Urban aboriginal youths claim their space at the Museum of Anthropology

In a feisty new show at the Museum of Anthropology, the digital and the sampled express resilience and frustration, wit and rage
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Claiming Space: Voices of Urban Aboriginal Youth
At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until January 4

As Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers recently toured the press through Claiming Space at the Museum of Anthropology, she noted how many of the young artists represented make fluent use of digital media to communicate their images and ideas. And, yes, among a range of two- and three-dimensional works, there are some impressive performance videos and music videos on display. They, however, are not where the digital aspect of this show ends—not at all. Viewers are invited to participate in more fully realizing the pieces on view through tweeting about them and posting cellphone photos online. Gone are the days when museum visitors were forbidden, for copyright reasons, from photographing closely guarded artworks. Among its many messages, Claiming Space tells us that sampling, sharing, and social media rock.

Subtitled Voices of Urban Aboriginal Youth, the exhibition is curated by Tailfeathers (a filmmaker, writer, and actor of Blackfoot and Sami descent) and Pam Brown (of the Heiltsuk Nation, she is MOA’s Pacific Northwest curator and leader of its Native Youth Program), and surveys works by 25 aboriginal artists, ages 15 to 25. They’re from near and far—near being the southern coast of British Columbia and far being the Maritimes, the United States, Norway, and New Zealand. Art forms range from hip-hop to zines to cedar-bark dresses, and from poems to photos to painted drums. Most of the art is highly politicized and addresses “what it means to be an urban aboriginal youth in today’s society”, Tailfeathers said. Cultural identity, social and sexual stereotypes, violence against aboriginal women, land claims within the urban context, and the threatened natural environment are all addressed here, in ways that are both poignant and powerful.

The first work we encounter, Musqueam Youth: Reclaiming Spaces, records just that. Young people from the Musqueam reserve seek out sites throughout the city of Vancouver that are sacred to their culture. Whether on beaches or among downtown towers, they mark their territory with small and subtle symbols. Still photos and videos of their activities are digitally projected onto a deeply pleated screen so that the pixels resemble the bright threads of a woven garment. The piece reminds us that the land on which Vancouver stands was not empty but long-occupied before Europeans arrived and claimed it as their own.

Sarah Yankoo has made a “virtual Indian status card” to register her protest of the gender discrimination that occurs under the Indian Act. Her larger premise, however, is the necessity for urban aboriginal people to daily renegotiate the rules and agreements that dictate the conditions of their existence. Her oversized status card, issued by the “Department of Edgewalking and Treaty Busting Affairs”, communicates its message to us with both wit and anger.

Displayed on a nearby monitor are three short, emotionally fraught videos. In My Culture, Nola Naera employs both humour and seriousness to proclaim her Maori identity—which is contradicted by her European appearance. In Pink Plastic, Tongan-Samoan artist Zach Soakai addresses Polynesian society, asking for understanding and acceptance of his sexual orientation. “I am the third love child of a Manatee mother and Sea Urchin father,” he says, midway through a monologue that is both heartfelt and heartbreaking. In Belonging, Kelsey Sparrow and Mari Luscombe Freisen reflect on their discomfort working within an anthropology museum filled with “stolen” cultural materials.

On another monitor, Raymond Caplan employs hand-drawn and rotoscope animation to tell the story of a depressed young man struggling and then succeeding “to find his passion”—to discover a meaningful form of expression for himself. In their infectious hip-hop video, Ghetto Trapped Youth, Shane Kelsey and Cory Golder urge both Native and non-Native kids to break out of their depressed urban surroundings.

There’s so much here that compels the eye, the mind, and the heart, including Taleetha Tait’s beautifully painted deer-hide drum, Birch Baskets, which alludes to the cultural knowledge of her grandparents; Danielle Morsette’s Coast Salish Potlatch Dress, gorgeously woven in wool and cedar bark; and Crystal Smith de Molina’s alternately hopeful and despairing poetry presented in the form of wall-mounted verse. Ellena Neel’s photographic self-portrait, Kelly Clifton’s painting of souvenir dolls, and Jeneen Frei Njootli’s performance video all critique white society’s objectification and demeaning of aboriginal women. Njootli’s imagery—in which she wraps a patterned cloth around her head, obscuring her identity, and then cuts strategic holes in it—particularly underscores attitudes that have led to decades of unreported violence and abuse.

Disturbing as such works are, they are an aspect of what Tailfeathers described as this show’s “celebration of resilience among aboriginal people”. Through both direct viewing and the extended experience of social media, the space that is claimed here is one of dialogue and decolonization.

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