Art

A Biennial Spotlights the Bonds Between Women

The Biennale d’Art Contemporain Autochtone, which this year partnered with indigenous artists and curators, was a showcase of the power of sisterhood.

Caroline Monnet, "Renaissance" (2018), 40 x 60 in. (image courtesy of Arsenal art contemporain Montréal / Galerie Division)
Caroline Monnet, “Renaissance” (2018), 40 x 60 in. (photo by Eric Cinq-Mars, all images courtesy Arsenal art contemporain Montréal / Galerie Division)

MONTREAL — I consider myself lucky to have three sisters — three wonderful, very different women, with whom on some days I rarely fight or argue, while at other times, the battle of words is a regular Thursday afternoon. I am truly fortunate to have them. They are the reason why I understood the definition of sisterhood very early on in life and learned how to share such a bond with others — people I want to care for, feed, comfort, and laugh with.

The fourth edition of the Biennale d’Art Contemporain Autochtone (BACA), curated by Niki Little and Becca Taylor, is titled níchiwamiskwén | nimidet | ma sœur | my sister and was literally about that: bonds between women, alive or in spirit, and an acknowledgement of powerful women with whom meals were shared and wisdom was offered. The curatorial thread came to Little and Taylor as they shared dinner, an act that in itself can define and form friendships and familial bonds. Rather than selecting artworks that are specific to the theme (although most of them are) they see the artists as a shared collective with diverse practices, “transmitting elements of Indigenous social, political, ceremonial, and physical territories, expanding connections of kinship with and for [their] sisters.”

Hovak Johnston’s Community tattoo action (photo credit Little Inuk Photography)

For the first time, BACA collaborated with an Indigenous group of cultural workers: the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC), a Canadian-based arts service organization, which contacted BACA, overseen by Art Mûr Gallery, to suggest a partnership. As part of their collaboration, the ACC created a curatorial residency to take place in Montreal, and the indigenous curators selected would work on the 2018 edition of the Biennale.

BACA has always recognized and supported indigenous arts and artists, so it is surprising that it had never collaborated with the ACC or other Indigenous-lead artistic entities before. In the art world (in the province of Quebec and in Canada in general), the inclusion of diverse people and practices in exhibitions takes a very long time to accomplish, as ceding privilege takes a tremendous amount of work that the people who benefit from it rarely want to do. Although, according to their catalogue, BACA also recognizes that people with “little or no native blood have a role to play in rectifying the mistakes of the past and contributing to building spaces for exchange and understanding.”

This edition of BACA happened in six different spaces: Art Mûr in Montreal as the main space, Galerie d’art Stewart Hall, La Guilde, Musēe McCord, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Sherbrooke, and the Art Gallery of Mississauga. A satellite exhibition, Conflicting Heroes, also took place at Art Mûr Gallery in Berlin, guest curated by Michael Patten, operations manager at Art Mûr Montreal.

At the exhibition at Art-Mur (photo credit Mike Patten)

The curation at Art Mûr Montreal’s three-story gallery was impeccable: works of different mediums, including crafts, street art, and video cohabited in the space without overshadowing or having their meaning bleed into neighboring works. Viewers were welcomed by the word “sister” in a variety of native languages, and by Uzumaki Cepeda’s “Safe Space” (2017), a red, faux-fur-filled room that called for lounging. A phone, scattered seating areas, and flowers placed inside red, white, and black Nike shoes invited the viewers into a space where they felt nurtured. Being first greeted into Cepeda’s room made me feel that the sisterhood between brown girls was the safe space — an important idea to be taken from this biennale.

One of the strongest and most compelling works was Skeena Reece’s “Touch Me” (2013), a single-channel video piece that served as a moving gesture of connection. The artist is seen bathing Sandra Semchuk, a white woman and partner of the late Cree scholar James Nicholas. You can see and feel both of them struggling with the ideas of mother-daughter relationships, relationships with elders and ancestors, and connections with spirits and friends. I could not get my eyes off this work, as the strongest sisterhood bonds often emerge from difficult parental relationships.

Installation view of Caroline Monnet’s “Creatura Dada” (2016)

There was also Caroline Monnet’s powerful video installation “Creatura Dada” (2016), featuring a dinner party where women of different generations share a luxurious meal of lobster, oysters, and champagne, celebrating “the end of the world as we know it,” and the beginning of a sovereign and autonomous new beginning. Acclaimed artists, activists, and cultural workers Alanis Obomsawin and Nahka Bertrand “play” in this short film, as well as Caroline’s own blood sister, Émilie Monnet.

La Guilde, a gallery and museum that promotes and presents artworks and fine crafts from Inuit and First Nations artists, mixed its own collection with works of the Biennale. Skawennati’s “Imagining Indians in the 25th Century Website 2000 | Foldout” (2018) visited the concept of the paper doll, with a mix of traditional, modern, and futuristic attires. It was placed close to Napachie Pootoogook’s “Myth of the Tuniit” (2000). The late Annie Pootoogook’s mother depicted the matrilineal bond of Tuniit women, the ancient people of the Arctic, from newborns to elders.

Also nearby was a trace of a performance by Hovak Johnston (unfortunately without any context for the people who missed it). Together with the community, Johnston shared her Inuit tattoo revitalization project, where she tattoos other women, who have always come to Johnston as mother-daughter or daughter-grandmother duos. The ritual involves healing between the artist and the person receiving the tattoo, and, according to Johnston, had not been practiced for three generations in the Inuit community.

Napachie Pootoogook, “Myth of the Tuniit” (2000)

There is much more to be said about this latest edition of BACA; Niki Little and Becca Taylor’s curating was astounding and moving. They both worked through methodologies of visiting — a concept coined by Wiisaakodewinini (Métis) artist Dylan AT Miner, it is an indigenous way of knowing that emphasizes visiting, storytelling, and love, and focuses on the importance of oral knowledge and time spent together as a way of building and maintaining communities and asserting Indigenous sovereignty. níchiwamiskwén | nimidet | ma sœur | my sister is a step, even a leap, closer to the autonomy of the people. It is through kinship that we will work together to achieve that autonomy.

I am writing this article on unceded tio’tia:ke territory. I want to thank the people from this land for welcoming me as a forced settler and allowing me to live a sisterhood with blood and made sisters.

The Biennale d’Art Contemporain Autochtone (BACA) took place in June at various locations throughout Montreal, Canada. 

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