ATTESTING RESISTANCE explores both present day and historical manifestations of Indigenous resistance. The artworks presented represent a range of Indigenous artists, each having contributed pieces that engage the spirit of resistance as seen through an Indigenous perspective. The exhibiting artists were chosen due to the insight their works provided, which lend a depth to the conversation of how resistance plays a role in various Indigenous communities, and how this participation can be attested for. All but two artist enlisted into ATTESTING RESISTANCE were chosen from a nation-wide open call for submissions. Framing this exhibition are the artworks of Gord Hill (at the forefront) and Keith Cole (closing the exhibition). These two artists were requested to create new works as special contributors. Hill and Cole are in many regards activists and artists, each using their practices as a tool to disseminate their political objectives. The artists included in this exhibit reflect a range of Indigenous identities and forms of resistance, but regardless I feel they all share a similar view on the treatment of Indigenous people and an unwillingness to comprise to any government powers that threatens Indigenous futures. 

Each artist brings a nuanced view to this exhibition that is unique and valid within the conversation of what resistance was, has become, and how it continues to affect Indigenous identities. The intimate portraiture work by Michel Huneault in “Awichas: Portraits of Resilience and Resistance from Bolivia”, depict some of the faces from a Bolivian Indigenous community dealing with government imposed relocation of their homes. Looking at each portrait, Huneault strikes a compassionate tone by presenting tightly framed images of elders’ faces, requesting us as viewers to closely observe the weathering of their skin and the humanity in their eyes, which reads as a testament to their journey. Angela Marie Schenstead worked with photographer Laura Vanags to create a photo-diptych, two portraits that function as a binary, a yin-yang with unbalanced proportions; symbolically working with red and white clay slips, applied with different densities on Indigenous and European bodies. There is an inextricable link made between the racialized body and cultural history – posing symbolic concerns about the unbalanced tensions and resistance that are the byproducts of the colonial rule over Indigenous cultures.

"Sara Riel smuggles her brothers body back to Winnipeg" is a painting by Ian August that fictitiously depicts, as the title suggests, Louis Riel’s grey nun sister Sara embracing the coffin of her brother as she sneaks his body out of Regina back to his mother’s home in Winnipeg. The image it’s self has been appropriated by August, an iconic image taken from the classic early-vampire film Nosferatu. August swaps out Dracula holding a coffin, and replaces him with Sara Riel, holding the coffin and remains of her late brother, who in all respects is a Canadian icon for Indigenous resistance. August melds pop culture with actual events from Métis resistance history by archiving an act of resistance and painting a portrait of two important figures from Aboriginal/Canadian history. August provides an additional act of resistance by refusing to discard his ancestral lineage and instead superimposing over the saturated pop culture aesthetic reference. David Garneau’s painting “Not to Confuse Politeness with Agreement” depicts a similar mentality, whereby he repurposed a historic photograph by W.J.L. Gibbons of Chief Sitting Eagle in his iconic war headdress, shaking hands with an unknown Canadian Mountie all dolled up in his red serge. The moment is like an archetype, or snapshot into the genesis, pertaining to centuries of compromise, conflict, and resistance that have plagued settler and indigenous relations since colonial law became the rule.  Garneau takes us a step further into this encounter than the photograph ever could, by painting thought bubbles above each man, which offers us a savvy way to consider what these two men could possibly be thinking. Garneau gets straight to the point with a very simple yet effective strategy to show just how strategically opposed they remain. Garneau underscores that while both-sides are trying to forge an agreement (with that handshake) – there is no doubt that their goals and principles ultimate differ.

There are a series of images within ATTESTING RESISTANCE that are called Plant this Poster, which are accredited to Anonymous. A third party individual supplied the photographs and submitted them as documentation on behalf of an artist. The artist has stated that they decided to work anonymously in order to place emphasis on the artwork itself and not on identity. Within the photographs we see black and white silk-screened posters on public billboards that read: “Plant this Poster.”  Using this idiom quite literally; glued on each poster is a sprinkled line of wildflower and indigenous tobacco seeds, which are local to the areas the posters have been installed. The use of these seeds makes reference to pre-colonial eco-systems, and in proliferating the poster (and thus seeds), this gesture unfolds notions and encouragement of diverse eco-systems, as well as valuing the eco-systems that surround us. In addition, for me it calls to mind the resistance and resilience of Aboriginal communities who have sought to protect sustainable living, agriculturally working as farmers to maintain self sufficiently livelihood outside of the westernization and urban convenience.

Alootook Ipellie’s series of black and white ink line drawings provide us with whimsical textbook aesthetic illustrations that exemplify how unfavorable the agreements have been between Aboriginal people and colonial governments. Ipellie’s beautifully rendered drawings are as playful and whimsical as they are bleak and painful.  They assert the fiscal and welfare imbalance Aboriginals have endured as a minority. The work attests to the aftermath of these crushing circumstances; the bodies depicted in the drawings are forced to deal with a oppressive topple-down government and market, that visually gives way to witnessing this grotesque exchange. Ipellie has us poised to inquire: how much can a community endure before resistance transforms into revolution? The human spirit is resilient. Nicola Mulder presents a series of documented installations playfully working with text. Mulder subtlety explores the divergences between contemporary western and Indigenous culture by comparing the different experiences of their marketplaces and consumption. Like a poster, or billboard, suggestive of critiques offer by the work of Barbara Kruger, Mulder’s textual installations appropriate catchy advertising slogans in aesthetically playful fonts that include brand names and relationships to consumer products. Switching gears Mulder slyly inserts references to alternate market places such as on the reserve, or on a bus, so as to reveal that consumption and market places for Indigenous communities exists outside a colonial monopoly, a definite salute to resistance. By acknowledging the issues around the western marketplace monopoly Mulder’s installations usher in an immensely important conversation, as there is a growing concern around the outlandish costs of food and necessities in remote areas designated to Indigenous communities (such as souring prices of food in Nunavut). This is ultimately a strategic form of government pressure to force Indigenous people from their land, by making it practically uninhabitable land to live on, as it is untenably expensive. Mulder’s critique of glamour shopping against the gritty realities of purchasing goods on a reserve offer up a wry critique on colonial strategic markets.

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Marjorie Beaucage’s video works exist as real documentation of Indigenous events, such as pow-wows, community meetings, and rallies (which include the Idle No More movement). This exhibition could not be complete without content that addresses our contemporary Indigenous communities and concerns in a cohesive informative manner, using the voices of our leaders. Beaucage provides us with an archive of how our communities are organizing themselves, building solidarity, and continuing to resist the pressures to conform. One of the major goals of this exhibition was to provide and maintain an Indigenious perspective, and through Beaucage’s video work we are given real-time insight into our communal activities and meetings, without it being filtered through the media. As Beaucage documents our current leaders and communities, Maryse Arseneault takes a look into the past. Sourcing dozens of antique ethnological portrait photographs of First Nations people, Arseneault sourced these images, overlaid them with unique patterns to obscure their faces, printing them, and then installs them as large pattern-based installations. Animated specifically for this online platform, her work explores the loss of identity and cultural significance, but like many of the artists who contributed work to this exhibition, Arseneault offers a twist that is in its own right a form of resistance. She has obscured the identities of the minorities in her appropriation of the photographs, by which she reclaims their anonymity from the initial process of co-defining their ethnicity.

Seeking out Gord Hill to participate in this exhibition felt crucial. Upon researching how resistance, Indigenous history in Canada and North America, and Indigenous art tie in together with visual arts and activism – the compelling work of Hill continuously intersected all these ideas. Specifically, with Hill’s fascinating graphic novel “500 years of Indigenous Resistance” published in 2010.  To have not included Hill would have been a major oversight. Within the exhibition, excerpts of Hill’s graphic novel work are showcased along with an unpublished narrative strip.  Hills’ compelling graphic novel telling the story of a pivotal moment in Kwakiutl history, in which an indigenous community fights to protect what is theirs. Hill’s work follows in the tradition of George Orwell’s World War II epic novel “Animal Farm” and Art Spiegelman’s riveting Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” by depicting the indigenous  protagonist characters as dogs who are in an aggressive conflict with the antagonist human characters. Hill honors this piece of Indigenous past by preserving the narrative as a graphic comic, and through its preservation establishes a form of resistance against the cultural colonization and homogenization of Kwakiutl culture. Hill also instills a moral message with presenting this narrative, about the capabilities of oppressed people when taken for granted, and as a warning or caution tale against the mistreatment of Indigenous communities. There is an obvious tone of anger in the author’s voice, but I ask how can this anger not be permissible once you’ve considered the facts. If you don’t believe Hill has his facts straight, you should defer to his prolific blog which presents Indigenous news “missed” by mainstream media. Hill not only offers parables and allusions with his contributions, there is a fierce directness in his voice that embodies the urgency of change and the purpose for resistance.

Keith Cole is a particularly unique character. He is an artist, drag queen, queer man who ran against Rob Ford for Mayor in the last election for the City of Toronto in 2010. Cole has been stirring up shit as an activist in Toronto for over two decades. Part of the amazing ethos that surrounds Cole is with his upbringing, having been adopted by First Nation parents, he grew up on a reserve in Northern Ontario and self-identifies as an Indigenous artist, offering a very unique perspective. My attraction to Cole’s work extends from a connection to his humorous unapologetic unavoidable, shameless, and shocking visibility approach to making art. His work often plays with strategies and aesthetics between politics, comedy and human rights movements, specifically with a focus on queer culture, LGBTQ and Indigenous rights. In being familiar with Cole’s work I knew that satirical provocation would be a likely outcome, for if you are unfamiliar with his work be warned, you need be acutely cognizant of his ability to push the envelope on what is deemed acceptable. For ATTESTING RESISTANCE, I wanted to include an artist who would do just that – present work that would defy any expectations. Cole’s work embodies the notion that we can all exercise resistance, we can existing outside the western norms and not conform to the laws of an imposed and unjust government (even when there are treaties and agreements that have been established to dismantle and conform). In walks Pepper Highway (Cole’s drag queen alter-ego), she is a trashy, camp beauty-queen, she is a juicy-couture culture wasteland, she is also a two-spirited Indigenous embodied activist goddess (even her drag name evokes references to resistance). With Cole’s work for ATTESTING RESISTACE, he enlists Pepper Highway on a mission to get in touch with the spirit of nature and folklore in the heart of downtown Toronto while simultaneously in an effort to break some western laws. Reenacting the legend of Princess Green Mantle, the story of the Ojibwe princess who perished while saving her tribe by tricking an oncoming attacking Sioux tribe, as she lead them to their death over the Kakabeka waterfalls in Thunder Bay (where Cole originates from). Mediated through photography, Cole’s presents a public performance work. He presents a modernized reenactment of the fable, casting his trashy alter ego Pepper Highway as Princess Green Mantle.  Pepper Highway reenacts this fable in a man-made concrete landscape architected waterfall that is located in downtown Toronto. As she stares directly into the camera, she looks as though she is beckoning all of westernized, capital consumer Canadian culture to fall with her over the waterfall – leaving her tribe in peace. She is definitely deceiving the contemporary enemy, using the language of consumer culture as her lure. On top of which, the ostentatious Pepper Highway breaks a few western laws in the process and drowns out colonial normality by getting skimpy and wet in the public fountain as if to say: "These are your laws, not mine."

I am extremely proud of all the powerful, political voices each of these artists have fostered within their art making practices that I have been fortunate enough to present in ATTESTING RESISTANCE. There is a definite story being told here within this exhibition, where each artist has contributed a crucial chapter of an unresolved story, about attesting to the resistance and resilience of many people who have and continue to struggle with being asked to conform.


Logan MacDonald - 2013
(Revised in 2017)