Storytelling: The 2nd Biennial of Contemporary Aboriginal Art

By Johanne Lepage on May 26, 2014

Adrian Stimson, Beyond Redemption (2010), mixed media installation. Photo: Eve Kotyk, Mendel Art Gallery

“Humans are storytelling animals,” says Professor Gregory Cajete, author of Look at the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, himself a Tewa from New Mexico. “Story is a primary structure through which humans think, relate, and communicate. We make stories, tell stories and live stories because it is such an integral part of being human. The myths we live by actively shape and integrate our life experience. They inform us, as well as form us, through our interaction with their symbols and images.”

First Peoples transmit ancestral knowledge through the shared medium of storytelling. It is the very antithesis of the European model that prevails in Western society, which inclines towards authoritative teaching on the basis of rationality, objectivity, even irrefutability. Storytelling, on the other hand, passed down as it is through tales and stories, is an open book whose pages turn with every breath of change.

These are the qualities expressed in the constellation of works presented at the Art Mûr gallery in Montreal and the Stewart Hall Art Gallery in Pointe-Claire, as well as at Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters, also in Montréal, where Nadia Myre has a solo exhibition.

“For the second Biennial of Contemporary Aboriginal Art,” says curator Michael Patten, “I chose to invite the artists [...] to share stories that are dramatically contemporary and incredibly relevant [such as] the ecological crisis. [...] First Peoples [bring] the environmental cause to the fore. Noam Chomsky, perhaps one of the most [brilliant] minds [of our time], has openly stated the importance of Aboriginal activists [in] environmental politics. The [invited] artists are not [only] sounding the ecological alarm, but through their stories, they are teaching us to respect and celebrate Nature in all its complexity.”

Michael Anthony Simon, Faux/Real (detail), 2014, spraypaint, gold glitter on Nephila clavata [spider] web. Photo: Michael Anthony Simon

Cloud Whispers by Michael Anthony Simon is just one example of this. By allowing spiders to spin their webs in his studio, before releasing them back into Nature, and inspired by them to paint magnificent canvases resembling dreamcatchers, the artist invites us to see the everyday in a new way, and to become more aware of our environment.

Hanna Claus and Amelia Winger-Bearskin interpret the Iroquois myth of Sky Woman, who fell from the heavens to Earth through a hole in an uprooted tree. A bird catches her fall and places her on the back of a turtle, which welcomes her. In works by the two women, the cloud symbolizes both creativity and community. The cloud, like the community, is made up of an infinite number of active particles that together form a whole.  

Da-ka-xeen Mehner, on the other hand, disrupts the narrative by inserting contemporary elements into archival photos from the beginning of the 20th century. As such, he creates a bridge between past and present, suggesting a dialogue between ancestor and artist. Similarly, when Kent Monkman places cars in the wilderness, filled with traditional symbols, he is reversing the allegorical impact of major genres within art history—such as historical scenes and landscapes—by literally muddying their tracks.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner, Kent Monkman and Nadia Myre, all of whom have works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, were also part of the exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art in 2013, alongside other artists featured in the 2nd Biennial of Contemporary Aboriginal Art. Just like storytelling, by inviting us into a global dialogue on politics, culture, ecology and other current events, the Biennial takes a collective breath to clear away old ideas.

Storytelling is on view at the Art Mûr gallery in Montreal, the Stewart Hall Art Gallery in Pointe-Claire, and at Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal, until June 22, 2014. For more information, please visit

By Johanne Lepage| May 26, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Johanne Lepage

Johanne Lepage

Johanne Lepage is a journalist, writer and speechwriter who has worked in the field of written communications for more than 30 years. 

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