to criticize the romanced notions of “Indians” in dolls, memorabilia, paintings, masks, etc.
     Bear Witness (great name!) is a DJ and filmmaker who feels empowerment by altering typically racist narratives from the movies to make them his own. With sometimes eerie and powerful music, he’s created a moving video instillation.
     A bit of the trickster is involved in Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s work. She sets up a computer so that anyone can get their own Treaty Card, poking fun at databases and government rules as to how and who is determined to be native.
     Without malice, Barry Pottle contrasts the inhumanity and the human side of a formerly tagged and numbered people. The faces of First Nations people, smiling and surviving provide a dramatic contrast with a numbering system that has an association to Nazi atrocities.
     Sonny Assu wants us to reflect on how museums and private collections are made up of the remnants of other societies in order to make the wealthy appear knowledgeable and worldly, when really only the aesthetics are appreciated and not the culture.
     Jordan Bennett mixes pop culture with more insightful statements using mixed media to layer and contrast images. He is able to take those who were formally ghettoized in our culture and replace them with our Prime Ministers and show how they too can be “pop-culturalized” and sent to the ghetto.
     This show is more personal, subtler and a little more complex than the dramatic images of the American Expressionist movement. As Heather Igloriorte points out, this show avoids the viewpoint of “perpetrators or victims….” and gives us more to reflect upon.

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