Transits and Returns
Vancouver Art Gallery
September 28, 2019 to February 23, 2020
Curated by Tarah Hogue, Senior Curatorial Fellow, Indigenous Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, with Sarah Biscarra Dilley, Freja Carmichael, Léuli Eshraghi and Lana Lopesi.
Transits and Returns is a provocative and engaging exhibition that showcases the works of twenty-one Indigenous artists from across Canada, the United States, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia. It is the final stop in a three-part transnational journey across the Pacific Ocean. The first iteration – The Commute – was presented at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia in 2018. A second version – Layover – was shown at Artscape Aotearoa in Auckland, New Zealand in 2019. The final iteration – Transits and Returns – is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until February 23, 2020. Each unique iteration has carved out a space for exchange across the Pacific region between Indigenous cultures, traditional knowledges and divergent geographies.
Transits and Returns was developed and coordinated by five Indigenous curators – each working to honour the local contexts and traditions in which they are rooted. This third iteration continues to examine notions of home, interpretations of movement, and interconnectivity with the land. The exhibition also explores the multifaceted histories and lived experiences that continue to shape what it means to be Indigenous in the contemporary world.
The intent is to convey themes of territory, movement and kinship as interpreted through the (author)ity of the Indigenous artists themselves. The artworks they have created – placed within the formal, establishment space of the Vancouver Art Gallery – reflect the artists' lived realities, their traditional histories, as well as their insights about the future, positioned incongruously within the European concept of an art gallery.
A unique feature of this exhibition is the expansive span of media, techniques and methodologies employed by the artists in order to convey their ideas. One encounters hand woven baskets and quilts, collage, video projections, interactive installations, beading and photography, all in the service of ‘contemporary' art. Upon entering the initial exhibition space, Brisbane-based artist Carol McGregor's Skin Country (2018) was first to catch my eye. Erected in the far corner of the room, it is a large, alluring fur cloak woven of traditional possum skin. McGregor's Wathaurung ancestry informs her work, as she reconfigures historical practices and traditional techniques into the present day. The artmaking process becomes meticulously visible and conjures up a complex sense of rarity, luxury and sacredness all at once. I found the ambitious scale of the piece challenged my assumptions and surpassed my expectations. The side of the shawl that faces outwards is filled with various botanical illustrations, divided by a dark curving line that runs through the piece diagonally. This line represents a mapping of the Maiwar River in Brisbane, while the depictions of flowers, herbs, and shrubs represent the Indigenous plants existing throughout the surrounding geographical area.
Another work that spoke to me was Taloi Havini's Habitat (2018). Arrayed in a room of its own, Habitat is a 4-channel projection using image sequencing, and 5.1 surround sound. I found myself experiencing a deep sense of intimate witnessing. The work explores the fraught relations over land and displacement between Indigenous local peoples, landowners and the colonial forces that attempted to erect mining operations in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Australia from 1966 to 1989, as noted in the accompanying Transits and Returns catalogue. Just over 10 minutes in length this beautiful compilation of archival news and government film footage has been re-worked to include Havini's personal documentation and ancestral archives in to retrace Australia's, and specifically, Bougainville's complicated, intricate history. This piece overtly exposes the consequences of colonialism and dislocation and then, deconstructs them. During my visit, most people remained present for the entirety of this powerful and deeply engaging experience.
Oh, How I Long For Home (2016) by Dzawada'enuxw First Nations artist Marianne Nicolson demanded my attention in the next exhibition room. A bright red, neon phrase of words raised high on the far wall reads in the language of the Kwakwaka'waka people ‘Wa'lasan xwalsa kan ne'nakwe'. This translates in English to the title of the piece. The neon lighting is used to convey the notion of settler-colonial hegemony which is reinforced by urbanization and capitalist transaction that persist in the contemporary city, all the while on unceded land. It challenges the very notion of home; of (dis)connection from traditional values; of one's individual freedom and finally of the desire for longing.
When entering the exhibition's final main space, it's hard to not immediately turn towards Hannah Brontë's FUTCHA ANCIENT (2018) due to the imposing scale of the artwork. A cascading, vibrant, hand-dyed fabric is draped from the ceiling to the floor. Three light-boxes display photographic prints of powerful Indigenous women in spiritual and ethereal environments on the wall adjacent, each adorned with oversized necklaces and commanding attire. The sense of both Indigenous and female empowerment is self-evident. A mix of vivid natural fibres, beadwork, shells and black sand have been placed in a circle on the ground in front, referencing the three necklaces worn by the women in the photos. The piece transported me into an alternate realm, one that was both nurturing and dreamlike. The earthly hues of the fabric evoke both the energy and strength of the land, as well as the female body, and in so doing, aligned these forces in an emotionally affecting way.
It is critical to remember that as a sign of wealth and status, public galleries and museums continue to exist as colonial institutions in Canada. They often fail to responsibly represent and repatriate Indigenous artists, their cultures, traditions and sacred objects. Transits and Returns, as a part of its larger international curatorial arc, intentionally holds such institutions accountable. It demands a response to continued systemic injustices as it foregrounds Indigenous autonomy, presence and self-representation.
Transits and Returns reminds us that decolonizing does not mean the same thing as diversity, access or inclusion. We can have diverse spaces and still have the impact of colonialism and colonial mentalities present. We each have an urgent responsibility to know the difference.