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Daina Warren, a curator and the Director of the Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Gallery in Winnipeg, has chosen five films on VUCAVU and written the following essay titled “ âkâm'askîhk  ᐋᑳᒼ'ᐊᐢᑮ ” (Across the Land). Warren’s selection explores the many ways that the land can influence an artist's work.

 
Daina Warren

Daina Warren

Curator and Director of the Urban Shaman
Contemporary Aboriginal Gallery 

"âkâm'askîhk  ᐋᑳᒼ'ᐊᐢᑮ" (Across the land)
Film Selection and Essay by Daina Warren

 

Daina Warren is a member of the Montana or Akamihk Cree Nation in Maskwacis (Bear Hills), Alberta. In 2000, she was awarded the Canada Council's Assistance to Aboriginal Curators for Residencies in the Visual Arts Grant to work with grunt gallery in Vancouver. Warren completed the Canada Council's Aboriginal Curatorial Residency at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where she curated the exhibition Don't Stop Me Now (2011). Warren holds a BA from Emily Carr University of Art and Design and a Masters in Art History; completing the Critical and Curatorial Studies program from the University of British Columbia. Recipient of the 2015 Emily Award  from Emily Carr University and selected as one of four Indigenous women curators as part of 2015 Asia-Pacific Visual Arts Delegation to participate in the First Nations Curators Exchange — an International Visitors Program of the 8th Asia-Pacific Trienniale (APT8) in Brisbane, Australia. She is currently the Director of Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

âkâm'askîhk   ᐋᑳᒼ'ᐊᐢᑮ (Across the Land)

These film works are a series of meditations that relay various artistic conceptions of the land. The artists’ earthly visuals help induce emotional responses to stories ranging from humourous to tragic, producing deep reflections about their visual world. The five videos from VUCAVU’s online database show a diversity of cultures and beliefs from local to international artists. Contrasting Native and non-Native, artists and directors, purposefully expands understandings of how various people see and value the land. In past misconceptions about our Aboriginal culture, there existed a Romantic notion of the “Indian living harmoniously with the land.” My curatorial undertaking aims to demonstrate, through a diversity of artistic voices, from many backgrounds, how each artist conveys how they want to belong and connect to their natural surroundings. The artists are from âkâm'askîhk (Across the land) (1).

SWEAT is a short film of just over four minutes, and is a gently moving piece that describes artist/director Kristin Snowbird’s first experience during an Indigenous ceremonial sweat. The piece does not film the sacred event in which she participated. This particular event took place when she was much younger, and is incredibly personal, not allowed for public spectacle. Snowbird's work alludes to the ceremony through atmospheric views of the forest as well as abstract visuals and sounds that she heard and felt while she was in the small, crowded hot lodge. The actual filming of an old lodge is borrowed from a friend’s acreage in which ceremonies have not been practiced for several years. Still, the surrounding forest holds a beautiful, hushed, and palpable power and knowledge that can be felt while standing near the small and intertwined branches of the shelter.

The film begins with a visual of the motionless artist in the woods during an autumn dusk evening. The artist's thick black and red hair is in a diagonal French braid across her head. She deliberately incorporates the image of her braided hair because of its connotations, particularly to the Sweetgrass braid, a metaphor for her location and her Ojibway / Cree identity. Sweetgrass grows naturally all over the prairies, and more importantly is a medicine that indigenous cultures use for sacred, spiritual cleansing. Generally, the braid can represent personal strength, wisdom, and Aboriginal identity. The belief is that with each addition of more hair (or Sweetgrass) the interweaving becomes a stronger entity, a stronger bonding.

The artist slowly narrates her experience while mentally preparing herself for the sweat. The birch bark trees’ rushing, intense movement conveys Snowbird's anxiety as she travels through the landscape. Dark fire scenes allude to the ceremony, as well as the artist dancing in her coloured red, white and blue ribbons, followed by the sudden flapping of a wing. The elder she spoke to at the end of the ceremony interprets that the eagle spirit had visited the artist during the sacred event. This experience remains an intense, vivid experience that Snowbird recounts to this day.


(1) “From the first time I heard about this project I had been concerned about what speaking to the land might mean, and especially that it might evoke a certain familiar Romanticism about the mystical Indigenous connection to the land and nature. Although this supposed connection is framed “positively” in the Romantic tradition, I had long recognized that the assumption of an unmediated (and thus a cultural) connection to nature was a threat to Indigenous agency, not a boon.” – Richard Hill, Speaking into Ayum‑ee‑aawach Oomama‑mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, Walter Phillips Gallery/Banff Centre Press, 2016, pg 24.

 

Sweetgrass grows naturally all over the prairies, and more importantly is a medicine that indigenous cultures use for sacred, spiritual cleansing. Generally, the braid can represent personal strength, wisdom, and Aboriginal identity. The belief is that with each addition of more hair (or Sweetgrass) the interweaving becomes a stronger entity, a stronger bonding.
Still image from "SWEAT", Kristin Snowbird, 2016 (Winnipeg Film Group)

Still image from "SWEAT", Kristin Snowbird, 2016 (Winnipeg Film Group)

Theo Pelmus’ film titled The Kingdom with Waterfalls presents a looping visual of plasticized figures of Madonna and Jesus. The figures are in the pieta pose, both covered with gold leafing and dead Blue Morpho butterflies. The image of the pieta begins to fracture into multitudes of the same image. The screen in the background is split into two scenes of continually moving waterfalls, creating a fantastical landscape, an opulent world of spiritual grandeur. The iridescent blue colour has particular meaning for the artist, referencing both the colour of the sky and furthermore, the kingdom of god (2). Pelmus, originally from Romania, is heavily influenced by this culture’s baroque religious style as well as its pagan beliefs.

The artist, fascinated by metaphor, reinterprets the religious symbol of the pieta. The artist Michelangelo first created the popular sculptural form of the suffering of the Virgin Mary and Jesus iconography. For Pelmus this iconic visual has meaning beyond the religious, as a construction that builds heavily upon faith while defining a precise moment of mourning, and the unnatural process of a child dying before their parent. The film appears to be about beauty but has darker connotations as the waterfalls suggest continual flowing tears. Moreover, the endless falling water creates the sense of vertigo, an often frightening feeling as the body experiences a sensation that it cannot control. For the artist the natural environment is an overwhelming concept, and the movement of the land takes place regardless of human attempts to control nature’s activities.

Seasick is a hand drawn animation that is roughly three and half minutes by Montreal based Director, Eva Cvijanovic. This film tells the story of a sad, heavyset, nude figure lumbering around in the shallow waters of a desolate beach. He watches tiny fish swimming past him and disturbs the surface of the water with a thin, black branch. While sitting and sighing, he looks around the empty seaside beach. This forlorn character then dons a swimming mask and immerses himself into deeper waters to observe plants moving in the water currents. He watches ships pass by, and sees another lone figure scour the beach with a metal detector. He seems to find a sort of contentment once he gets back onto the beach and burrows himself into the sand. At this point a lone snowflake falls down from the sky. The blissful images of a summer day fade to reveal he is in a one-piece snowsuit, laying in a deep pile of snow and surrounded by the dead of winter.

This particular piece is more personal for me as a curator who lives in Winnipeg (or Winterpeg), Manitoba. Although the scene that the character imagines takes place in a seaside setting, something about it first reminded me of Lake Winnipeg or more specifically, locations along Grand Beach. I wanted to pick a piece that exemplified and paid respect to this place, a place that experiences extreme temperatures throughout the year. This work is very fitting as people mentally prepare themselves for the annual plunge into an extended experience of freezing weather for several months. There is always a point in the winter where one of us has reached our limits of dealing with the weather and break down to utter our escapist fantasies from the cold.


(2) Information taken from a personal interview with the artist, Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 13, 2017.

There is always a point in the winter where one of us has reached our limits of dealing with the weather and break down to utter our escapism fantasies from the cold.
Still image from "Seasick", Eva Cvijanovic, 2013 (Winnipeg Film Group)

Still image from "Seasick", Eva Cvijanovic, 2013 (Winnipeg Film Group)

The shortest of the films, produced by Director Kent Tate titled, Prairie Grizzly Talks with Kent, offers tongue-in-cheek humour. The film is a minimal visual of the stunning, mountain landscape from Banff, Alberta. The swirling clouds are sped up as they whisk past the initial visual frame and over and around the mountains. A small rotary phone appears and rings; at the top of the visual the head of a grizzly bear answers the call; at the bottom of the visual, the profile of the artist replies, and they proceed to have an informal conversation about the grizzly bears’ migration from the prairies into the mountains. All of the films on Tate’s website present beautiful depictions and inquisitive musings about that land.

As the artist’s website describes,

“…[Tate is an] artist/filmmaker whose works explores the dichotomy between tranquility and activity in our natural and manufactured worlds. Time, motion and stillness are intertwined through Kent’s work and acts like a fulcrum upon which the environmental, social and philosophical aspects of his work are held in dynamic balance…Tate makes artworks that represent various separate, yet coexisting worlds, some of which are expanding, while others are disappearing.” (3)


(3Tate, Kent. “Kent Tate.”, http://www.pulsingearth.ca/ "(accessed May 15, 2017).

... swirling clouds are sped up as they whisk past the initial visual frame and over and around the mountains.

The final film in my chosen curatorial works titled Nallua is by Christian Matieu Fournier. This film is the saddest of the selections. Nearly a feature length at one hour and fifteen minutes, Nallua follows the journey of two Inuit women who travel back to their traditional community in Qarmaarjuit camp, on Baffin Island, Nunavut. They revisit the site where forty individuals from their families became sick from a serious illness. In the end, twenty-four individuals died from it.

Elisapie and Ruth, both Elders, recall the event in an interview. They describe what life was like when this tragedy took place. The film begins in the present in Pond Inlet, portraying scenes from their lives teaching sewing skills to the younger generation, playing cards, and skinning hides. The film follows a group that takes a tour, out to the traditional sod hut community that the women lived in approximately fifty years ago. The film highlights the majestic sweeping landscapes in both Pond Inlet and Qarmaarjuit camp.

At one point one of the Elders poses an existential comment, observing that the land has not changed. Although their perception of their world was deeply transformed after the multitude of deaths, the land was not affected by any of it, and will not be affected by the people, even after the survivors of this tragedy have also passed. The story is extremely moving, and the Elders that retell it evidently are incredibly strong women. While the work never reveals what caused the illness, the sickness could have been attributed to changes to the community’s livelihoods, including their having to move off the land and into housing away from their traditional areas. The introduction of foreign and colonial influences, and the rapid alteration of animals and food sources, likely affected this small, traditional community in transitioning into new lifestyles.

Upon review, these curatorial selections convey diverse and yet subtly similar aesthetics, including a slow moving pace, beautiful scenery, and emotionally rending stories. The land becomes the entity to which each build a story upon, and through that framing the story is echoed louder within the meandering landscapes. Each work’s visuals are powerful and intense, building stories upon the land and from across the land, âkâm'askîhk ᐋᑳᒼ'ᐊᐢᑮ.

... their perception of their world was deeply transformed after the multitude of deaths, the land was not affected by any of it, and will not be affected by the people, even after the survivors of this tragedy have also passed.
Still image from "Nallua", Christian M. Fournier, 2015 (Spira)

Still image from "Nallua", Christian M. Fournier, 2015 (Spira)