Art Seen: International

BEAT NATION // MUSÉE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN DE MONTRÉAL

by Tina Gelsomini

On the heels of the international indigenous solidarity movement IDLE NO MORE, first sparked by four women in Saskatchewan in the fall of 2012, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal has programmed a timely and eclectic exhibition of aboriginal art from across the continent, first shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Taking its cue from the subversive and norm-challenging framework of hip hop, whose roots are grounded in voicing the marginalized, Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture encompasses a wide variety of multi-platform works, combining aspects of urban and rural life, as well as contemporary mainstream culture and traditional aboriginal culture – often to create potent, politically-charged works, that are also unique, reflexive, and playful.

By definition, music is an essential element of the exhibition – whether in a direct role, or as inspiration.  Fittingly, we can hear the exhibition before we can see it. Ascending the stairs to the galleries, the haunting electronic music of Inuk DJ Dubyadub becomes a more persistent beat, more pressing as we round the stairs to emerge in the lobby of the main gallery. Straight ahead, the sound is revealed to be part of Dubyadub’s Madeskimo, a piece that incorporates filtered and pixilated video archives of Italian-American actor Iron Eyed Cody, playing a Native American character. His impersonation becomes ridiculous as he plods through the snow in rough, jumpy cuts set to electronic beats mixed with female Hindi vocals, referencing Columbus’ infamous supposed discovery of the East Indies. With this singular work, the curators set the tone for the entire exhibition – as commentary on Hollywood’s chronic misrepresentation of aboriginals intermingles with allusions to larger historical failures – all viewed through the filter of powerful and unapologetically modern reclamations of aboriginal identity.

Nikamowin (Song), 2008. Kevin Lee Burton, Digital video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Nikamowin (Song), 2008. Kevin Lee Burton, Digital video still. Courtesy of the artist.

While the works that comprise Beat Nation are varied, they follow certain streams; meticulously curated to give us the sense of walking through an other-worldly urban environment, where the streets and walls are remarkably fresh and clean, our fellow pedestrians are courteous art admirers, and the harsh nature of hip hop and urban street art are temporarily removed from the real conditions of societal marginalization that led to their very creation. Throughout the exhibition, flawless spray-painted line graffiti by Corey Bullpit and Larissa Healey consume a gallery wall, a driverless gang of community-made low rider bikes hover pristinely in a room without use, and Roland Souliere’s Frequent Stopping Part I & II takes over gallery walls with street barriers and caution tape, recreating markers of urban geography with jagged, nonlinear and repurposed meaning.

As we move past the graffitied walls, bikes, and colorful prints towards the back room of the exhibition, we are presented with a much sleeker room where silver and gold-hued works seem to mimic the facades of skyscrapers. Here, Sonny Assu’s series of 136 copper-plated records hang like trophies along the back wall, while her collection of 67 hide drums covered in acrylic take over the wall to our right. This combination of similar works – both representing music, yet wildly different in their achievement of sound – once again alludes to the combination of materials and cultural practices, which permeates Beat Nation. Also located in the rear room, Maria Hupfield contributes a collection of silver-colored jingle gloves and jingles boots with an accompanying Polaroid and video, in which Hupfield, projected to be nearly life-size, rhythmically and repetitively jumps wearing the boots. In the way that the over-saturation and over-stimulation of our urban environment is intermingled with small moments of respite, Beat Nation also creates moments of focus wherein individual works can shine. Located in its own darkened room, Jordan Bennett’s Turning Tables – a hand-carved turn table fashioned from oak, spruce and walnut – softly plays music; stripping down technology to the most natural of elements.

Ellipsis, 2012. Sonny Assu  Copper LPs, 11 ¾" diameter, series of 136. Courtesy of the artist and Equinox Gallery. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

Ellipsis, 2012. Sonny Assu. Copper LPs, 11 ¾” diameter, series of 136. Courtesy of the artist and Equinox Gallery. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

While the more serene moments of Beat Nation are welcome and often necessary additions, the strongest and most commanding works are those that indulge in the process of loud, in-your-face playfulness as much as the exhibition’s curators. The act of play manifests itself time and again, as both performance and as tongue-in-cheek, subversive and humorous critique. As we pick up one of the two pairs of headphones hanging alongside a flat screen television, we tune in to the music video Dance to Miss Chief, in which Kent Monkman appears as his alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testical, whose seductive dance is interspersed with archival footage from Karl May’s German Westerns. The piece culminates to create a hilariously disturbing romance between Miss Chief and May’s character Winnetou. While humorous, Monkman invokes absurd performance to reassert ownership over blockbuster caricatures and to reclaim power over the constant fetishization and exotification of aboriginal sexualities.

Dance to Miss Chief, 2010. Kent Monkman. Still from single channel video. Courtesy of the artist.

Dance to Miss Chief, 2010. Kent Monkman. Still from single channel video. Courtesy of the artist.

The longer we spend in the pseudo-urban world of Beat Nation, the more strongly we realize that the art is very rarely what it first appears to be; fresh meanings are constantly crafted between the interplay of the old and the new, the center and the margins. These well-represented indigenous artists rework the ideas, practices, and materials of previous generations just as easily as they borrow from and reinterpret popular culture. While the works are set apart by varied process and form, they are linked by the playful urban creativity and shared aboriginal history that reverberates throughout.


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Tina Gelsomini graduated with distinction from Concordia University with a dual degree in Communications & Cultural Studies and Etudes Françaises. She currently works at the Montréal-based, nonprofit media arts network Cinema Politica.

Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture runs through January 5, 2014.

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