Witnesses makes palpable the impact of residential schools
At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until December 1
In Chris Bose’s video SavageHeathen, the voice of Stephen Harper sounds over altered historical footage of First Nations children in the “care” of white priests, nuns, doctors, nurses, and teachers. Images break up, overlap, and dissolve into brain-busting colours, while Harper delivers, in flat, businesslike tones, the federal government’s 2008 apology to the victims of the Indian Residential School program. Maybe it’s my personal bias (I’m not exactly a fan of our prime minister), but I had the impression that Harper would have brought more sincerity and depth of feeling to a reading of the 1954 Regina telephone directory. Still, the ghastly facts he alludes to—the abuses and deprivations, the deaths both physical and spiritual, the government’s stated intention to “kill the Indian in the child”—are undeniable. In Canada, for over a century, a campaign of cultural genocide was waged against the First Nations through their youngest and most vulnerable members.
Bose is one of 21 artists from across the country who are represented in Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. Organized by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, this is one of several shows intended to coincide with the Vancouver events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (September 18 to 21). Most of the works on view are recent and contemporary, but a few were made in the 1970s and ’80s, when First Nations artists had begun to raise their voices politically through “nontraditional” means such as painting, printmaking, installation, video, performance, and photography. Some of the artists here experienced the residential-school system directly; others know of it through their own research or the stories painfully revealed by their elders.
The late Anishinabe artist Norval Morrisseau is represented by The Gift, a 1975 painting on paper. It depicts a white man carrying a bag with a cross on it, transmitting smallpox to an indigenous man and child. Blood/Kainai artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert, who died of cancer in 2009, speaks to us through her 1989 installation The Lesson. This angry, interactive work, which can also be animated by performance, takes the form of a school room. Chairs and walls are covered with blackboard paint; bright red apples, impaled on metal hooks, perch atop white-covered “history” books on each seat. Chalked on the walls are Cardinal-Schubert’s accounts of colonialism, the residential-school program, and systemic racism in Canada. Visitors are invited to add their comments to the piece, whose enveloping blackness contributes to its mournful effect.
One of the most powerful and concise works in this show is Beau Dick’s The Ghost Con-fined to the Chair. This mixed-media sculpture, based on a vision the Kwakwaka’wakw artist had, makes brilliant use of found and altered objects as well as Dick’s extraordinary carving and painting skills. Central to the piece is an old, worn restaurant chair, which he found in a carving workshop of the Alert Bay residential school and used for a while in his own studio. Sitting on it is a copy of the Indian Act and a skull-like ghost mask, bedecked with feathers, goat’s wool, and cedar bark. Painted on the chair’s exposed wooden back is Dick’s interpretation of a “box of treasure” design. The whole seems to compress the histories of all the people, young and old, who sat on the chair before it made its way into the gallery. Lisa Jackson’s video Savage is an unexpected mix of genres, from zombie film to hip hop to American musical. Set in the 1940s or ’50s, it uses song and dance rather than spoken dialogue to describe a little girl’s dehumanizing journey into the residential-school system. It also depicts her grief-stricken mother, alone in her kitchen. While much of the work in Witnesses makes palpable the impact of residential schools on the children who were forced to attend them, Jackson’s film also speaks to the sorrow and loss of parents whose children were stolen from them. It will break your heart, then startle you. Nothing is resolved.
One of Harper’s claims during the 2008 apology, as intoned in Bose’s video, is that “some former students have spoken positively about their experience in residential schools.” Maybe we’ll hear about those positive experiences at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Maybe.