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Issue # 3

Issue # 3

Article Listing

Remembering in America: Toward a Critical Dialogue
by Shanna Ketchum

Lita Fontaine - Sacred Feminine
by Amy Karlinsky

The Last Time I Saw Venice - Rebecca Belmore's Fountain
by Cathy Mattes

Renwick for Urban Shaman
by Loren Roberts

Feathers Float
by Jenny Fraser

Concepts of Native America
by Robert Houle

Renwick - For Urban Shaman

Feature: Renwick - For Urban Shaman

by Loren Roberts

When the Manitoba Metis Federation recently announced that it was going to actively pursue a settlement with various levels of governments, for land claims issues that stretch back some 140 years, the public reaction was hardly surprising, though perhaps no less tragic for that.  Within days, both major local dailies in our city were flooded with letters to the editors, spouting the usual rhetoric about government handouts, perpetually unsatisfied special interest groups, and old (and therefore, the assumption seems to run, irrelevant) history.  It was a vivid reminder (if we needed one) that racism at worst, indifference at best, is alive and well in the 21st century, even in Winnipeg, city of multiculturalism, Folklorama, and the largest ratio of First Nations peoples of almost any city in the world.  It was also interesting to note that the Metis Federation's announcement came only a few months after a study declared that, by the year 2020, as much as one quarter of Winnipeg's population will be, to varying degrees, people claiming First Nations status, whether it's as "Indian" or as Metis.  So what does all this mean for us here and now?  What is our obligation to the mistakes of the past?       

Arthur Renwick's exhibit Delegates: Chiefs of the Earth and Sky, addressed some of these issues, through a study of the South Dakota landscape that formed the basis of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, signed by delegates of the U.S. government and various First Nations groups (now generally lumped under the not-entirely-accurate labels of "Sioux" and "Cheyenne"). 

The treaty, signed by such legendary delegates as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, guaranteed the native inhabitants of the area exclusive rights to the land.  Those rights were respected for all of a decade or so, before gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and prospectors moved in, demanding protection from the U.S. government.  General Custer and his troops followed soon after, and then thousands more troops after them, so that the very same people who had so recently signed the Fort Laramie Treaty were forced off the land at gunpoint, herded onto tiny reserves.

Renwick's work, gorgeous black and white photographs that are void of much human presence, shows the land as it would have looked back then, complete with grazing herds of bison in one work.  Above the photos, suspended in the aluminium sheet that replaces the sky, are various punctuation marks, indicating the language and syntax of the treaty.

It's a reminder that, on one level, half of the delegates were signing a treaty in a language they neither spoke nor understood, that the punctuation was as meaningless to them as the Plains Cree names, provided as alternate titles to the works, are to most of us today.

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It's also a reminder that the punctuation has the effect of causing the speaker or reader to pause, even for a moment--a suggestion of silence. That's an important point, since silence seems to be the overwhelming feature of Renwick's work. There is no suggestion in any of the photographs of any sound or activity whatsoever--it's mostly just the land, sitting there being land, doing what one Canadian poet described as: "Staring at the sun in a huge silence, endlessly repeating something we cannot hear."

The artist, born in 1965 in the Haisla village of Kitimat, British Columbia, has exhibited widely, and worked as an artist, curator, and teacher, with much of his work addressing the historical and modern-day complexities of the relationship between native people and the larger community. Although he has exhibited widely, for many years, this particular exhibit was perhaps Renwick's most widely discussed work, with some of the country's major media outlets covering the show. And some of the reactions to it, again, while not entirely surprising, were (again) no less tragic for that. The Globe and Mail's senior art critic, while admitting the work was "handsome", still dismissed its theoretical base as "just about the silliest thing I've ever seen." According to our nation's leading art writer, native land claims, as presented in Renwick's art, are "scarcely a situation high on most of our lists of social and political evils to now be fretted over and redressed." Thankfully, the review was met with a storm of indignation, and subsequent letters to the Globe suggested, among other things, that perhaps the critic in question should have just taken that day off and stayed at home in bed. Another major media outlet, our country's leading visual arts magazine, also reviewed the show, with a more insightful bit of criticism from a leading scholar in postcolonial theory. Nevertheless, her review stopped somewhat short of addressing what seems to me to be the heart of Renwick's work--the historical injustices that his photographed landscapes represent. Yet the land, this reviewer claimed, "remains a place beyond language, untouched by all the words that seek to regulate it." She's right, of course, but it's a point that you'd have a hard time selling to those who signed a legal treaty, guaranteeing them rights to it in perpetuity, only to be forced off it at gunpoint a few years later. Similarly, you'd have a difficult time selling this viewpoint to those involved in the ongoing struggle to settle the Metis land claims against the provincial and federal government. In both cases--locally, and in the South Dakota landscape that Renwick captures so beautifully--the land has remained anything but untouched by words, guns, and laws.

Land as History, Land as Power. That phrase is a fitting description of something that angry letter-to-the-editor-writers, and disinterested, glib reviewers have ignored--the fact that history, and land, have long been controlled by those with the power to dictate its terms and conditions. As the latter reviewer pointed out, the land itself is eternal, and may rise above our attempts to control it, but those who have lived on it, and in some cases signed treaties giving them ownership of it, haven't always been so fortunate. Renwick's exhibit, by focusing on the silence, on the pauses in the midst of all this language, leaves the viewer waiting for an answer, a solution of some sort. By providing none, by leaving the physical symbols of silence hanging there above the empty landscapes, Renwick leaves it up to the viewer to search for the words, if in fact there are any, that can somehow heal or address these ongoing issues.

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