Nanabozho’s Sisters

Essay by Wanda Nanibush

Nanabozho is a half-spirit, half-human shape- shifting Anishinaabe who lives on in our stories and art. They (and this is the proper pronoun) break rules and boundaries through hilarious, sometimes ridiculous situations for the benefit of the whole community. The laughter that comes from their actions shows us our own flawed character and the changeability of our way of doing things. The spirit of Nanabozho lives in the sisters (meaning friends) gathered together in this exhibition: Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Dana Claxton, Thirza Cuthand, Rosalie Favell, Ursula Johnson, Shelley Niro, and Anna Tsouhlarakis. Their works are audacious, rebellious, and cutting edge. The freedom to be whoever one wants to be outside the prescriptions and oppressions of a two-gender system, colonialism, sexism, and heteronormativity is created through imagination, satire, and ironic reversals. Video and photography allow for the active construction of images of family, childhood, sexuality, and play that honour the contemporary lives of Indigenous people that are not built on the tired notion of authentic ‘Indians’. There is also the subtle humour of everyday life in First Nations country that allows us to survive. Finally, all of the images present a more realistic view of Indigenous women’s bodies in all their lived glory, allowing humour to function both as empowering and humbling.

The exhibition begins in 1987 in two very different places: Thunder Bay and Six Nations with High Tech Teepee Trauma Mama by Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe, b. 1960) and The Rebel by Shelley Niro (Mohawk, b. 1954). 1987 saw Brian Mulroney in power and very little headway for the advancement of Indigenous Rights in Canada. It was a time when artists of colour and Indigenous artists were fighting back against a history of exclusion. The term “identity politics” became a label for their artistic endeavors. The term “identity” was and still is used to demean artistic production. The actual term is thought to be coined by Black women fighting against oppression:

[A]s children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different—for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being ‘ladylike’ and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life- sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.... We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.
— Zillah R. Eisenstein (1978), The Combahee River Collective Statement

It is this rebellious and loving spirit that was in the air when Rebecca Belmore decided to leave art school at the Ontario College of Art and return to Thunder Bay. The backlash against identity politics was very real and she relates that one of her teachers at OCA asked her if her Indian-ness was going to interfere with her art. In audacious fashion she quits and decides to make work for her people by testing it on them at the Friendship Centre and other northern spaces. This is where High Tech Teepee Trauma Mama was performed. Belmore sings a song she wrote with Alan Deleary of Seventh Fire parodying the souvenir versions of First Nations culture. She resists by dancing and singing “Come on Souvenir Seeker free me from this plastic.” Part of her point is to connect her song to a video playing scenes from the popular film Little Big Man (1970) where violence is perpetrated against Indigenous women. This juxtaposition shows that the material consequences of stereotyping is real violence. High Tech Teepee Trauma Mama is an anthem for all Indigenous women as much as The Rebel by Shelley Niro has become an icon. The sight of Niro’s mother lying in a stereotypical model pose on top of the Rebel sports car is a tribute to the ways we honour our women in all their diversity and power. Niro had seen the fourth First Ministers constitutional conferences on Aboriginal rights break down in 1987 precisely over the issue of First Nations self-government. Niro comes from a matriarchal society that had experienced repeated colonial attempts to destroy the power of their traditional government by removing their clan mothers’ and chiefs’ power. To lighten everyone’s load she created The Rebel in a beautiful tribute to her living familial matriarchy.

Lori Blondeau picks up this line of work in her performance personas Cosmo-Squaw and Lonely Surfer Squaw, as a way to undermine the squaw and princess stereotypes that have become colonialism’s main presentations of Indigenous women. Blondeau also tells a story of experiencing childhood racism in being labelled “a squaw”, which her grandmother quickly transformed into an empowering moment by telling her “You are a squaw – it just means woman.” Again, the strength of women challenged Blondeau to be proud of herself as an Indigenous woman. There is an absurdity to the sight of her in a buffalo bikini in the snow on the prairies with a pink surfboard, that pushes the boundaries of what are acceptable desires for all women. And when she puckers her lips for her own First Nations inspired Cosmo magazine, we realize that a completely alien culture setting the standard for beauty for brown women everywhere is absurd.

All three artists, Niro, Belmore, and Blondeau, are given voice in quotes laid across three performative and playful self-portraits by Ursula Johnson. She pays homage to the influence of each artist, as well as a fourth artist, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, in clearing the path for her generation to make and exhibit art, and to feel at home in their skin and culture. She replays Blondeau’s bikini-clad pose, creating space for us to stand in solidarity and to laugh cathartically at our own painful memories and experiences of trying to fit into an image not made for us.

Performance artists Blondeau and Shawna Dempsey are honoured in Thirza Cuthand’s innovative experimental video work Through the Looking Glass where they appear as Red Queen and White Queen. Cuthand’s genuine, honest, and humorous voice really defined a new genre of autobiographical video art. As Alice, she is caught between a First Nations culture that has absorbed the homophobia brought through contact and a white culture that would see her people disappear. Alice wants to wake up to a world where difference isn’t violently expunged.

In a similar use of pop culture references, Rosalie Favell’s work cites Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Favell wakes up back in Kansas to feel “her spirit had returned” to her. A cultural hero, Louis Riel, is peaking in the window. He led a resistance in 1885 that desired to realize a Métis and First Nations Manitoba. Favell’s Dorothy is wrapped in a Hudson Bay blanket which was used as a trade item during the fur trade and became a way that smallpox was spread through Indigenous communities, causing millions of deaths. I have included three other photographs from Favell’s series Plain(s) Warrior Artist where she creates mini narratives of herself as a hero whose adventures lead us through multi-vocal narratives to find room for a Métis lesbian artist in the history books.

Shelley Niro’s film Honey Moccasin also uses fiction as a way to imagine a world as it should be, where the acceptance of homosexuality, boys who want to jingle dress, and young performance artists isn’t even a question. Niro clearly respects her community, and cares for everyone by showing us it’s better when everyone is allowed to belong. Dana Claxton, like Niro, uses photography to construct images of family, childhood, sexuality, and play that honour contemporary lives of First Nations people. There is a clear, powerful assertion of sexuality throughout most of the works in the exhibition, including Momma Has a Pony Girl... (named History and sets her free). Sexual bondage and pony play is used as metaphor for the trap of euro- centric colonial versions of history. In the photo, the powerful dominant is played by a famous First Nations stage actress who is looking across at her blonde pony-girl who is the submissive in the relationship. Claxton, like Blondeau, points to the desires that underplay colonial history and its representations for all parties. Sometimes, in playing with them in reverse, where we are the stars and the doms, we can see freedom at the edges of the present. Instead of subjugation we can be set free.

Belmore’s Five Sisters assumes our freedom by enacting everyday scenes of five First Nations women—all played by herself —going to work, having a drink, tracking the land, making fun of a racist statue, and looking tough. The works underscore the fact that the everyday of our lives is constantly eroded by the suffocating racism that reduces these images to supposed fictions. By embedding these contemporary women into a kitschy form of craft presentation like wood decoupage, Belmore resists the temptation to separate high art from low art. Instead, she renders our contemporary everyday as a subject for art and as a hoped-for fixture for First Nations living rooms. She asks: What would happen if we hung these photos in our homes? A craft that was the preferred pastime of the European courts at the height of colonialism becomes a mode of generating positive identity in the living rooms of First Nations people in the former colonies.

Anna Tsouhlarakis’s video work takes a sweet dance between strangers to showcase the subtle humour of everyday life in First Nations country that allows us to survive. The simple act of trying to learn a new dance every day from many different people is a beautiful, self-effacing, positive presentation of diversity and connection. The video gives us an experience of the way laughter creates relationships.

Nanabozho’s Sisters is an exhibition that acknowledges the history of Indigenous women artists’ contribution to the deployment of humour, irony, and satire within the visual arts. The Trickster spirit is released in this exhibition through the artistic strategies of masquerade, mimicry, parody, ironic reversals, comedic scenarios, anachronistic combinations, and satirical creations. Through the Trickster spirit all things that seem fixed, accepted, entrenched, held sacred, formalized, and organized can be disrupted, scattered, disorganized, and transformed. The artists in Nanabozho’s Sisters throw the weight of colonial representations onto the fire and dance us into a new future.