Not Just a Hang Ten: Rethinking Extreme Boardsports with Art 

Thursday 21st, February 2019 / 17:33
By Stephan Boissonneault  


By Amanda Strong, Maashchii (to move), 2018. Mixed media. Collection of the Artist.

CALGARY – Not many people think about the origins of skateboarding, surfing, or snowboarding—boardsports that now each have multi-million-dollar businesses behind them in the form of gear, clothing, and other culture oddities—but they are actually very Indigenous.  

A recent interdisciplinary art exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) called Boarder X aims to demonstrate how board sports have a powerful relationship to the land and all stem from Indigenous heritage.  

Boardsports actually all began with surfing which was an ancient part of Indigenous Polynesian and Samoan cultures.  

“Surfing was then adapted into land surfing with skateboarding and then snowboarding,” says the exhibition’s curator Jaimie Issac. “It [the exhibition] really celebrates that culture arts and boarding practices intersect in many of the artists’ work and it really embodies how the artists interact to their environments, politics, and cultural landscapes that they occupy.”  

By Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Potlach or Die, 2018. Acrylic on wood, horse hair. Collection of the Artist. Photo credit: Don Hall, courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery.

Boarder X had its beginnings as a smaller exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2016. This current iteration has artwork from more than 10 artists including Jordan Bennett, Meghann O’Brien, Amanda Strong, Mark Igloliorte, and more.  

“I also have this background of being a snowboarder, skateboarding and surfing, so I have that kind of connection to the show,” says Issac. “I was really interested to do the research of other Indigenous contemporary artists across Canada that had a practice of skateboarding, snowboarding, or surfing and channelled that practice within their artwork. So, all of the artists continue that practice.”  

The exhibition has close to every type of artistic medium within it including, but not limited to: painting, sculpture, video installation, photography, puppetry, and 3D monitoring.  

“One [artist] that I knew about years before the exhibition opening was Mark Igloliorte who uses two videos in the show to think about his Inuit heritage by doing the Eskimo roll with the kayak and in the other video, doing a kickflip. It’s actually the same gesture of rotational spin,” says Issac. “Jordan Bennett has also brought in skateboarding as a way to mobilize traditional knowledge and heritage of the land.”  

Ultimately, Boarder X is about rethinking the notions of extreme sports as more of a way to connect with the land around you. 

“As a skateboarder in the urban context, you’re skating in these urban spaces,” says Issac. “Snowboarding is the same. Meghann O’Brien—who used to be a professional snowboarder—thinks about her weaving practice with the mountain goat wool that she also shares the mountain with. So really, extreme sports a really a way of life.”  

Boarder X also has a sister exhibition that is being presented along with it called cantchant, by multimedia Australian artist Vernon Ah Kee. It’s a massive installation of surfboards decorated with traditional shield designs and colours of the Aboriginal flag. 

“On the flipside of the boards are portraits of Vernon Ah Kee’s ancestors and relatives,” says Issac. “The installation is surrounded by text paintings that talk about the race riots in Sydney Australia. It’s really talking about territorialism within surfing culture but also an erasure of the Aboriginal people that had origins to surfing and their relationship to the land. It’s a really strong work and it pairs really nicely with the Boarder X exhibition.” 


By Micheal Langan / Colonialism Skateboards Collaboration with Kent Monkman, The Four Continents, 2018. Skateboard desks. Photo credit: Don Hall, courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery.

Border X runs Jan. 26 – May 19 at the Art Gallery of Alberta