Drumbeats, many resounding like the rhythm of the human heart and some more akin to electronic dance music, accompany an array of sculptural, painting and new media work by a new generation of North American Aboriginal artists in Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, at the Musée d’art contemporain this fall…
The art of Beat Nation wears its urban street culture influence proudly and with an intelligent edge of deeper inquiry. Blending the current realities of Aboriginal experiences with traditional ritual and practices, the exhibition looks at how popular culture influences Aboriginal identity and raises questions about authenticity, appropriation and reinvention. Originally organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and Grunt Gallery, Beat Nation has traveled across the country to Montreal, where it fills the airy, expansive space of the Musée d’art contemporain, each art work flowing into the next in thematic dialogue. Graffiti, skateboarding, hip-hop music, as well as technologies from iPods to music videos, appear throughout the exhibition, pointing out ironies and injustices regarding Aboriginal culture in North America while also celebrating a fusion of past and present.
Beat Nation sees artists from Alaska to Labrador, the far north to New Mexico, expressing their points of view, stories and politics in accessible, often entertaining ways. Famed Canadian artist Kent Monkman, known for incisively playing with mainstream stereotypes of Aboriginal culture, shows up as his alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in a fast-paced music-video send-up. Skeena Reece transforms her traditional West Coast nation regalia into modern, urban, high-heeled-warrior wear. Bear Witness, of electro-hip-hop music group Tribe Called Red, adds a pulsing soundtrack to his remixes of clips from Hollywood films portraying “cowboys and indians” and other racially-charged stereotypes of First Nations’ people. Jordan Bennett builds two turntables out of wood, spinning words from the Mi’kmaq language. Navajo artist Raven Chacon has even created a room that beats like a drum: the small space is completely mirrored and equipped with a strobe light, making it feel at once like a dance club and a drum circle under the sun.
Some artists choose an audibly quieter route, but their work still speaks volumes. Many of the artists reference technology and industrial progress in their work, including KC Adams, who adds traditional beading to an iPod and computer accessories, commenting on how our universal ties to technology appear to transcend culture but are still bound up in race, economic inequalities, and power imbalances. Maria Hupfield crafts modern objects, such as a camera, out of grey felt and covers a whole wall of the gallery in thin silver safety blankets that flutter and wave as viewers pass by. Sonny Assu’s 136 copper plates refer to the years the India Act has existed in Canada, while 67 drums painted like vinyl records stand for how many years the government banned the potlatch ceremony. Photographer Dana Claxton takes ironic family portraits marked by a powerful red colour scheme — red shows up throughout the exhibition, in art that references skateboard culture (from boards sculpted into snowshoes to decorated lowrider bikes) and in graphics that fuse graffiti and totemic imagery. Issues of environmental protection and land ownership are raised by Nicholas Galanin, Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Marianne Nicolson in the way they “tag” rocks, cliffs and hillsides.
Along with the exhibition itself, Beat Nation features a family program every Sunday afternoon to December 1 that begins with a guided tour followed by a workshop. Off-site at Concordia University, see Dana Claxton’s six-hour video The Mustang Suite, screening throughout the day. On the evening of Friday, November 1, the museum’s Nocturnes music series presents performances by madeskimo and Jackson 2bears. And on December 5, the MACM invites the public to a round table discussion about the exhibition’s art and issues of activism and identity.
Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, October 17 to January 5, 2013
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