Dana Claxton’s new interdisciplinary work is a cultural mashup
At Winsor Gallery until October 30
The colour red dominates Dana Claxton’s new show at Winsor Gallery. It signifies a sacred colour to the Sioux people and, more colloquially, it evokes “Red Power”, contemporary burlesque, and Western notions of sexuality. Both overtly and slyly, Claxton calls up historical references, including the colonial subjugation of aboriginal peoples, the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, and Sioux visions and creation myths.
While walking the Straight through her show, the Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist speaks about the ideas behind the works on view—and the striking fact that this is the first time she has exhibited her art in a commercial gallery. Despite the political nature of the large-scale photos, declassified documents, and single-channel video on offer, it is an elegant fit. Her works first seduce us with their beauty and amuse us with their humour, then thump us on the chest with their declarations of agency and identity.
Four large, crisply composed C-prints are excerpted from Claxton’s “Mustang Suite”, which plays on stereotypes of “Indianness” generally and Black Elk’s vision of the Horse Dance specifically. Here, the horse—the mustang—signifies freedom and mobility, but it doesn’t always manifest itself literally as a four-legged creature. Contemporary surrogates abound, as do references to popular and consumer culture. In Baby Girls Gotta Mustang, for instance, two aboriginal girls—twins in identical little red dresses and fur-trimmed mukluks—sit on identical red Mustang bicycles and look seriously at the camera. In Daddy’s Gotta New Ride, an aboriginal man in a black suit, face paint, and long, dark braids stands beside, yes, a Ford Mustang convertible, red with white interior. It’s cultural mashup time in Claxton-ville.
More provocatively, in Mama Has a Pony Girl”¦Named History and Sets Her Free, a medicine woman dressed in a long, red, braided robe stretches out her arm to banish a prancing white woman, who is costumed like a burlesque dancer. The dancer’s all-red, pony-girl outfit includes a feather headdress, fringed scanties, and an S & M bridle in her mouth. The image is about aboriginal women freeing themselves from history, Claxton says, and especially from sexual subjugation and fetishization. Her mix of risqué humour and deadly seriousness—one only has to think of recent and ongoing sexual violence toward First Nations women—is deeply unsettling.
The most recent works on view are greatly enlarged, black-and-white photos of four declassified FBI documents concerning the American Indian Movement (AIM). These images were first gathered by Claxton when she was living in New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Doing research at the New York Public Library, she came across microfiche copies of hundreds of such documents, many of them with extensive passages obliterated by the strokes of black marking pens.
One of the “CONFIDENTIAL” works in her AIMS series consists almost entirely of erasures: the effect is of a hovering black cloud on a streaky grey-white ground, which Claxton jokingly refers to as her homage to abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. The words still legible at the bottom of the page read, chillingly and ambiguously, “This document contains neither recommendations nor conclusions.” Another document names the leaders of AIM, and yet another states the intentions of AIM to “raise questions in the minds of Indians and non-Indians alike regarding Indian sovereignty, land and culture.” Raise questions. That’s pretty subversive.
The power of these works resides both in their formal qualities—the bands of deep black and lines of old-fashioned type laid out against the streaky, low-tech grounds—and their literal content. In an age obsessed with the threat of terrorism, it’s interesting to consider the human rights aspirations locked beneath the FBI headings of “EXTREMIST MATTERS”. Our fear of the unknown “Other” persists.