Friday, April 6, 2012

Vancouver Art Gallery Gets Hip to the 'Beat' with Contemporary Indigenous Artists

Skeena Reece
Raven: On the Colonial Fleet, 2010
digital photograph
Photo: Sebastian Kriete 
If you watched the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games (and who didn't!), you are quite aware of the level of respect that officials showed the people of Canada's First Nations in the opening and closing ceremonies. The focal point was highlighting Canada's cultural and historical richness, and they did it with such national pride. The fact is that in Canada it is difficult not to see the influence of its indigenous people and feel their presence all around you. It is something that I noticed and fell in love with when I first visited Vancouver in 1993.

The American Southwest, while a totally different flavor, has a similar energy. For me, one of the perks of spending the last three years in New Mexico was having the opportunity to experience Native American culture first-hand in the places where people have continually lived and practiced their beliefs for hundreds of years (and in some cases, more than a thousand years).  It would be hard to ignore that kind of rootedness. And why would you want to ignore it since there is so much to learn about Humanity and nature?  What is also wonderful about interacting with a living culture is seeing how it adapts to the world around it and how its inhabitants, who participate in the outside world, respond to those influences.

In recent years, younger, contemporary Native American artists in the Southwest are reclaiming their cultural pasts--stories, iconography and handicrafts--to create new contexts in which a cross-section of mainstream society can experience and interpret them. This is also happening across the country with young Native artists from a variety of tribal backgrounds. While centuries ago, handicrafts were thought to be more utilitarian than what we think of today as "art," these forms still actively changed as Native Americans came into contact with other tribes and cultures and learned new "technologies."  Being contemporary is something that has always existed in Native arts.  In the present, what seems to tie young Native artists together, no matter the tribe or medium, is a focus on everything urban.  This is representative of the larger shift that is happening in both mainstream youth culture as well as in contemporary art, undoubtedly brought to light by easy access to technologies that have made the world even smaller and more connected.
Jordan Bennett
Turning Tables, 2010
sound installation, walnut, oak, spruce, electronics
Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Mark J. Bennett

It makes sense that in Canada, which is full of generational indigenous artists, the same phenomenon would occur. In late February, the Vancouver Art Gallery opened an exhibition entitled Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture that celebrates this shift in thinking and form. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Hip Hop movement became a strong catalyst for activism in Coast Salish Nation communities.

"The roots of hip hop culture and music have been transformed into forms that echo current realities of young people, creating dynamic forums for storytelling and indigenous language, as well as new modes of political expression."

While Beat Nation uses Hip Hop as a reference point from which to begin, the exhibition features the work of artists "who use pop culture, graffiti, fashion and other signifiers of urban life in combination with more traditional forms of Aboriginal identity."

Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture continues through June 3 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, located at 750 Hornby Street, Vancouver, British Columbia. For more information on the exhibit visit their web site or call 604-662-4719.

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