First Nations/Second Nature examines everything from frisking poses to tangled flags

Downtown Eastside a provocative setting for show on power and place; multimedia installations calm and confound

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      First Nations/Second Nature

      At the Audain Gallery at SFU Woodward’s until March 20

      The Audain Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, First Nations/Second Nature, is certainly appropriate to its highly charged location. The history of the Downtown Eastside, where the gallery and the rest of the (partially completed) SFU Woodward’s contemporary-arts complex are situated, is one of competing claims and unsettled demographics. And the show, which surveys the work of nine artists from near and far, examines questions of territory and nationhood, in North America and elsewhere. It also questions the diverse ways in which we assert power over place.

      The arts have played no small part in the history of claims to the DTES: artist-run centres, artists’ studios, temporary public-art projects, writing cooperatives, and political bookstores have all come and gone in this neighbourhood. The SFU Woodward’s complex represents another bid to recover the DTES from dereliction and degradation—and yet poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and illness still prevail. Woodward’s has been the witness, and in some cases the forum, for these social conditions.

      The place of aboriginal people in the DTES is one of the provocative themes folded into Rebecca Belmore’s new work, sister. A single colour photograph printed across three separate sheets of white plastic, it hangs just inside the gallery’s Hastings Street windows. Here, the camera has captured a slender woman from behind, arms outstretched, as if she were being frisked by police—or crucified.

      She is dressed casually in a hoodie, denim jacket, and jeans. Despite this generic garb, we gather from the identity of the artist, the title of the work, and the colour of the model’s hair and hands that she is First Nations. And that because she is First Nations, she is the victim of systemic racism, the subject of negative cultural stereotypes, and the object of harsh and harassing treatment from figures of authority.

      Add brutal disregard to brutal over-scrutiny: it can’t be forgotten here how many of the murdered and missing women of the DTES were aboriginal, their disappearances uninvestigated for years. Yet one of the ironies of sister is the way it is photographed and produced, like a mainstream fashion ad for, say, the Gap. The slender denim-clad figure is shot crisply against a blank white ground. Only her martyred posture unsettles the casual chic and falsely inclusive blandishments of the advertising world.

      Adjacent to sister is a backlit text piece by Sam Durant, You Are on Indian Land Show Some Respect. The work’s title, which is also its text, and its lettering style are borrowed from a protest sign documented in an archival photograph of a Native American civil-rights demonstration. Black on an acid-green ground, the letters are suggestive of an old-fashioned typeface, perhaps even the kind of type found on an early treaty between native groups and the United States government. Durant here reminds us that the land claims of indigenous peoples, in North America as elsewhere in the postcolonial world, are a long way from being settled. In the context of this exhibition, the work also reminds us that we are standing on traditional Musqueam territory.

      Matthew Buckingham’s mixed-media installation, The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E., examines a specific land claim and an example of cold-blooded government betrayal of a long-standing treaty. A single black-and-white photograph of Mount Rushmore has been computer-altered to show us what the place will look like 500 millennia from now, when the mammoth faces of the four presidents sculpted there have eroded away. A timeline, applied in vinyl text directly to the wall, documents the history of the Black Hills area of South Dakota, where Mount Rushmore stands, including the ongoing struggle by the Lakota Sioux to recover the land guaranteed them in 1868. Perhaps, when Abraham Lincoln’s beard and George Washington’s nose have blown away in the wind, justice will be done.

      From the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Pia Fuchs (aka Patricia Reed) has created an engaging artwork by overlaying, on a single white piece of fabric, the black outlines of the designs found on the flags of every country recognized by the United Nations. Circles, stars, stripes, waves, mottoes, insignia, and crestlike curlicues create a hectic and ultimately ludicrous tangle of nationalisms. Plant that on a mountaintop or seabed far, far away.

      Other artists represented in the show are Greg Curnoe, Jimmie Durham, Andrea Geyer, Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Andrew Lee, and Brian Jungen. (Jungen’s small ink drawings on cheap paper, with their cartoonlike depictions of rustic and ironic directional signs, have provided the exhibition with its title.) From a range of geographic locales and cultural perspectives, all the works here make variously metaphoric and literal references to claims of territory, histories of contested sites, and assertions of nationhood. It’s a fine show.