Jeff Thomas, Richard Poafpybitty, Pink Panther (1982), digital inkjet print. © Jeff Thomas
Two galleries in Lethbridge, Alberta are hosting exhibitions this spring, featuring a number of prominent Canadian artists.
Sovereign Acts, at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge casts a gimlet eye on the historical practice of Indigenous Peoples performing traditional dances, ceremonies and other cultural rituals for colonial audiences. Anishinawbe-kwe writer, media artist and curator Wanda Nanibush selected works by artists Rebecca Belmore, Robert Houle, Terrance Houle, Shelley Niro, Jeff Thomas, Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson for the exhibition, because she feels these First Nations artists share a “profound respect for their own people.” She says they also offer a broad range of artistic approaches to re-examining the history of Indigenous performance, artists, actors and ancestors.
“There’s a real playfulness to some of the work,” she says. “Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson definitely go for the camp aesthetics. They really push that parody and humour to address quite devastating topics. Jeff Thomas travelled around taking pictures of pow wows, but he doesn’t do the kind of colonial photographs of the guy in all his regalia. It’s much more about when they’re putting on the clothes, or walking along city streets in their regalia, so it really messes with your idea of where it belongs. It puts it in the everyday of people’s lives.”
Even though Indigenous performers may have been perpetuating stereotypes onstage, Nanibush notes that “in their actual lives it was kind of empowering,” in some cases ensuring the continuity of banned traditional dances and practices. She says it also allowed for some economic independence and mobility at a time when many Indigenous peoples in North America needed passes just to leave reservations.
Lori Blondeau, Betty Daybird's Vision Quest (2010), digital inkjet print. © Lori Blondeau
“I think people see stereotyping as a process of victimization; whereas I think stereotypes can be negotiated and played with in a way that empowers people,” she says. “There’s another history of performance art that comes out of Indigenous peoples performing on colonial stages—whether it’s the Wild West Show or different kinds of cultural performances at World Exhibitions. History could look at them as artists who were negotiating that kind of colonial situation. We can see contemporary performance artists doing a similar thing.”
Meanwhile, the epic travels and enduring appeal of an iconic Canadian photographer will be showcased in the Helen Christou Gallery at the University of Lethbridge. A Canadian Abroad: Photographs and Prints by Roloff Beny draws upon Beny’s never-before-exhibited, Odyssey: Mirror of the Mediterrean series.
Curator Jane Edmundson says he was one of the first Canadian photographers to have broad appeal, largely due to the publication of a number of books of his work. “He was one of the first Canadian photographers to have their work disseminated outside the galleries. My grandmother would never go to an art gallery, but she had one of Beny’s books. For me, he stands out because his work was reproduced that way, and made accessible to people who wouldn’t be seeking out his work in a gallery, or who wouldn’t have had the means to travel to the places that he travelled to.”
Beny began painting and taking pictures as a child growing up in Medicine Hat, Alberta and had his first exhibition of watercolours at age 15. After studying fine arts at the University of Toronto, the Banff Centre for Continuing Education, and the University of Iowa, he concentrated on painting and printmaking, but soon returned to photography.
Roloff Beny, Self-portrait, undated; From the University of Lethbridge Art Collection, bequest of the artist, 1984
Following his first show in London, England in 1955, Beny began to tour and exhibit prolifically. He also produced more than a dozen lavishly illustrated coffee-table books depicting exotic locales. The National Gallery of Canada has 69 of Beny’s photographs in its permanent collection.
“I find him really interesting as a character,” Edmundson says. “I find him really interesting as a character,” Edmundson says. “He reminds me of a tourist from the 18th and early 19th centuries going on the Grand Tour. If you were from a family of means, you would visit the key churches, key museums, artworks and cultural hotspots of Western Europe. The photographs in the Odyssey series were all shot in the Mediterranean, with these interesting parallels to the concept of people from all over Europe coming to explore ancient, medieval and Renaissance treasures.”
Beny was made an officer of The Order of Canada in 1972. He ultimately made his home in Rome, where he died in 1984.
Sovereign Acts is on view at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge to June 15, 2014. A Canadian Abroad: Photographs and Prints by Roloff Beny is on view at the Helen Christou Gallery at the University of Lethbridge from May 23 to July 4, 2014.
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