Dana Claxton disrupts with images of resilience and reclamation

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      Dana Claxton: Made to Be Ready
      At the Audain Gallery until March 12

      Beauty and drama are two of the tools Dana Claxton uses to challenge social assumptions and demolish cultural stereotypes. In her Audain Gallery exhibition, Made to Be Ready, she asks us to reconsider the ways in which indigenous women are represented in museums and galleries. As an artist of Lakota heritage, she presents us with a model of resilience, resistance, and reclamation. She also draws on her knowledge of western art forms and conventions to disrupt and rearrange the modernist idea of the ready-made.

      In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp famously created the ready-made by isolating an everyday object (a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a urinal) from its original setting, signing it, and displaying it in a gallery. By this act, he outraged convention, privileging the banal object as art and assigning it aesthetic value. In the early 21st century, Claxton asks us to look again at the cultural belongings of First Nations people, which have been removed from their original context, stripped of their use value, and displayed as “artifacts” in museums or “aesthetic objects” in galleries. Her art suggests we consider them as “made-to-be-ready”, that is, as living objects that were created with an immediate functional or ceremonial purpose, into which indigenous aesthetic values and symbolic meanings are inextricably bound.

      These values, Claxton reminds us, have nothing to do with museological or curatorial practices, nor do they correspond with western ideas of collecting or connoisseurship. Still, she ironically acknowledges that she is asking us to be aware of such cultural dynamics through the production and presentation of new “indigenous art” objects with their own aesthetic and cultural power—her photographs and video works.

      Two of these take the form of large colour transparencies mounted in lightboxes, which are described here as “fireboxes”. The silk banners on which another pair of colour photos are reproduced, Buffalo Woman 1 and 2, are identified as “windboxes”. This wordplay serves to rewrite common display devices into Plains culture, while subtly demonstrating how values may be mediated by language. In Cultural Belongings, a woman wearing a contemporary dress and high heels, with a beaded veil covering her face, holds a horse-head rattle and steps forward as if dancing. At the same time, she drags a load of beaded, painted, quilled, and embroidered objects—pendants, belts, bags, baskets, a quiver—behind her on the long train of her buckskin robe. Headdress is a close-up shot of the same woman in the same beaded headband and veil, her face obscured by dense strands of glass, stone, bone, ceramic, and wooden beads, from which hang an array of pendants and small carvings.

      These works are provocatively ambiguous, suggesting that we have too often allowed the display of historic indigenous objects to obscure their meanings and the identities of their makers, the women who tanned, sewed, beaded, embroidered, and wove so much of what we see in anthropology museums. Such objects are also portrayed as something of a burden, dragging behind the dancer, anchoring her in the past. At the same time, however, there is a seemingly opposite message here: the need for contemporary First Nations and Native American women to reclaim cultural belongings as a means of asserting power, identity, and spirituality.

      Claxton’s big video projection, Uplifting, straightforwardly embodies her understanding of the idea of “survivance”—resilience and survival—proposed by Anishinabe writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor. Here, an indigenous woman, clad from neck to ankle in red, slowly and agonizingly crawls across a darkened plain on her hands and knees, imprisoned within a narrow beam of light. Her head hangs down, her black hair obscures her face, she casts a long shadow. At the far side of the screen, she collapses, rolls over on her back, her body racked with painful spasms. She makes repeated, failed efforts to rise, then finally, laboriously, stands up, places a Lakota necklace and pouch around her neck, adjusts it so that it is visible to us against the blood red of her garment, then walks away. It’s a stunning work—painfully direct, ultimately hopeful. Survivance.