After working on the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) exhibition Carry Forward in 2017, I continued thinking about written and oral history. I was thinking, in particular, about the disjuncture of these ways of communicating during treaty negotiations between Indigenous people and the Crown. Anishinaabe law scholar John Borrows has explained that, during the negotiation of the Royal Proclamation at the Treaty of Niagara in 1764, when over 24 nations met with Sir William Johnson (a representative of the Crown), the written text of this proclamation represented only part of the agreement. Borrows argues, “The concepts found in the Proclamation have different meanings when interpreted in accord with the wampum belt.” Wampum involves spoken agreements and oral histories; the wampum belt materials used in that negotiation carry the specific premise of self-determination and non-interference by colonial nations in First Nations land use and governance. Many accounts of these negotiations describe an unethical breakdown of communication, in that the spoken agreement was not the same as the written agreement.
With Carry Forward, I concentrated on documents and documentary in different forms, and the way those material items—including wampum and written contracts— carried authority. I was then compelled to consider more closely the spoken, aural, and oral aspects of communication and conveyance. With the support and consultation of KWAG Senior Curator Crystal Mowry, I developed the concept and composition of this exhibition, Post Script (2018). In many ways, Post Script counters the action of script by considering ways that voice, listening, and language are key components of the backstories of material documents like the ones in Carry Forward. The artworks in Post Script turn to plants, water, trees, and land instead of texts as the receptacles of knowledge and agreements.
“P.S.” or “post script” appears as a statement or action at the end of a written document. Often brief and insightful, the post script is where a writer may locate essential or urgent information—content that may be critical to remember before a recipient crafts their response. Continuing conversations from the exhibition Carry Forward, Post Script started with the profound and active land acknowledgement created by Rebecca Belmore’s influential artwork Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother (1991). For the first three days of June 2018, this single work occupied KWAG’s 4200-square-foot Main Gallery. As an inspired correspondence, Post Script unfolded through the month of June like a garden expanding, its roots pushing deeper and its blossoms opening up. Each Monday, beginning June 4, another work joined the exhibition, allowing a conversation to build incrementally within the space between Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan, and new and recent works by a succeeding generation of Indigenous artists: Melissa General, Luke Parnell, and Susan Blight. Each of these artworks emphasizes a material or element: General’s, water; Parnell’s, cedar trees; and Blight’s, bearberry. I want to write about these works by first acknowledging the places these medicines and materials exist and live. I then think through the seemingly microcosmic existence of trees, plants, and water, and consider how each artwork acknowledges land expansively through the interconnectedness of all living beings. Post Script continues a discussion with a particular emphasis on the inextricable link between the body, land, and voice.
In 1992, Rebecca Belmore traveled across Canada with Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother and invited people from both rural areas and urban centres to speak to the land. During her early performances, a handheld microphone and speaker were mounted in the narrow end of the sculpture’s bell-like form, allowing each speaker to amplify their voice across a distance. The politics of First Nations voices being heard were paramount. Made in response to the Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) resistance to the construction of a golf course on their land at Kanehsatà:ke, Quebec, in the summer of 1990 (also known as the Oka Crisis), this work turned the microphone over to First Nations people, so they could speak without mediation or suppression by the government or news media. The work emphasizes that land, which includes all living entities—meaning not only plants and animals, but ancestors, lakes, and waterways—receives the sounds of our voices. In 2017, Belmore revisited and responded to her original work by creating large, conical outdoor sculptures designed to listen to land and water. In an interview with writer-curator Lindsay Nixon, Belmore explained that the work invites people to spend time with the land, “taking a moment to sit on the earth itself” and contemplate their connections and experiences. Sound, voice, and song are not made merely for the reception of human ears, yet taking time to listen is a powerful action. A vocal acknowledgment of land suggests an accountability to, and reciprocity and relationship with, the environment we inhabit.
The poignancy of these public actions is revealed in Speaking to Their Mother (1992), a documentary (included in the exhibition Carry Forward) that Métis filmmaker Marjorie Beaucage made in Northern Saskatchewan. Beaucage’s video provides a special view of Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan in action and a window into Belmore’s process and motivations for making the artwork, while also documenting community members speaking Cree and playing the fiddle to a clear-cut forest. Today, Belmore’s megaphone exists as an iconic artwork that lives in two forms: as a tool for socially engaged intervention and as a sculpture that reminds us of its outstanding potential.
Rivers are a conveyance, a way of delivering items and people—and perhaps other, intangible, infusions. Melissa General’s video installation Kehyá:ra's (2016) records the artist’s action of collecting and carrying water from the Grand River, which runs through her home territory, Six Nations of the Grand River. KWAG and General’s proximity to the Grand River reminds viewers of the contentious and unfulfilled Haldimand Proclamation (1784), in which the British granted land to the Haudenosaunee, who had negotiated the transfer of six miles on either side of the river from Elora to Lake Erie as a condition for fighting alongside the British in the American Revolution. This land transfer did not happen, and today, the Six Nations reserve is considerably smaller than what the British promised. Even the authority of the British to grant this land was questionable: According to Anishinaabe scholar Gidigaa Migizi (Doug Williams), author, elder and former Chief of Curve Lake First Nation, the Mississaugas lived along the Grand River and the north shore of Lake Ontario.
General’s video installation was the first work to join Belmore’s work in Post Script. For visitors, entering the gallery was an important moment, when they simultaneously saw Belmore’s megaphone piece and heard the sound of flowing water emanating from General’s video, so that water was the beginning of the conversation between artworks. The overwhelming volume and constant flow of the river echo General’s persistence and the urgency she brings to a task that may otherwise appear futile. The late Mohawk scholar Deborah Doxtator related that “all the Rotinonhsyonni stories, from the creation story to the peacemaker story, emphasize the role of repeated activity in creating change.” Writing from Rotinonhsyonni (Mohawk for Haudenosaunee) cultural specificity, she argued that cultural expressions have changed but stay rooted in the same things and within a network of relationships among knowledge holders. The impulse to gather water suggests a need to access and protect something contained within the river—perhaps memories, histories, and knowledge based on Haudenosaunee cosmology. The repetition reads as an effort to make change, to emphasize and highlight, eliciting deep reflection by the viewer. Knowledge of clan matriarchs and creation stories are all related to land and water. Now contained and sealed inside General’s mother’s Mason jars, the river water’s appearance continues to change. The filled jars become documents of her connection to her community on the river, and how knowledge is passed on through her mother and the river water. The titles of General’s artworks are often Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk) words, and no English translation is provided. By referencing the sound of the Kanyen’kéha language and of water in this way, General creates multiple possibilities of voicing to and from the land.
Carved cedar poles mark the territory of Northwest Coastal Nations. The carved imagery expresses the people’s roles and relationships to site, family, and other nations. During a residency in 2016 at Stewart Hall in Point Claire, Quebec, Luke Parnell carved Remnant 1 (2017) with two stacked figures. The lower area of the pole portrays his main family crest in the carving of a beaver with a broken stick, while the intricate design of an eagle, which also communicates clan relationships, was carved above. Scored in the surface of the sculpture was a middle line, a mark between the two figures where Parnell eventually cut the pole in half with a chainsaw. Although this act may seem to echo cutting trees, or even severing totem poles from their original places for relocation in museums, for Parnell, cutting the pole asserted the intangible wealth of knowledge that he builds on in his work as a carver and artist. Far from a sacrifice, this act declared that another pole can be made. The presence of Parnell’s work in two adjacent rooms at KWAG established a space for the remaining half of the pole, which sat in the middle of the floor with pieces of charcoal arranged around its base, facing Belmore’s megaphone. The two wooden structures connected through their material. The megaphone is made out of plywood, with its additive construction emphasized by exposed joinery and framing. Parnell’s work, on the other hand, was made through a reductive carving of material that highlights the treatment of the sculpture’s surface. Having the megaphone in the gallery became a holding space until its next performance. This tension between objects being used in performance and existing as objets d’art in a museum setting also emanated from Parnell’s work Remediation (2018).
Parnell enacted an endurance performance, travelling across the country with his totem pole as a backpack, and created a docudrama about the journey—the video Remediation—with artist-filmmaker Sean Arden. Through the making of Remnant 1 and Remediation, he responded to the 1957 CBC documentary Rescuing the Timeless Totems of SGang Gwaay. Narrated by Haida artist Bill Reid, this film details an expedition to the lower west end of the Haida Gwaii archipelago for the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC. The film documents men sawing down poles that were in situ, cutting these towering monuments into sections, and crating them for transport to the Royal BC Museum on Vancouver Island. The process is painful to watch and, in retrospect, highlights an extremely violent act undertaken for the sake of so-called preservation. Herein is the paradox of conservation, where the colonial observance of preservation, authenticity, and the authority of museum collections eclipsed the context and purpose of the poles. The premise of “rescuing” in the film’s title connotes the misconceptions of a nineteenth-century salvage paradigm, the assumption that Indigenous cultures were dying and therefore in need of external documentation, and the expropriation of their cultural belongings—all in the wake of the 1884 Potlatch Law legislated under the Indian Act, which banned Potlatch and other ceremonies.
Generations later, in Remediation, we see Parnell cutting the pole in half, figuratively allowing the eagle to take flight and become a companion on his journey across the country. They share moments of reflection as they travel through the grounds of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, and around Vancouver Island, where some of the poles from the 1957 SGang Gwaay expedition are displayed. Scenes of Parnell walking through Vancouver, past other poles displayed along city streets, in windows, and at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, highlight the absurdity of the artist’s task. This work speaks to the lives of the poles in museums, yet also the lives of poles not in museums, which can take their final forms and return to their basic elements of soil within a paradigm of self-determination and trust that another will grow.
Bearberry grows close to the ground in lush green patches nestled in shield bedrock. Symbolic of survival, this perennial medicine plant also represents an Anishinaabe fluency in land and an intimate knowledge of place. Medicine plants necessitate tenets of reciprocity, where one gives back to the land before taking what one needs. Similarly to Belmore’s Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, Susan Blight’s artwork often exists outside gallery walls. Her work with Hayden King in the collective Ogimaa Mikana and also her solo work intervene in public spaces. She claims space with Anishinaabemowin and introduces Anishinaabe concepts of being to an incidental audience.
For Post Script, Blight invited plant life into the gallery space with We Will Be Heard (2019), a plant on a gallery plinth with an ultraviolet lighting source suspended above it. The word “Giga-noondaagozimin” in gold vinyl script on the gallery wall seemed to reverberate as a phrase spoken by the bearberry plant and coming from the voices of Indigenous people. Both voices brought to mind Belmore’s work, and the way it carries voice and calls for a response from the land. Blight’s installation engaged in an important conversation with the other artworks that shared its space. The bearberry plant sat within earshot of the megaphone, as if poised to receive the first utterance before its sound waves traveled around the space. In response to the idea that the land will hear words and songs, Blight’s text reminds us that our survival depends on listening to all living things, plants included. The reception of sound does not reside in or end at the human ear. Both speaking and listening are reciprocal acts. Although much more subtle, listening contributes to the weight of utterances. Knowledge of plant medicine means a commitment to a slow process of learning and understanding the plant’s life and context within a larger ecosystem and knowledge system.
The incremental unfolding of this exhibition sought to use the gallery as a space of creation to build and learn. As a curator, I wanted to learn from the artworks, and this essay represents what each artwork taught me. This work and the conversation among works expanded my thinking about how a gallery can be a temporary zone of contact for practices that are often outside it, and also a space for these works to confer before moving on to other contexts and conditions. This exhibition proposes different kinds of texts that exist in the aural and oral. Through the pace of growing, walking through, and wading into, these singular texts come together as a chorus, acknowledging the work of those who came before and building upon to create anew.
I wanted people to speak directly to the land. The way that work functioned, when it functioned well, was when it would find an echo, so your voice would echo back. You’d kind of be confronted with your own self in relation to the land, you know?—Rebecca Belmore