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The Transformative Power of Art and Culture: Anishinaabeg in the Digital Age

Now in its fifth edition, SAW Gallery’s Free School is a free workshop and lecture series geared toward professional visual and media artists working in the Ottawa and Gatineau regions. Providing an exceptional opportunity to delve into a curriculum that few learning institutions deliver, Free School features leaders in various fields related to the arts, who speak to artists in practical terms on a wide range of subjects. This year’s special edition of Free School was presented online, and was open to artists living in Canada and internationally.

Barry Ace presented via live stream on October 8, 2020 at 7pm.

Through his Power Point presentation, “The Transformative Power of Art and Culture: Anishinaabeg in the Digital Age” Ace demonstrated and spoke about how his lived cultural experiences interweave, transcend and coalesce into his contemporary art practice. Ace followed a culture-based approach which relies on an autobiographical narrative that situated himself within the context of Anishinaabe-biimaadiziwin (Anishinaabe culture) in order to reveal important aspects of his personal life and how these lived experiences have influenced the development of his research and work.

At the outset of his lecture, Ace revealed how his art making is deeply rooted in a culture-based methodology – learning by experience, daily-living and immersion in Anishinaabe cultural practices. He noted that this approach to learning is in direct contradistinction to his Western academic-based training that was undertaken for his under-graduate and graduate studies at Laurentian University and Carleton University.

He noted that one important aspect of his contemporary art practice is that he does it first and foremost for his Anishinaabe community. He revealed how he embeds and strategically integrates into his work Anishinaabe signs and semiotics (visual language), Anishinaabemowin (language) and historical and contemporary narratives and social, cultural and political issues that do not require extensive explanation to an Anishinaabe audience. Commenting further, he noted that this gaze is very different when his work is presented to a non-Anishinaabe critical audience, and it can be extremely challenging and not always accessible. For the most part, Ace’s work appeals to non-Anishinaabe viewers on a purely aesthetic level, since it does readily reveal its secrets or translate cultural-specific embedded code. This is due to the viewer’s external gaze and not knowing about an object’s history or cultural context or how it came to be, in terms of its development in a long line of linear history. It is next to impossible to totally understand a contemporary work without knowing what it is in response to and what came before it in its cultural legacy (what came first, after and so forth). So without this integral and imperative knowledge and information, it can only be superficially comprehended and evaluated on its aesthetic appeal.

It is also important to note that this outsider gaze can also further subvert the meaning and intent of a work by defaulting to a heart-warming and seductive desire to embrace the exoticism of Otherness. These emotive responses to contemporary Indigenous art can be traced back to the longstanding dominant histories of museological representation of Indigenous historical art in Western mausoleum institutions and salvage archaeology. With this history in mind, his work can be situated as a direct response/challenge to these omnipresent and visceral constructs of anthropology and ethnography. Western social sciences have historically encapsulated Indigenous cultures into a mythological stasis and relegated their cultural arts into a contained and manageable hierarchical concept of classification as lower grade art – namely craft (which is deeply rooted in a devalued misogynistic attitude towards women’s work). Ironically, Ace explained that his art practice overtly draws from these relegated and side-lined cultural arts, where he strategically coalesces the confluence of the historical into the contemporary and (re)presents it back as contemporary art, while simultaneously maintaining a hyper-awareness of the work’s cultural relevance, innovation and progression when viewed by an Anishinaabe audience.

Ace’s presentation was image ladened with many recent works, and he spoke on his dance performance based work, community mentorships and university residencies, paper-based work, and textile/sculpture/assemblage work. He explained the interconnected power relationship between glass beads and electronic components and made a direct connection that the inspiration for his work is drawn from the historical Anishinaabeg arts of the Great Lakes region of Canada. Ace also revealed how he up-cycles reclaimed and salvaged electronic components and circuitry (capacitors and resistors) transforming this refuse of our technological age into complex floral motifs. From his presentation, it is clear that Ace’s contemporary practice intentionally, yet respectfully, transcends and moves forward Anishinaabeg cultural boundaries. Ace noted that “as our digital age exponentially transforms and infuses Anishinaabeg culture (and other global cultures) with new technologies and new ways of communicating, I am harnessing and bridging the precipice between historical and contemporary knowledge, art and power, while maintaining a distinct Anishinaabe aesthetic connecting generations.”