TORONTO — Jay-Z’s lyrics are emblazoned across one wall:
I GOT THIS INDIAN SQUAW, THE DAY THAT I MET HER,
I ASKED HER WHAT TRIBE SHE WITH, RED DOT, OR FEATHER.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW IS I’M NOT A HOE,
AND TO GET WITH ME YOU BETTER BE A CHIEF WITH LOTS OF DOUGH.
This “Girls Girls Girls” excerpt, posted without copyright permission and set alongside other contentious song lyrics from across the 20th century, is part of “Migrations” (2012), a work by Duane Linklater, an Omushkego Cree artist based in northern Ontario. Migrations isn’t the flashiest piece featured in Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, but it deftly represents the multiple layers of appropriation that form the thematic backbone of the exhibition. Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and currently on view at The Power Plant in Toronto, Beat Nation focuses on the influence of hip hop culture on Aboriginal contemporary art. Appropriation and amalgamation take center stage in the art of the 23 artists assembled from regions across North America.
Cultural appropriation frequently makes headlines when executed with monumental poor judgment. When popular culture adopts elements of Aboriginal culture, the outcry is swift and backlash fierce. One need only think of Urban Outfitters peddling “Navajo inspired” products, Paul Frank’s ‘Dream Catchin’ party, and the Victoria’s Secret runway feathered-headdress debacle for three high profile examples from the past year alone. These controversies and the ensuing debates tended toward the one-directional, focusing on the mainstream co-opting aesthetic characteristics of historically oppressed peoples.
But within the context of Beat Nation, appropriation thrives as a compelling vehicle for expressing complex ideas about history, identity, and culture. The art simultaneously challenges old material while integrating new influences and creating alternative contemporary narratives. Hip hop and Aboriginal cultures are particularly well suited to each other in this purpose, as both represent traditionally disenfranchised groups who face ongoing battles to achieve a level of self-determination over their portrayal within broader media outlets.
While Linklater’s “Migrations” piece resides in palpably uncomfortable territory — highlighting the continually fraught relationship between Aboriginal and mainstream popular cultures — other works in Beat Nation appropriate and recontextualize representations of Aboriginal identity in an effort at positive reclamation. An abundance of video art, often culled from old Hollywood movies and soundtracks, is remixed into multilayered films catchier than most mainstream music videos. In “Electric Pow Wow Drum” (2010), Bear Witness assembled footage from old Western films to unearth a favorable Aboriginal identity among derogatory material. He asks, “What happens when there are no more Hollywood Indians? What happens if we forget Tonto?” Rather than watch the representation of Tonto gather dust, Bear Witness renegotiates the imagery as a means of self-empowerment.
Kent Monkman’s “Dance to Miss Chief” (2010) manipulates the relationship between historical and contemporary Aboriginal cultural representations with particular skill. The music video, heavy on dance beats and pop-like vocals, splices footage from the Karl May’s German Western films of the 1960s (starring a Caucasian actor playing the fictional Winnetou) and Monkman dressed in drag in his glamorous alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Through crafty editing and sultry winks, Monkman hints at a romantic flirtation between the “Indian” and the transvestite, igniting the old imagery in playful, yet racially and sexually complicated ways.
While these artists update old material in new ways, others adopt hip hop elements to breathe new life into ancient methods of art making. A hip hop-infused realm of street art and tagging is visible in the landscape interventions of artists such as Nicholas Galanin and Cheryl L’Hirondelle. Galanin’s Indian Petroglyph (2012) series is composed of photos of the Cleveland Indian’s baseball team logo carved into rocks in Alaska and similarly remote locations. Like 9th C. Buddhist rock carvings in China, these interventions will endure for thousands of years — and perhaps puzzle future discoverers unfamiliar with the logo or its athletic/ethnographic connotations.
In a more ephemeral landmark also documented through photographs, L’Hirondelle placed rocks along the side of the TransCanada highway to spell out Cree syllabics reading, “wapahta ôma iskonikan asky” (“look at this leftover (strip) of land”). “uronndnland (wapahta ôma iskonikan askiy)” (2004) creates a potent reminder of the land’s troubling record of ownership. Having travelled this particular stretch of highway countless times, I can attest to the popular practice of people using rocks to spell out names, phrases, and couples’ initials circled in hearts along the grassy embankments. It’s the road side equivalent of scrawling your name on a bathroom stall door. L’Hirondelle’s intervention takes on a particularly stark resonance among the vestiges of more trivial, superficial monuments to identity.
Other artists in Beat Nation put an unconventional twist on contemporary objects. KC Adams, an Ojibway/Cree artist based in Winnipeg, covers iPod cords and other Apple paraphernalia and accessories with traditional beadwork. Works like “Power Peyote Stitch” (2011) (a MacBook Pro electric cord beaded to appear like a glistening white snake), “iPod Holder” (2006), and “iPad is Cree Floral” (2011) reference the artist’s own self-identification as a hybrid individual in contemporary society.
Jordan Bennett is similarly innovative in transforming objects across both divides, carving skateboards decks into snowshoes in “Jilaqami’g no’show: (2009) and moose antlers into skateboard trucks with “Marrow Truck Co.” (2008). His piece de résistance, however, is “Turning Tables” (2010), a fully functioning turntable composed entirely of walnut, oak, and spruce wood. The audio recording of Bennett learning his native Mi’kmaq language plays alongside the grainy sounds of the needlepoint tracing the rotating tree rings of the wood record.
Beat Nation arrives at a fitting moment given the recent advent of the Idle No More movement. Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities have taken a public stand against the federal government to protest ongoing treaty rights violations, demand a reframing of their relationship with the government, and bring awareness to environmental and sovereignty issues. While Beat Nation does not specifically address these current political developments, threads related to these issues run throughout the show. For Canadians like me, accustomed to hearing news related to First Nations via mainstream media, Beat Nation offers an extraordinary opportunity to directly engage with voices in the contemporary Aboriginal art community. These artists navigate the difficult terrain of cultural appropriation, both past and present, and Beat Nation’s triumph lies in the artists’ success in negotiating this slippery, complicated realm in innovative yet meaningful ways.
Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture continues at The Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West, Toronto, Canada) through May 5.