by Julie Nagam
When the curve of your board hits the edge of the snow just right, and you take an icy breath of air while flying down the hill: you can feel each carve creating fine pellets of snow flying up past your hair, whipping through the wind—that feeling cannot be replicated. Similarly, it is difficult to write about the visceral experience of the loud sounds booming out of giant black speakers, or the reverberation off the guitars and double bass drum from your favourite punk bands playing in a small, dark dive like Le Rendez-Vous or the West End Cultural Centre (which is not the case anymore). Watching your favourite punk band run around the stage or the guitarist kick-jump a few feet into the air, timed perfectly with the new rift in the music, or the lead singer stage-diving into the crowd or just jumping around screaming into the mic. Each lyric written with care and total angst for the discontent of the world. I found small pieces of my own political frustration pouring out of me with each moment I hung out with my friends, riding or listening to punk bands.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that I started learning how to snowboard behind a sled in the middle of the Prairies. Or recounting the hours spent in the parking lot, trying to balance on a skateboard: to rip by with no effort, to master a kick-flip or a pop-up. I would take all of my stress, all of my political frustrations out on the hill. There was no better feeling than riding; I felt so free and unhinged from all the teenage angst, racial issues, gender dynamics, and conservatism. Each mountain, peak, valley, ditch, or gravel pit gave me a sense of my relationship to the land and created a strong connection to place, and this is still the case. I knew sections of land by riding on a sled to find the perfect pitch, gravel pit, or drift of snow to hit at a high speed, testing my skill and the land’s ability to absorb me. All of my teenage and later years were spent searching the land for the best possible snow, or sitting and waiting by the window to see if it would snow, and if it did, how much? Would it be soft? Fluffy? Sticky? Would we all squeeze into a tiny car and drive to the ditch, or would we jump on some sleds and search the fields for drifts? Each winter we would revisit specific spots, or arrange a road trip to the mountains to create new haunts and learn new and unfamiliar landscapes; funny how nothing has really changed except my age.
The exhibitions Boarder X and Vernon Ah Kee: cantchant resonate with my own personal attachment to the subcultures of punk, snowboarding, and skateboarding (surfing was more of a dream state based on Manitoba’s prairie land-lock). The artists in these exhibitions are contributing to a larger counterculture that has more recently become somewhat mainstream. My first exposure to an Indigenous skate exhibition was Barry Ace’s solo show Super Phat Nish (2005), curated by Cathy Mattes at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. I felt a wave of relief and excitement to learn I was not alone in my attachment to board culture. Intuitively, the links were obvious, but in the larger board scene it was not explicit: it was a counter-culture movement of frustrated youth, but it was predominantly male, leftist, and working-class. For me, there was something in the lyrics as many people raged about injustices in the world linked to land rights, sexism, environmental concerns, and capitalism. The next exhibition I encountered that grappled with board culture was a small section in Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World (2009), curated by Gerald McMaster and Joe Baker and later exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 2010, the exhibition Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture began to tour across Canada, and I witnessed it at the Power Plant (Toronto) in 2012. These exhibitions were focused on urban Indigenous pop and youth culture, focused on identity, stereotypes, and a critical assessment of space. These shows demonstrated that Indigenous culture is in a constant state of flux, borrowing from traditional knowledge to then transform itself into new and changing forms of expressions of Indigenous culture.
Boarder X and Vernon Ah Kee: cantchant turn the focus on board culture and its relationship to land and territory, and the connection to the land through the execution of these subcultural activities is explored through the works of the various artists. For example, the haunting feeling elicited by the fine detailing of each face in Ah Kee’s surfboards makes them feel familiar, and breathes life into the ocean in both the video and the hanging boards. You feel a strong sense of place, and the inherent wisdom in navigating the harsh, unforgiving force of the ocean. The artists in both exhibitions are manipulating a particular form: the medium is a plank—a flat surface—which is made of different materials for skate, snow, or surf. The board and its relationship with space and place is the focus of this exhibition, demonstrating to the viewer that there is something specific about Indigenous board culture. In the past, I have argued that concepts of Native space are linked to Indigenous stories of place. The material objects (the various boards in this exhibition) create a strong bond to the land. The land-based narratives in each of the works, and the overall curatorial tone demonstrate each artist’s geographic location and embodied knowledge of their culture, and the relationship they are building with each place through the various board cultures.
The importance of Indigenous politics within ideas of Native space is evident within the larger exhibitions, and the geopolitics of place play out in each visual narrative. Looking closely at Roger Crait’s massive interactive painting, you can identify the specific Winnipeg icons embedded in his work. In Meghann O’Brien’s pieces, you automatically recognize the West Coast form and line; the bright yellow kayak indicates Mark Igloliorte is working from Inuk culture. Jordan Bennett’s installation is strongly rooted in his relationship to his East Coast home and cultural designs. These artists have all created works that encompass Indigenous living histories linked to land, water, and people. The overall exhibition has created knowledge that is place- and practice-based, and that are individual and collective acts of Indigenous independence. These acts of resistance and refusal activate the space at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. As I have argued in past scholarship, artwork can narrate Indigenous stories of place to visually demonstrate an alternative cartography that challenges myths of settlement situated in colonial narratives. These two exhibitions disrupt the colonial and static space of the oldest civic gallery in Canada, and at the same time transform the Gallery into a site that recognizes the power of breaking down its own colonial history and presence.
The importance of understanding the criticality of Indigenous politics and relationship to place is at the forefront of this exhibition. Critics may discuss the show in the larger context of skate culture, but I fear this would be a mistake. The strength and nexus of the exhibition is bringing the Indigenous relationship to this counterculture to the forefront, and rewriting colonial narratives through skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding. Board cultures have been co-opted by Indigenous artists, who have manipulated these subcultures to fit their understandings of territory and culture. Each artist is promoting their particular politics and transforming the gallery space. Most importantly, each artist is inspiring a new generation of Indigenous riders in snow, on concrete, or in the ocean. A critical mass of Indigenous youth culture is emerging, and I hope to be at the front lines in opening up spaces and creating new cartographies of hope, participating in acts of independence and refusing to be sucked into mainstream Canadian culture. As an artist, curator, and scholar, I want to demonstrate how art can be the catalyst to radically transform space and create social change. Art can rupture spaces and spark difficult dialogues and knowledge for future generations in public space, in galleries, and on the street. Boarder X and Vernon Ah Kee: cantchant drastically shift mainstream or settler ideologies, and I have witnessed the transformative social change created by these exhibitions firsthand. I am hopeful this change will continue within Winnipeg, as well as nationally and internationally.
I have experienced different landmasses and cultural knowledge when riding in new territories: differences in the age of the mountain, or the valley that lies at its feet. I think about the various feelings evoked by the Andes or the Alps, the Rockies or the Laurentians. I have experienced the unforgiving ocean in an attempt to surf. The crazy part is that I have returned to the land where I grew up, and I still know my favorite spots to ride; I still dream of jumping on the back of a sled to find the perfect snow. The only difference is that twenty-five years have passed from the first time I strapped into low-ride bindings, and I am now taking my young daughters to those spots, hoping they will be the new generation of shred debbies learning the lessons the land will teach them.
Dr. Julie Nagam is the Chair in the History of Indigenous Art in North America this is a joint appointment with the University of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Her current SSHRC projects include: The Transactive Memory Keepers: Indigenous Public Engagement in Digital and New Media Labs and Exhibitions (www.transactivememorykeepers.org). She is a co-applicant in partnership grant Initiative for Indigenous Futures (http://abtec.org/iif/) and will be hosting the first Public symposium entitled, Radically Shifting Our Indigenous Future(s): Through Art, Scholarship and Technology at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She has co-edited Indigenous Art New Media and the Digital as a special issue of PUBIC Art, Culture + Ideas journal. Nagam’s most recent publications include, Traveling soles: Tracing the footprints of our stolen sisters (2017), Deciphering the refusal of the digital and binary codes of sovereignty/self-determination and civilized/savage (2016). Nagam's artwork has been shown nationally and internationally and currently she is creating new work for Winnipeg Arts Council public art, Nuit Blanche in Toronto and Smithsonian in New York.