First Nations art: a hopeful development

Kent Monkman, Icon for a New EmpireKent Monkman, Icon for a New Empire


TORONTO.- From images of Apache kids with skateboards to traditional tribal graphics, Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World explores the challenges of being indigenous and an artist in the 21st century.

Opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario on April 4 and continuing through August 23, Remix features the work of 15 artists from Canada, the United States and Mexico. This generation of artists doesn’t feel compelled to reflect a traditional tribal identity in their work. Instead, they are developing a post-Indian articulation of the aboriginal identity, one that features new ideas and challenges old perceptions.

Artists tend to be at the cutting edge of historical developments. Perhaps this generation of native Americans will take a novel, “remix” approach to the social challenges faced by their communities.

First Nations and Inuit people are trying to keep a traditional culture alive. At the same time, they are trying not merely to survive but to thrive in a radically different age — modernity.

To “remix” is to combine bits of music or sound sampled from two or more songs. Applied to First Nation and Inuit communities, “remix” implies making use of elements of two or more cultures. It strikes me as a promising strategy — much better than the alternatives:

  • clinging to a traditional way of life;
  • abandoning tradition to embrace modernity; or
  • a “melting pot” approach which leaves both tradition and modernity compromised.

To illustrate the point:

A short video by Montreal-based Nadia Myre, called Portrait in Motion, shows an aboriginal woman in a half-birchbark and half-aluminum canoe.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that in practice. But conceptually, this is precisely right:  elements of each culture, seamlessly joined together, and yet retaining enough of the original source that each element is still recognizably “native” or “modern”.

If the art exhibit is representative of a new boldness among First Nations and Inuit youth — taking pride in aboriginal traditions even as they stake a claim in modernity — this is a hopeful development.


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