Great King Rabbit / an essay by Michael Farnan
Michel Boutin has often been described as a Folk artist heavily influenced by his French Canadian and Métis roots. In previous exhibitions of his work this influence has focused on critiques of the Church, Spirituality and on the historical legacies of his own family’s Settler narratives and Indigenous roots. While stylistically Boutin does borrow from the traditions of Folk art and the discourse around “outsider” art, the Folk label still leaves much off the table. His work is really a dissection of sorts of the Pop Art/Fine Art dichotomy and the enduring Colonial legacies that make up the social fabric of this country and world beyond. This is a body of work full of art historical and theoretical references and full of local and international influence. His paintings in this exhibition, a series he started in 2002, take on the Colonial/Settler/Invader narratives that have helped shape this nation and Western European political and ideological thought.
The trope of “becoming animal” and the subsequent privileging and empowerment found within the symbol of nature is an often-deployed tactic found in much contemporary Canadian art. For many artists, this looking to nature and the past is nothing more than a romantic lament for an earlier, unspoiled time. This romantic and anthropomorphic appropriation of nature religions and indigenous mythologies harkens back to a better way in which the subject can emerge transformed and enlightened. The “becoming animal” in Canada becomes a way to position oneself through a contemporary rite of passage within which one can encounter the question of identity. The problem with this process is that when presented within the enduring colonial discourse seen in much Canadian art, whether intended or otherwise, there is a promotion of a naïve ‘primitivism’ in which the artist and viewer are invited to cast off history and inhibition, in order to celebrate a return to a pristine state of nature unfettered by politics and history. But Michel Boutin as the trickster artist employs this familiar trope to explore his own childhood stories and impressions of world leaders to create an untenable position within which to gaze at this subject matter. We become engaged with the names, positions, and meanings of Boutin’s subjects, yet are made aware of the zones of resistance he creates within the Great King Rabbit’s appropriation of figure and place. Boutin’s appropriation is a reinterpretation of history that puts mystery and enchantment back into the power/culture/nature ethos.
The Great King Rabbit is Michel’s adaptation of the Nanabush (English spelling) and Br’er Rabbit legends of both eastern Canada and the southern United States. In Anishinaabe mythology, Nanabozho is the trickster figure, a shape shifter, and co-creator of the world. He is most often presented in the form of a Great Rabbit or Hare, sent back to earth to teach the people. Similarly, the Br’er Rabbit figure in the U.S., which has links to both African and Cherokee cultures, is also a trickster figure that uses wits and guile to overcome his adversaries (slave owners and colonial oppressors) in order to exact his revenge. The Great Rabbit becomes hero, villain and mediator between the opposed ideologies of Imperialist Europe and America with an Indigenous culture. Boutin reveals the Rabbit as a provocateur who challenges and puts into question the traditions of classical philosophy and social theory and reveals the popular culture appropriation of things like the Walt Disney adaptation of the Br’er Rabbit character in both its present day theme parks, movies and most famously in its 1946 film “Song of the South” for what it is, another form of Imperial transgression. Boutin connects the dots for us and shows us that talking back to the grand narrative can mean more than living in subordination to it; it can also mean that there is an alternate grand narrative, with different meanings. We know not if Michel and the Rabbit, or us for that matter, is with the characters or against them. Following in the tradition of philosophers and social theorists such as Lacan, Zizec and Baudrillard, Boutin sets up a dialectical methodology to tackle the difficult subjects he wrestles with. He puts something easy to talk about next to something hard – the canonical. He does this to find a way in to the challenging questions around the continued consent of colonization in order to show us that tyranny cannot rule on its own, that the dominant hegemony needs an accomplice too, which is all too often cultural representation. The insertion of Indigenous mythology into the master narrative of colonial history shows us that even though we have been taught to understand the world in a certain way, the truth can always be something else. There are always different ways to interpret identity, history, and ideology. As a result, the Great King Rabbit necessarily brings up some of the more enduring features of Canadian nationalism: whiteness, a denial of a colonial present, and the negation of class, in addition to a continued blindness to issues of gender and sexuality.
Canadian history is predominantly written as if British and French Imperialism and the legacy of colonialism are a benign force, and a thing of the past. Many have argued that the Indigenous exists outside of this economic and political history because these forces represent modernity and colonialism. But this colonial imagination suppresses and idealizes at the same time, it reveals an inherent anxiety of an Indigenous past and reveals the continuous hope of colonial conquest. But the Indigenous perspective is critical in today’s world. What is most interesting for this viewer of Michel Boutin’s work is how he builds on post-colonial theory in order to challenge these prominent stories and figures of the past to create new entry points into the future. He creates an experience of the present through the lens of the past as a counterpoint (colonial erasure) to these colonial narratives and representations by tackling our prevailing notions of colonial place. Through the framing of Art and Art History’s pedagogical histories and representations, this exhibition provides us with the perfect setting for unpacking some of this country’s and (provinces) old and new colonialisms and national imaginaries. Indigenous knowledge and mythology help to uncover those split geographies of “us” and “them” that continue to structure the art world and its disciplines. Traditional, influential and historical works and ideologies thus can be proven to be particular rather than universal and that by simply taking a critical look at the pedagogical histories and narratives of Western Political and Popular History, the presuppositions of Canadian Identity can be seriously challenged.
Michel Boutin’s reinterpretation of colonial identity reverses the colonial strategy of territorial take-over, which involves an ideological force-termed ‘cultural imperialism’ by Edward Said (1978). This strategy of substituting the Aboriginal narrative with a European (or American) interpretation, such as the Disneyfication of the Br’er Rabbit myth, is then turned on its head by Boutin. As a result, one of the founding principles within the colonial discourse of territorial take-over: the construction of a separation between the colonized and colonizing societies is put into doubt. This separation extends the power necessary to represent and privilege certain ideologies. The culture-nature juxtaposition is part of this reality, which is in its essence, the triumph of culture over nature and the production of the “other” within nature. As Derek Gregory argues in his essay “(Post) Colonialism and the Production of Nature,” (2003) this “other”, often takes the form of an unfriendly or monstrous power that threatens the colonial culture. But this is an imaginative process, helped on by the construction of nature as an external and eternal force lying outside the historical definitions of ‘culture’. Nature was therefore seen to not only be dominated, but also domesticated, and so examples of difference; the monsters, deformations, and Indigenous knowledge were removed from European society either by time or physical distance (Gregory, 2003). But Boutin’s trickster images erode this distance through the performance of appropriation and his dialectic positioning of representation (shown here as fantasy) vs. reality. But which is which? What is our real history? Who owns it? What is right? What is correct? To stop at the problem ends the discussion. We must find a way to keep going, to implicate all views. An awareness of colonialism reveals it is deeply imbedded within the dialogue around landscape, nature, animal, and people. And so, the question then becomes, how does this framing of history accommodate the positions of both colonizer and the colonized? Boutin uses the old problematics of ‘wonder’, ‘transformation’ and the presence of the ‘uncanny’ to force us to recognize the presence of each in one another. He creates a strange familiarity for the viewer within the adventures of the Great King Rabbit, a strangeness of an “other’ nature that eventually becomes ‘familiar’ in its very strangeness. But he plays with us, because we don’t fully trust the trickster image of the rabbit that knowingly inhabits the history implicated within each painting. This is because he still works within the Nature as Menace discourse to test the limits of our colonial imaginaries. Boutin shows us the presence of the monstrous and the ‘uncanny’ is still very much present within the colonial discourse that continues to be at play in this country. And in doing so, Boutin constructs a space where the colonized penetrates the colonizer and the topsy-turvy world of opposites rule through the characters of Nanabush and Br’er Rabbit.
Gregory, Derek. (2003). (Post)colonialism and the production of nature’, in Noel Castree and Bruce Braun (eds) Social nature: theory, practice and politics. Oxford UK and Cambridge MA: Blackwell (2003) pp. 84-111.
Said, Edward. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Toronto: Random House.
Michael Farnan is a multi-media artist with an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan. His current work includes video, sculpture, painting, and photography. Very briefly, his practice involves the creation/construction of characters and costumes to interact with Canadian histories, ideologies, and national narratives, both past and present. This usually ends with someone getting a beer bottle smashed over their head.