Friday, 3 March 2017

JANE ASH POITRAS: AN ANTI-COLONIAL STANCE AT THE ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM

SHE'S MY MUSE

BY: NATANIA SHERMAN

Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art (Photo: Natania Sherman)
Milestone birthdays are a prime opportunity to celebrate but also to take stock and think about the future. Those of us in the culture sector in Canada are currently facing this exact challenge, since our institutions are preparing Canada 150 programming and events. It is easy to get lost in a celebration of our Canadian-ness but the challenge is that in moments of nationalistic pride it is difficult to remember that many people see our national symbols as painful reminders of a dark past. One need only look at the Colonialism 150 hashtag on Twitter to see the opposition many Canadian First Nations feel to the Canada 150 fanfare.


The Colonialism 150 T-shirt. (Source)
Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) has led to a renewed awareness of Canada’s dark history of colonialism, there is still a long way to go before Canadian settlers and Canadian First Nations are able to truly reconcile with our past and create change for the future.  Today I’d like to take a view of Canadian history through the lens of Cree artist,  Jane Ash Poitras. A current exhibition, Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art  at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)'s First People's Gallery presents a darker take on Canadian symbolism and reveals what we can learn from listening to the perspectives and experiences of others.

A collage of colonial symbolism (photo: Natania Sherman)
Although the purpose of Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is to highlight new acquisitions, the resulting display, which places historical and ethnographic objects next to Poitras' paintings, is a subversive and anti-colonial take on the museological tradition of showing off newly acquired objects.  The tagline of the exhibition is "Four paintings recently acquired by the ROM explore colonialism and traditional knowledge of the therapeutic properties and spiritual significance of plants, wisdom now lost but which we hope to reclaim" (ROM, 2017).  The works in question are large scale paintings by Poitras that contrast traditional indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants with the drudge work imposed on indigenous youth by the residential school system. Works like Potato Peeling 101, Ethnobotany 101 directly challenge historical white settler's assumptions that children from indigenous communities were only good for peeling potatoes, by highlighting medicinal knowledge such as the fact that foxglove or digitalis purpurea had medicinal uses familiar to first nations peoples well before its medicinal properties were "discovered" by European scientists. Poitras' paintings tell a story through scale and through the sheer number of paint and collage elements included in each piece. Large painted backdrops resembling a classroom blackboard are overlayed with colonial symbols like the Hudson's Bay Company stripes and images of western medical textbooks. Poitras' hand painted elements creep in to overtake the colonial symbols in the form of expressionistic flowers and stylized buffalo, representing traditional knowledge and sacred medicine.

Buffalo Seed by Jane Ash Poitras (Photo: Natania Sherman)
The exhibit features ethnographic and historical objects alongside the paintings; a school writing desk and baskets for gathering herbs. In the context of the installation and interpretation, these objects take on a spectral quality, highlighting the losses in culture and disruption to family and social life that were a legacy of the residential school system.


 The modes of display also work to reinforce Poitras' artistic voice. Red and yellow interpretive text featuring botanical illustrations, The beautiful red interpretive labels, give this exhibition the feel of a very well designed pop-up exhibit, and they add to the aesthetics of the exhibition with botanical illustrations. The exhibit  features ethnographic and historical objects alongside the paintings; a school writing desk and baskets for gathering herbs. In the context of the installation and interpretation, these objects take on a spectral quality, highlighting the losses in culture and disruption to family and social life that were a legacy of the residential school system.

The new acquisitions' also look at the buffalo hunt, and how over hunting and extermination by European settlers nearly wiped out a key food soucre for First Nations peoples. The painting Buffalo Seed from 2004, which tells the story of the buffalo, is contrasted with oil paintings by European artist George Catlin, that romanticize the buffalo hunt as a dying relic of a dying people. Poitras' paintings tell us otherwise and are a scathing critique of our easy assumptions about  Canadian history.

I wish I could continue to write about all of the indigenous women artists whose work sometimes flies under the radar when it comes to the dominant narrative of Canadian History. So often we struggle to name even one woman artist when asked, (in fact there's a challenge about just this from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the States) so creating a dialogue whenever possible highlights the importance of female voices in our cultural landscape.

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