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Othered Women

In 2008, I was awarded an Aboriginal Curatorial Residency, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. This residency involved working closely with AKA Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, under the supervision and mentorship of the Programming Coordinator, Cindy Baker.

Othered Women is an exhibition that took place simultaneously in three separate artist-run centres in the inner city of Saskatoon. The six women artists included in this multi–centred exhibit—Sherry Farrell Racette, Mimi Gellman, Tania Willard, Rosalie Favell, Joi Arcand, and Nadia Myre—come from different communities and cultures across Canada. In their exhibited works they examine the history of First Nations and Métis women in Canada from their own differing contexts, locations, and perspectives. The exhibit was designed to generate dialogue about the concept of othered women within the Canadian national imaginary

As curator of this project I wanted to speak specifically from my own narrative and experience as a woman of mixed heritage—Swampy Cree and Scottish. In formulating my ideas about the representation of First Nations and Métis women within the dominant histories of Canada, I turned to the work of Italian Marxist historian, Antonio Gramsci, and his investigations into why the ruling classes are so effective in promoting their own histories and interests in society. In his articulation of the concept of hegemony, Gramsci points to how the dominant group secures power and control over other groups not by force or active persuasion, but by representing the ruling class’s interest as the common interest by means of a “subtle and inclusive power over the economy, and over state apparatuses such as education and the media” (Ashcroft et.al.:106). As many critics have pointed out, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is a useful term for describing the success of the discursive practices of imperialism within the colonial context.  In his work, Gramsci was interested in the historiography of the subaltern classes, which he claimed was just as complex as the ‘official’ history of the dominant classes. But, he also points out that “the history of subaltern social groups is necessarily fragmented and episodic” as they are “always subject to the activity of ruling groups, even when they rebel” (Ashcroft et al: 216). In order for the history of the dominant class to hold precedence in official Canadian history, the history of the other has to be fragmented, episodic, or erased. In the official histories of the fur trade in Canada and the U.S.A., the elite have had the power to represent the Aboriginal other in whatever way they deemed fit. But, ‘official’ history has been unsuccessful in silencing the history of the subaltern groups, in particular the history of Métis and First Nations women in the fur trade eras. Unbeknownst to the colonists there were other modes of voice during the fur trade eras that would eventually become part of the official history. Even now, contemporary research into the role of Aboriginal women in the fur trade is continually being written into the history of the dominant classes by scholars, curators, and artists.

Growing up for most of my life in a Métis and First Nations Community, I saw firsthand that the history of First Nations and Métis women was represented in a fragmented and episodic manner within mainstream culture. It was clear to me, early on, that First Nations and Métis women were not ‘official history’ within the fur trade narrative or any other narrative in Canadian history books. We were a secret, a silence, an absence in the text. I say “we” because I identify myself with these women: their story is a part of my heritage and lineage. The relationships and unions that early colonists had with First Nations women were undoubtedly varied, but they were nevertheless not considered to be official unions by the British and French nations back in Europe. Whether these early (or later) unions within the fur trade were political, affectionate, or not, the women were perceived to be uncivilised. But, while these marital unions were unacceptable in Europe, they were both acceptable and necessary for the survival of the European fur trade in Canada: although this was rarely acknowledged officially. First Nations and Métis women—as mediators, diplomats, guides, labourers, and emotional supports—played an integral role in the formation of Canada as a country.

I titled this exhibition Othered Women because I wanted to point to the silence within the colonial or dominant text about the role of First Nations and Métis women in the fur trade and other economies. The term ‘other woman’ conjures up colonial images of the mistress, a counterfeit, the marriage that was not legitimate, and children born from these unions as bastardized versions of Europe. While the ‘other woman’ was represented in colonial discourse as dangerous to the morals and principals of Europe, her labour, as I’ve noted, was nonetheless entirely necessary to the fur trade economy. If traders did not enter into an equal partnership with their First Nations and Métis wives during the fur trade era, they did not survive very long. This exhibit necessarily points to the ‘official’ silence about the history of First Nations and Métis women in Canada—an absent presence that is now well known. The focus of this exhibit is the voice of the six contemporary Aboriginal women artists who are connected by the shared history of being the ‘othered woman’ in the national imaginary, and, most importantly, by their participation in the important task of building the powerful Indigenous counter-memory (across various media and differing locations) that has existed from the moment that the first colonizer set foot on their particular territories.

Once I began to think about other differing modes of voice within the national imaginary, including the voice articulated by artists and cultural workers, I realised that I could not limit the concept of Aboriginal voice to a particular area or media. In this exhibit, Othered Women, I therefore sought out a range of artists, albeit all female, but from different nations, areas, and histories.  Because of my interest in the visual arts, I have been able to recognize that the artwork of my female relatives and other women in Cumberland House—sewing and beadwork—is evidence of an unspoken and unwritten history of the community. Working in the city of Saskatoon, I became acquainted with Aboriginal people from other territories, namely the south of the province. Many had Cree or Saulteaux surnames. In my community of Cumberland House, every Aboriginal member had an English, Scottish, or French surname.  Although many speak fluent Swampy Cree in my community, I discovered that my daughter’s surname, Chaboyer, was actually a Michif name meaning ‘small boy.’ Michif is not a language spoken in the community, although there are a few words here and there incorporated into the Swampy Cree language spoken in the community. The language Michif itself is a result of long trade relations between the Cree and French peoples and is evidence of the integral role of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s early trading economies. I was never aware of the Michif language even existing in Cumberland House—it was another indicator of silenced histories and peoples that were involved in the history of the fur trade in my particular area. It begs one to think, what other modes of voice have remained unheard or unvoiced? The only evidence we have that Michif people were once in Cumberland House is the few Michif words incorporated into our main language and the Michif surname Chaboyer—two very separate and large family units in the community.

 

 

Installation view, Othered Women, AKA

 

AKA Gallery:

AKA Gallery is an artist-run centre dedicated to innovative art practices in the visual arts that are not limited to any one medium. As part of my curatorial residency with AKA Gallery, I invited two artists, Mimi Gellman and Sherry Farrel Racette, to engage with the concept of the Othered Women exhibition. Both of these artists have made significant contributions to the development of a powerful Indigenous counter-memory that addresses the silences and stereotypes of ’official‘ Canadian histories about the lives and histories of First Nations and Métis women. For this reason, I felt that their work was important to the storying of my curatorial theme of othered women.

Sherry Farrell Racette is an established contemporary artist of Métis ancestry and a member of the Timiskaming First Nation in Quebec. I am appreciative of Racette’s work because of the in-depth research she applies to each individual piece. She is a scholar-artist who is well respected within the First Nations and Métis community for both her visual art practice and her work as an academic.  Racette has made important and timely contributions to both the written and visual counter-histories of First Nations and Métis peoples.

In the four pieces she exhibited in Othered Women, Racette engaged with the core of what I considered the show to be about. As she noted in an e-conversation, her works in the show developed out of a couple of essays she has been working on that explore “the role of women’s arts practice in the creation of new knowledge, literally stitching disparate elements together into the fabric of daily life.” In her first piece, My grandmothers loved to trade, Racette assembles different aspects of her research into the role of Native women in the fur trade—archival documents, photographs and the local knowledge of Métis people—incorporating this research visually. In My grandmothers loved to trade, she stitches together a quilt with tartan and paisley, some of which she collected in her travels in Scotland, decorated with silk embroidery and beadwork. Métis women often wore tartan as part of their dress, as can be seen in the archival photographs Racette located during her research. The beadwork styles she uses in the flowers that decorate this textile hanging were learnt from women in Cumberland House and Île-à-la-Crosse, historical communities involved heavily in the fur trade eras. This piece also depicts the Ottawa River with Lake Timiskaming and the Montreal River on the left and right. These waterways are a direct link to Racette’s own family history. Like many main waterways, the route was utilised for trade that spanned thousands of years.[1] Métis women involved in the trade economy had control over what they wanted to trade and who they wanted to trade with: they were not passive onlookers as is commonly represented in mainstream history.[2]
Like the other artists in this exhibit, Racette speaks from a position and worldview that is not only thematically relevant but also powerfully connected to her own personal history. Her four installations—Nimble fingers and strong backs, Swept away, story of a fur trade bride, My grandmothers loved to trade, and A skin for a skin (HBC logos) —are all examples of Racette locating herself within a personal narrative that effectively interrupts a Canadian history that misrepresents the importance of the role of women within the fur trade narrative. Nimble fingers and strong backs speaks of another little known fact about the role of First Nations and Métis women in the fur trade. Throughout the entire history of the fur trade these women were involved in intensive labour. In the early fur trade era, First Nations women were held in esteem by First Nations men not because of their physical beauty but because of their physical prowess. In Many Tender Ties, the historian Sylvia Van Kirk writes:

Sherry Farell Racette, A Skin For A Skin

The Hudson’s Bay Company men found the unladylike strength of Chipewyan women particularly astonishing. On one occasion David Thompson sent one of his strongest men to help a Chipewyan woman who was hauling a heavy sled; to the man’s surprise, it took all his strength to budge the load…As the famous Chief Matonabbee declared, “Women…were made for labour; one of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do.” (Van Kirk:.22)

Racette’s installation, Nimble fingers and strong backs, began from a photograph the artist found at the Saskatchewan Archives: the photo depicts women hauling and portaging.[3] The photo that Racette uses in the installation is of women packing 100-pound sacks of flour and then carrying them to be transported. The installation consists of a crate similar to the one depicted in the archival image—Racette stencilled the legend “Anishnabekwe Transport” onto its side. In her assemblage, she also replicates the 100-pound sacks of flour depicted in the archival photograph. This installation represents the continuity of a labour force of Aboriginal women that was utilised late into the fur trade era: the photo itself dates from the 1920s! Women were an integral part of the early and late fur trade, whether they were paddlers portaging alongside the men, making clothes, and supplementing food stores. Yet, they were treated by the fur trade companies as ’less than.’ They did not receive wages as their male counterparts and were likely considered cheap labour, even though their labour was essential to the survival of the fur trade economy.[4] Unrecognized as their role was, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of admiration for their strength and tenacity. These women worked not because they had to, but because it was a skill that ensured the survival of the community they were a part of; whether that community was a First Nations band or a trade fort, they knew their role was essential. The Europeans did not understand the cultural work ethics that dictated survival to the First Nations people. Indeed, the Europeans sought to change the subsequent role of their Métis daughters. They encouraged their daughters to relate more to their white counterparts and their Eurocentric worldview.

In her four works in the exhibit, Racette shifts mainstream research on the fur trade and supplements it with an Indigenous story, which she interprets for us. She is successful because she takes what has been offered as official written history (and its archival documentation), and then re-views, re-interprets, and re-inscribes this dominant history through the lens of her own particular history and voice as a Métis woman. She uses differing modes of voice: traditional and contemporary, written and visual, to connect the viewer to a particular Métis history that is also an integral part of the history of Canada, the US, France and Britain.

 

Mimi Gelman, Blood Ties

 

Mimi Gellman is a Métis (Ojibway/Jewish) contemporary artist and curator currently living in Toronto, Ontario. Her introspective work relies heavily on concepts of the transformative and memory. At first glance, her haunting installation in the AKA space, entitled Blood Ties, seems to connote the relationship between territory and dress and how we as people carry our territories, histories, and memories with us. River stones are placed in what I first observed to be seven moccasins, placed carefully on a floating shelf with long leather ties trailing to the floor below. However, what I thought were leather moccasins were in actuality a hybrid between traditional Ojibway moccasins and a Halitza—a traditional Jewish shoe worn in time of ritual.[5] The long ties of the shoes were specific to the Halitza ritual, used in the symbolic act of binding and unbinding a widow’s hand in marriage to her brother-in-law, a common practice in Judaic culture that ensures the welfare of the widow and her children. The river stones represent travel and the long ties are the long ties we have to our cultures. As Métis women we are of two nations and, as a part of the history of our land and territories, we must constantly reconcile our connections to this traditional territory, so as not to be labelled as outsider or apart from a legacy that seems to only include men. Gellman’s piece represents to me a reconciliation of two cultures that pays homage to the strength of the ties that bind us as people.

 

PAVED Arts

Paved is an artist-run centre that supports the presentation of contemporary new media and photography. The gallery is situated on the same street as The Red Shift Gallery and is in the same building as AKA Gallery. As curator, I had to think strategically as to where I was going to situate the differing yet simultaneous exhibits that made up this project. I wanted the exhibitions to be available to everyone, but with a narrative primarily targeting Aboriginal people. In the Paved Gallery, I invited three artists at varying points in their careers who are not from my territory and who share very different backgrounds and historical contexts. The connections we have, as Aboriginal women in Canada, situate and connect us to our past and how we must perceive the future.

 

Installation shot, Othered Women, PAVED

 

Tania Willard is from the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation in British Colmbia. Willard is a multi-dimensional artist widely known for her early work as editor of Redwire Magazine, an Indigenous youth advocacy magazine. She is also a graphic designer, visual artist, and emerging curator; currently Willard has a curatorial residency with the grunt gallery in Vancouver.

Tania Willard is an artist that is very much interested in advocacy and in the photographic series entitled Kye7e dress she photo-documents public interventions/memorials that speak to her female lineage as well as her family history. In Kye7e dress, Willard stencils images of a dress onto varying sites in the urban landscape; the dress belonged to her great grandmother, Adeline Willard (Secwepemc). The dress is by no means a traditional dress, but it was made with care to be worn at the Indian parades in the small town of Chase, BC.[6] Willard explains that these parades were both an opportunity to represent the pride and solidarity of her people through dress, but they also speak to the colonization of her people. Appropriating the image of this dress, Willard stencils it onto various surfaces in the urban landscape: an appropriated landscape that belongs to the traditional territory of her people. The dress locates Willard’s female heritage and lineage: inserting the image of this dress into the colonial urban landscape, she disrupts the national imaginary at the same time as she acknowledges the presence and role of First Nation and Métis women in the past and the present.

Rosalie Favell (Métis) is an established photo-based artist originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and currently based in Ottawa, Ontario. She often depicts and inserts herself digitally into humorous settings that speak to her heritage and positioning of self in the colonial narrative. Writing about her work, she states:

I do a lot of self portraits partly because […] I can only speak from where I’m coming from. I started out taking portraits of aboriginal women to try and situate who I was in the community […] but ultimately I felt I needed to be the one that spoke from my position[7]       (2009)

Rosalie Favell, Othered Women, PAVED

 

I chose a series of six photos that in my opinion exemplified how Rosalie as a Métis woman dialogued with a particular colonial history using the traditional method of humour or satire, to share with her audience a simple but powerful post-colonial counter-memory. An example of this visual strategy is seen in her piece entitled Voyageur (2003). This image shows a digitally superimposed image of Favell as a Star Trek Voyageur, a popular television franchise in the 1990s. Historically, it is thought that the voyageurs (meaning ‘travellers’ in French) were all men. But, women were also often part of these treks in the roles of paddlers, guides, companions and mediators. In an act of double-coding, Favell inserts herself into the popular media narrative of Star Trek, a series which is well-known to many North American contemporary viewers: the title for the work also invokes the historical image of the voyageur that is clearly identifiable to many Canadians and Americans. She inserts herself into the imagery as a Métis woman, which allows the audience to begin to question and dialogue with the history of the European and Canadian fur trade.

Joi Arcand, from Othered Women

.

Lastly, Joi Arcand is an emerging photo-based artist from the Muskeg Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Her work exemplifies her contemporary connections to the women of her home reserve but also her connections to family and history. In the exhibition, Arcand presented two works entitled the postcard series and Oskinikiskweyak (Young Women, Plains Cree). Arcand often investigates the notion or trope of the ‘authentic Indian.’ She herself is the daughter of a Cree father and white mother who has treaty status having been married prior to the change in the Indian Act. the postcard series takes a contemporary look at the authentic Indian, utilizing Arcand’s own family history as a backdrop in order to speak back to the notion of what is a ‘real Indian.’ In the series, you see her white mother holding her status card, and another of Joi herself in a self-portrait wearing war paint, an image that plays into the stereotypical notion of an Indian in the historical imaginary of the West. This work challenges the idea that skin colour is what makes an individual authentic or not, suggesting instead that it is worldview rather than skin colour that makes the individual who they are. In the series of five digital prints mounted on aluminium plates, entitled Oskinikiskweyak, Arcand once again challenges the trope of the authentic. She uses old images created by early 20th-century illustrators[8] of white women dressed up as Indian pin-up girls. Arcand digitally inserts contemporary images of First Nation and Métis women wearing the same costuming into the print. She says that this is her way of reclaiming the image[9] and perhaps it also points to how the othering of First Nation and Métis women is not only historical but it is always in flux-ever-changing and adapting to our present time.

 

 

The Red Shift Gallery

 

Othered Women, Red Shift Gallery

The Red Shift Gallery is an Aboriginal contemporary art space in which artists and curators may develop or showcase critical programming that speaks to a particular worldview. As artistic director of the Red Shift Gallery and curator of this exhibition, I made the decision to have an artist develop a solo exhibition around the theme of Othered Women. Nadia Myre is Algonquin and a member of the Kitigan Zibi reserve in Maniwaki, Quebec. Traditionally, her work has interrogated themes of identity and the other. In the Red Shift space she incorporated a number of ongoing works that took on perspectives—in the context of the exhibit Othered Women—which differed slightly from her prior investigations. In this work, she represents the land as the other woman but, at the same moment, displays the connections between the history of women and trade within our traditional territories. Myre goes even further, connecting the contemporary sites of territorial violence to the landscape and how that violence in itself others the landscape. One could easily see the reference to the fur trade in her depiction of contemporary corporate imperialism in a series of beaded logos: originally this work was meant to be a performance in which Nadia set about beading the logos in the public sphere of the gallery, but unfortunately this event did not take place. The beaded logo of Cameco Corporation is especially poignant to the First Nations and Métis people of Saskatchewan. Cameco has a number of uranium mines in the north of the province and makes it their duty to employ Aboriginal northerners.[10] The financial gain of working at the mines supersedes to many the fact that these mines cause great ecological harm to their territory, including the ill-health effects of uranium drift that travels the waterways, poisoning Aboriginal communities. Many northern communities do not address the ecological rape of northern territory on any specific level. In Myre’s textual piece, stencils of words such as ’don’t,’ ’no,’ ‘please’ are arrayed in a pattern of repetition on the gallery wall connoting many layers and allusions to voice and violation. I interpret these violations and loss of voice to the corporate othering of the land beginning from the early fur trade to the corporate intrusion into the Canadian landscape. Myre also included a contemporary logo of the Hudson Bay Company alongside the logo for Quebec Hydro Electric from her home province.

 

Nadia Myre, Red Shift Gallery

 

All three exhibitions that made up Othered Women dialogued with and addressed a history that has been silenced by colonial dominant narratives. First Nations and Métis women are continually working to peel back history, utilizing diverse contemporary modes of voice: in this case, visual history. The work that these artists made and displayed in this exhibit hopefully gives pause to those who have viewed it. The dissemination of these no longer silenced narratives to the larger Canadian public is important to the recognition and healing of the generations of Aboriginal women who allowed for the formation of this nation called Canada.

 

Bibliography

Web:

Racette, Sherry Farrel, Email conversation via email, (21/01/2010, 3:36 pm) 

Willard, Tania Artist Statement via email (29/03/2010, 12:07pm) 

Planet S Magazine, Volume 7 Issue 8, December 4, 2008, Gazzola Bart, Examining the Othered, (08/04/2010, 11:00am)

http://www.cameco.com/mining/ (08/04/2010, 11:55am)

http://Joitarcand.com  (29/03/ 2010)

Works Cited:

 Ashcroft Bill, Griffiths Gareth and Tiffin Helen (2000) Post-colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, London and New York, p.216

Gellman, Mimi, Artist Statement, sent via mail, October 2008

Van Kirk, Sylvia (1999) Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society 1670-1870, Watson & Dwyer Publishing Ltd, p.22

 


[1] Racette Sherry Farrel, email conversation (21/01/2010, 3:36pm)

[2] Racette Sherry Farrel, email conversation (21/01/2010, 3:36pm)

[3] Racette Sherry Farrel, email conversation (21/01/2010, 3:36pm

[4] Van Kirk, Sylvia (1999) Many Tender Ties: Women in the fur trade society, 1670-1870, Watson and Dwyer Publishing Ltd, p.71-72

[5] Gellman Mimi, Artist Statement via mail (October 2008)

[6] Willard, Tania Artist Statement via email (29/03/2010, 12:07pm)

[8] Joitarcand.com (March 29, 2010)

[9] Joitarcand.com (March 29, 2010)

[10] http://www.cameco.com/mining/ (08/04/2010, 11:55am)

 


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