(re)present

Dawn Martin

Shé:kon, skén:nen. Hello and greetings, my name is Dawn Martin and I am Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk Nation) from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. I just finished my degree at Trent University in Indigenous Studies in June 2017 where my main area of research looked at food sovereignty, sustainability, Mohawk language, orality, storytelling and artistic practice and history.

In my last year at Trent I took a history course called Canadian Images which peaked my interest in how Indigenous art and artists have been represented, commodified and consumed in Canadian culture. I was introduced to Artspace early in the course and have been in awe at the work artist run centres do to lift up voices, stories, and histories that address narratives that push limits and cross boundaries.

I am studying at Queen’s University in the Bachelors of Education program right now. One of the component placements is an alternative practicum (education outside of a traditional setting) and I have chosen Artspace because of their commitment to promoting the work contemporary Indigenous womyn artists for the 2018 programming year.

I started my placement the week of our opening of Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli’s exhibition I can’t make you those mitts because there is a hole in my heart and my hands hurt. I was able to witness the total transformation of the gallery. Walls were painted from white to bluey-to-deep purple; vinyl letters cover windows and shadows dance across the wooden gallery floor forever changing with daylight; shades of brown and white furs from tanned caribou hides fill the air with smells of flora and fauna.

On the night of Jeneen’s opening the gallery was filled with an audience anticipating the one-night-only performance. Jeneen entered the room dressed head to toe in black, she rips and tares felt fabric across the gallery floor and onto a cymbal that spins and rings as an electric drill rattles it. She sprinkles gold beads onto the cymbal as the chime and echo in the air. Dragging a mic and a beaded hair bone barrette across the floor sounds of hooves and feet on tracks crossing landscapes came to mind. Jeneen used her own voice and body adding in more and more layers of sounds and story. As I witnessed this performance I could feel vibrations tingle through my feet and move up my legs, I felt a sense of somberness as these leery sounds linger and echo out.

I can’t make you those mitts because there is a hole in my heart and my hands hurt.

Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith states, “Indigenous communities have struggled since colonization to be able to exercise what is a fundamental right, that is, to represent ourselves” and I think this quote speaks directly to the work Janeen and many other Indigenous folks are doing.

With the use of technology, audio, body, voice, movement, and caribou Janeen is making a statement that we as a people are not static. Indigenous language, culture, and tradition are forever fluid, travelling through time and space(s); adapting, changing, challenging and moving forward unapologetically.