By Lauren Donnelly
VANCOUVER – Pretty little birds harass diners on the Vancouver Art Gallery’s cafe patio. They’re starlings. Perched on empty chairs, they tilt their heads, begging for food. They’re here because in the 1890s a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts released starlings in New York’s Central Park. The North American landscape agreed with them, and they eventually spread to B.C. They compete with several native species for nesting space and food. Since they moved in, woodpecker, martin and bluebird populations have declined. They’re an invasive alien species, and true to eurocentric form, they’re now invading the art gallery patio. One aggressive starling flaps its wings, interrupting artist Dana Claxton mid-sentence. She acknowledges the imported bird. “They’re bossy things, although they’re pretty,” she says. “You could say the same thing about colonialism, right?”
From the mid-1990s to today, Hunkpapa Lakota artist Dana Claxton’s work has examined and challenged colonialism. Its footprint is wide and deep in Canada, and Claxton is skilled at recognizing its impacts. Using performance art, video installations, text-based work and photography, she explores the intersections of colonial ideology, indigeneity, beauty, identity, history, culture and spirituality. A survey exhibition of the Vancouver-based artist’s work from the last 28 years is now on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The exhibition is called Fringing the Cube. “The cube” is artist Brian O’Doherty’s theoretical analysis of the gallery space as a white cube. The fringe, Claxton explains, is a foundational part of Sioux plains aesthetics. It’s like a living thing. “A lot of the plains dances are based on the relationship with the natural world,” she says. “The grass dances emulate the wild prairie grass, the wild chicken dance, the crow hop, they all have those relationships and so there’s certain ways that you move your fringe for certain reasons.” Through Indigenous aesthetics, the sterile, intimidating, western gallery space aesthetic comes alive with the landscape it’s built on.
Landscapes have had a formative role in Claxton’s work. At five-years-old she longed to be a filmmaker, and growing up in Moose Jaw, the sky might have had something to do with it. “That sky,” she says. “It’s like the largest screen in the world.” Living in Vancouver she misses the thunder, and the wind of the prairies. The marriage of sound, image and music intrigues her. She’s collaborated with local musicians including Lil’wat Nation composer Russell Wallace and Coast Salish hip-hop artist Ostwelve (Ronnie Dean Harris). Most recently, she’s worked with her nephew Mitchell Claxton, he’s a DJ and EDM producer based in Alberta. She says as a first generation MuchMusic viewer, the aesthetics of music videos have influenced her work. When she’s working, music helps her conjure things up. Her playlist includes a range of genres from peyote to rap, hip-hop to Chopin –– whose compositions can make her cry –– to EDM. She’s not a hundred per cent sure of where the music genre boundaries begin and end, but on the weekend she saw Diplo perform. Her review? He was incredible.
When she moved to Vancouver in the early ’80s the punk scene was still exploding. Her boyfriend was a drummer in a punk band, and going to his gigs introduced her to a whole different world. “I got thrust into the art scene and observed it for a long time,” she says. “Because art has a relationship to class and privilege, it’s mysterious.” Then she took a job working at the Helen Pitt Gallery. And that changed everything.
The Pitt was an artist-run centre. Artist-run centres first cropped up in the ’60s as a response to the lack of works by local artists in public art galleries. “That was how I started out,” says Claxton. She calls herself a late-bloomer in Vancouver’s art scene, “wanting to think about how to have different voices within art and not just the west. ‘Cause the west doesn’t just own art.”
Ownership is a powerful theme in Claxton’s work. For too long, Indigenous representation has been co-opted by colonialism. Just watch an episode of APTN’s series First Contact and you’ll hear the sort of ugly stereotypes that the mainstream media has used to represent Indigenous cultures. The docu-series challenges perceptions of mostly-caucasian Canadians by bringing them to Indigenous communities. Claxton says that any kind of conversation is good if it brings people together. Colonialism has caused a cultural distancing with systems like residential schools and reservations that kept people apart. “Put people on a plot of land and build a barrier around it and then they become scary,” she says. That fear is part of our beautiful country’s ugly, brutal history.
“I heard someone say the other day, post-reconciliation,” she says. “And I thought post-reconciliation already? People don’t know. They just don’t know, and education is implicated in that not knowing.” As an educator at the University of British Columbia’s Visual Arts program, Claxton recognizes that reconciliation is a fraught process that many people still don’t understand. Through teaching, she’s realized that many of her students don’t know about Canadian realities. Not knowing means there’s a risk of history repeating itself. For years her art has unpacked, demystified and debunked Indigenous representation in art and pop culture, and offered another perspective. She doesn’t create to educate, but her art is intuitive, and Canada’s racist history has impacted her and her family. “It impacted my own psyche and who I am as a Lakota Canadian woman,” she says. “That interests me.” Pursuing that interest spurs her creativity.
Her photographic work is bold and impactful. In Headdress-Jeneen (2018), artist Jeneen Frei Njootli sits dressed in black, bedecked in beadwork –– from bracelets, to a pink beaded ball cap, to a moccasin pressed against her chest. Her face is obscured. We can’t see her and we can’t quite tell if she can see us. It’s part of a series inspired by the phenomenon of Indigenous women wearing their beadwork only to receive unwanted touch. “I hear that story over and over,” Claxton says. “Why people think they can reach out and touch Indigenous things on somebody’s body is remarkable. There’s something up there in terms of privilege, I think.” Headdress, the first piece in the series, shows a woman whose face is hidden by beadwork from Claxton’s own personal collection. After that she asked others to bring in their collections to be photographed. Claxton said she knew Jeneen’s image would be powerful. “Even to shoot that photo, it became this heightened experience,” Claxton says. “Those things have their own energy, their own manna, and they’re made by people in her community and her family so that whole thing was vibrating, it was alive.”
Far from frivolous, aesthetics are powerful. The Canadian government recognized that power when it created the Indian Act. The Act forbade Indigenous people from wearing their regalia, practicing their traditions, and speaking their own languages. Claxton is still floored when she thinks about how Indigenous cultures were criminalized. She works with Indigenous aesthetics because they’re beautiful. She finds beauty, like art, is everywhere. But she insists it needs to be reframed outside of judgement, class, and privilege. “You just have to reclaim all this stuff and own it yourself and have your own interpretation,” she says. “There’s not just one definition or analysis of beauty. That’d be crazy!”
Canada’s beauty belies an ugly past. A country of peace and liberty that has developed at the expense of suppressing Indigenous people and extracting their land. It’s a dynamic contrast symbolized by the beautiful sleek starlings on the Art Gallery patio. Claxton’s conscious awareness makes her art so powerful. She observes everything, really sees things, and then turns those observations into art. Art that has the potential to open people’s hearts and minds.
“First of all the image is in your mind, then you create it in the studio, then it goes into the public,” she says. “Into the cube –– the gallery –– and then the life that it has after that becomes a shared experience. The viewer has an experience with it and they take that experience and tell somebody at work. That’s the spirit of art, of how it exists. It’s really generous.”
When you think of it that way you can see why imperialists found Indigenous art so threatening, and why the artist’s autonomy is so important.
As her first survey exhibition approaches, Claxton is understandably reflective. Surveying what she’s been up to all these years has been a remarkable experience for her. “At the end it’s a relief,” she says. “But at the moment it’s scary, daunting and uplifting.” She laughs. “So I think those are all good things.” As for Canada’s odds of reconciliation, Claxton’s optimistic that it can happen with a shift of consciousness.
“It will all work itself clean,” she says. “It’ll all work itself clean, but it’s going to take awhile yet.”
Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery October 27, 2018 to February 3, 2019. A catalogue of her work co-published by Figure 1 Publishing & The Vancouver Art Gallery is available for purchase online and at the Gallery Gift Shop.Vancouver Art Gallery