Transits and Returns
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until February 23
Ranging from fur cloaks, fish traps, and multichannel videos to bark cloth, beaded moccasins, and a sequin-covered wind turbine, Transits and Returns is an ambitious and engaging exhibition. Based on themes of Indigenous connection to ancestral lands and journeys to and from them, from an enduring sense of home, the show is also remarkable for the spirit of collaboration that has brought culturally and geographically diverse artists, curators, and venues together. Under the auspices of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, and organized by five curators, its current (and third) iteration surveys work by 21 contemporary Indigenous artists from around the Pacific.
Four of the curators—Sarah Biscarra Dilley from California, Freja Carmichael from Australia, Lana Lopesi of Samoan ancestry and based in New Zealand, and Tarah Hogue, the VAG’s senior curatorial fellow, Indigenous art—were at the recent media preview of the show. (A fifth, Léuli Eshrāghi, of Samoan, Persian, and other ancestry, was named but not present. His absence contributed to the impression that women as both artists and curators dominate the show.) As they toured us around the VAG’s third-floor galleries, the curators spoke eloquently about the art on view, much of it commissioned for the show. Daina Augaitis, the VAG’s interim director, remarked that contemporary Indigenous art is “inclusive of both ancestral knowledge and global connections”. Subthemes in Transits and Returns, the curators told us, include territory, kinship, representation, and movement. They also stressed their desire to be responsive to each Indigenous territory in which the show appears, and also to be sensitive to differing “cultural protocols”.
Within the context of Vancouver’s location on traditional and unceded Coast Salish territory, Debra Sparrow’s beautiful weavings of hand-spun sheep’s wool assert a powerful presence. Together with her sisters Wendy and Robyn, this Musqueam artist has led the renewal of her community’s ancient weaving practice, represented here by four of her gorgeously conceived and executed blankets. Three of them were commissioned for family and community and the fourth is a replication of a historic Coast Salish blanket from a European collection. Whether honouring traditional geometric patterns and pigments or creating new forms of expression through appliquéd motifs in unexpected colours, Sparrow speaks eloquently of the Musqueam past, present, and future.
The resurgence of Coast Salish weaving practices in the last few decades parallels that of possum-skin cloak-making within Australia’s Aboriginal communities, represented here by Carol McGregor’s Skin Country. This impressive work—a monumentally oversized cloak—speaks to the garment’s cultural significance. However, instead of painting the inside of the skins with individual and tribal designs and symbolic maps of territory, as has been the custom, McGregor depicts her Indigenous community’s “country” with images of local flora. She has executed these images in the idiom of European botanical prints and drawings, perhaps in reference to the Scottish side of her family.
Other works on view include Hākari by the cross-cultural BC Collective, based in Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand. (BC here stands for “Before Cook” and “Before Columbus”.) A feast-table installation, it features handmade ceramic dishes, beaded napkins, and bark-cloth placemats, and evokes the sharing of food as a means of remembering home and strengthening kinship. Mariquita “Micki” Davis, a Chamoru artist from Guam, based in Los Angeles, has lensed a complex, multipart video work, Magellan Doesn’t Live Here. Through the metaphor of an attempt to build an ancient Chamoru sailing canoe and pilot it across the ocean, the video grapples with the idea of home—where it is and whether it’s possible to find a place there.
Wuikinuxv and Klahoose artist Bracken Hanuse Corlett’s superb button blanket with projected animation, Qvùtix, references his family’s crest figures and the transformation that occurs when someone dons a dance robe. Within some North American Indigenous groups, Trickster may take the form of Coyote, a belief that resonates in I Bind You Nancy. This small sculpture by Modoc-Klamath artist Natalie Ball consists of a coyote skull partially dressed in beaded deerskin moccasins and mounted on a used, white cardboard box, as if the work had just been unpacked from it. Within the sharp-toothed jaws of the skull are beheaded pieces of vintage “Indian” dolls, each tightly wrapped in sinew thread. It’s a fierce and complex work, suggesting the legacy of colonialism—death, displacement, and misrepresentation. At the same time, it is a refusal of this history and, like many of the works here, an assertion of an enduring Indigenous presence.