Indigenous medicines from across Turtle Island come from the land, grow from the land and are combined with ancient songs and prayers. People get doctored; medicine women and men exist in most indigenous communities across Canada. The term “he got it from his grandfather” or “she got it from her mother” indicates that families pass their medicine down to the next generation of healers. That mysterious power to heal the sick with hands so warm, hearts so open and the divine power of Great Spirit. Also, people can develop their medicine power through tutelage, prayer, good deeds and sacrifice. Medicines are burnt, people gather sweetgrass, sage and cedar to harken the divine power, prayers are said to ask for healing, and songs are sung for the spirit to carry the song. Indigenous medicine practices are the starting point of this online exhibition. Further, I am curious how artists “make medicine.” Many of the artists in this show did not make their artwork with my curatorial intent in mind; however, I have sought to locate concepts of medicine in their work. I have selected twelve artists and three writers for this online exhibition. The writers were all invited to write new works that address notions of medicine within their storytelling, creative writing and scholarly research. Neil Esutache writes of his interpretation of ways of thinking about medicine in the abstract, while Dr. Michelle La Flamme investigates the theatrical use of medicine in making play and Richard Van Camp tells us a story of love medicine and healing.
I begin with the collaborative project of James Nicolas and Sandra Semchuk titled “Taking Off Skins.” In this series of photos, Semchuk photographs Nicolas and James writes the accompanying text. In the series, shot on a beach in Vancouver, James is wearing a conventional suit and tie. Underneath the crisp white shirt is a powerful, full set of bear claws that James had found and made into a necklace. As the series of black and white photos progresses, James strips off his clothes to reveal the claws and eventually is wrapped in a blanket as he heads towards the ocean. The ritualistic nature of this work evokes time honoured tradition of ritual baths and cleansing. The Aboriginal male body, once colonialized by the business suit, now becomes whole and at one with the natural world. The power of this work demonstrates a relationship to the animal nations, while reclaiming Aboriginal selfhood.
In keeping with ritual and adding sound, Russell Wallace has created post-urban Indian healing sounds that are rooted in the ancient practice of evoking healing power through song. When someone is being “doctored” by a healer, there are always songs being sung. They call the spirits to come and heal; the sounds are soothing, familiar and calming. Russell Wallace has created a new kind of healing song for the occasion of this project.
Skeena Reece’s performance based work encapsulates the role of the sacred clown and the art as the trickster, transforming the performance space into a site of ritual, where the sacred clown’s mere appearance asks us as audience members how we view Aboriginal female bodies. This live action was unsettling for viewers as they witness an Aboriginal woman walk naked through the audience with a painted body. The live video sampling of the artist’s voice stating, “I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry,” over and over again and the large video projection of an impressionistic image of the artist further brought the viewer into the artist’s private world. Was she confessing? Was she apologizing? At a time when Aboriginal women are the most marginalized in their ancient homeland, perhaps she was proclaiming remorse for the dehumanizing of Aboriginal women, while placing her naked decolonialized Aboriginal body on view. This performance is both unsettling to watch and empowering to experience. As a viewer, at first I was uncomfortable but then I became more and more at ease and secure as the artist gave so much of herself - as most medicine people do.
While Skeena’s work was about seeing, Warren Arcan’s “Superchannel” was about listening. In this performance, each audience member wore headphones and was given the opportunity to select which channel of audio to listen to. As Warren paced within the confines of a taped-off oblong square on the floor, he physically expressed pain, joy, anger, sadness. He was contemplative as he addressed various audience members with either a short, quick glance or a long, ponderous, knowing look. The audio selections consisted of lovebird songs, people talking about love and romance, and Cree language words for love. Warren’s performance became more and more emotional; there was some sort of healing taking place via his body actions, his tears, his glances and the audio.
Terrance Houle and Trevor Freeman’s public performance, “Portage,” took performance art to the streets as they traveled through the streets of Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. As they carried a canoe through urban settings, we were reminded of pre-contact trade routes and also the early settlement of Canada during which time non-Native and Native porters would map new routes or take old routes to get to where they were going. There were modern day reenactments of old portage routes to celebrate social relations amongst different cultural groups and to acknowledge this unique history in Canadian fareways. Houle wore moccasins and a loincloth and Trevor donned Métis regalia. The re-imagined Indian and Métis portaging our urban streets offered a sense of the past, and the fiberglass canoe suggested the present, while we pondered the future of trade, commerce and potential for further cultural understanding via historical narratives and practices.
Public art is a means to take art outside of the four white walls and access viewers other then traditional gallery goers. Marianne Nicolson’s modern day rock paintings tower over a 50ft rock cliff on the way to Gwa’yi (Kingcome Inlet) and can only be seen by boat. This work stands as a tall testament to the endurance of the Dzawad’enuxw people and the tradition of rock painting. Marianne wanted to create a work that expressed and validated a traditional relationship to the land, and paint a pictograph that was a declaration of indigenous presence in the landscape. “The imagery depicts the original ancestor of the Dzawada'enuxw in the form of a wolf. He carries on his back the treasures of the Dzawada'enuxw people in a box on his back. On the box is a painting of the sun. This image is set within the frame of a copper (`Tlakwa), a symbol of wealth and lineage up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast. This work celebrates the continued occupation of the Musgamakw Dzawada'enuxw tribes in their traditional territories,” she states. This massive rock painting is meant to represent all the Dzawada’enuxw people - not just one clan or family - and to acknowledge an ancient history in that region.
Kootchie Willard Charlie works with rock, stone, bronze and wood. His renderings of ancient medicine bowls, old rock figures and carvings bring form, lines and rock beings into the gallery space. Many coastal communities and interior tribes have stories of the rocks; the rocks hold knowledge and are considered ancestors. The mythological figures maintain teachings and histories. Through his use of re-inscribing the stone, he brings forth these beings into contemporary times. Kootchie's work is about remembering how the ancients utilized rock and stone to make effigies, bowls and other cultural belongings that reflect a spiritual practice within the everyday. Feast bowls and spoons are decorated images of ancestors and carry knowledge and practices not only for ceremony, but also for everyday use. They are imbued with spiritual meanings that are not just to be used once a week, but every time they are acknowledged.
Nadia Myre’s “Indian Act” is a massive work consisting of 56 beaded pages of the Indian Act. This work transforms the work of Indian women, situating traditional cultural production, often referred to as craft, within a fine arts discourse. In addition, she places the function of beading within the role of traditional gender material-making but politicizes it as an art form. Myre has stated that beading is political, whether used in traditional design patterns, or depicting the Hydro-Quebec logo. The artist states, “I really do see beading as an act of silent resistance.” Nadia has taken this imperialistic document, The Indian Act, and covered it by way of the ideals of the two-row wampum. The very nature of the process of collective beading by Indians and non-Indians working and beading together make this work a testament to the principles of co-existence within the same stream or river. The beading sessions took place in Montreal and Winnipeg and became a socio-cultural event with the intent to open up dialogue about the Act. Also, people could work solo and send in their finished pages. Two hundred and thirty people across Canada worked on the project, bringing different people into a shared art-making process that lasted hundreds of hours. Medicine is at work here in several ways: the beaders all gained new knowledge of the extent to which the Indian Act harmed Indian people, the collective practice of working together brought people together, and once the work was installed, the beauty of that experience was visible in final exhibition.
When I was asked to curate The Medicine Project, the first thing I thought about was the smudging of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, Canada. I was in awe of this macro-idea, and the thought of attempting to heal a compromised neighborhood through the burning of traditional indigenous medicine in public was inspiring. With grunt’s history of performance art, Indian art, and working with other public projects in the downtown eastside, I invited the organizer of this enormous public intervention to participate in this online project. I have selected photos from the hundreds of images from the WAVAW archives. Woman Against Violence Against Woman - along with elders, youth, Crabtree Corner, United Native Nations, Helping Our Spirit Lodge Society, Healing Our Spirit, Native Education Society, Battered Women’s Support Services, Carnegie Community Action Project, Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association, and Urban Native Youth Association - struck a Joint Working Committee and planned over a year’s time to stage this event. The idea was to work with elders and healers, from picking the sage, sweetgrass and cedar, to teaching all those involved what the medicines mean. In honouring the sacred four directions and four colours, members from Euro-, Asian-, Indo- and Black Canadian communities were asked to participate to make the circle whole. As all the groups walked with wheelbarrows burning the medicines, they met at the very centre of Hastings and Main and proceeded to have blessings, prayers, songs and speeches from all the cultural leaders who attended. This event combined public intervention, ritual, community and healing. I have attempted to do so as well within my curatorial intent.
Combined, these works all have questioned and unpacked meanings within the framework of difficult knowledge and placed the Aboriginal experience within the public gallery space for further interpretation. Furthermore, these artists are making a significant contribution to Canadian art history as it continues to evolve and become more inclusive of Aboriginal iconography and cultural production outside of ethnographic or anthropological tropes. This is where the real shift has happened over the last fifteen years. These artists have transformed the analysis of contemporary Aboriginal art by way of making work that reflects their experiences on their own terms. Further, once the work is in the gallery space, it becomes public, and the meanings of the works enter public discourses that concern Aboriginal culture, production and social relations. Contemporary Aboriginal art has served to re-interpret art historical references and to contribute to new discourses in contemporary art, collapsing long held stereotypes as to what Aboriginal art is, while providing windows into the contemporary Aboriginal experience.
We expect a great deal from art, and art gives us so much. Many contemporary Aboriginal artists offer their art to acknowledge and honour the ancestors and the way of life. In addition, the works have assisted with defining selfhood and locating the de-subjugated, decolonized self - the Aboriginal self. And through the dissemination of such works, there is hope that our inter-relatedness via public performances and the gallery space will allow for greater freedom of thought and a refusal of inequality. The works portray the Aboriginal experience and imperative in all its complexities. To locate medicine through the application of art-making is an enormous undertaking. These artworks have the considerable potential to shift contemporary consciousness toward support of Aboriginal justice through making objects, sounds, written texts and performances of compelling beauty, as well as the potential for spiritual renewal, resolution and contemplation.