MATERIAL MATTERS: MATERIALITY OF ANISHINAABEG-BIIMAADIZIWIN AT CENTRAL ART GARAGE (Ottawa)

Material Matters – Materiality of Anishinaabeg-biimadiziwin (Anishinaabeg culture).
Central Art Garage. Curated by Danny Hussey and Bridget Thompson. November 19, 2021, to January 19, 2022.

Vernissage photos by Ming Wu – Barry Ace’s Material Matters @ Central Art Garage

For Ace, the focus on materiality is the basis for the presentation of these works to evoke a deeper understanding of the adverse impact of colonization on Anishinaabeg traditional knowledge and the current trend of resurgence and survivance.

In the context of this exhibition, materiality can be seen as encompassing not only the contemporaneity of the artist and works, but also the physicality of the materials used to inform the viewer’s aesthetic experience. In this hyper-digital and cyber-age of existence, we have become increasingly disconnected from our ability to fully experience and comprehend the mnemonic qualities of the hand-made and our ability to decipher the experientiality of its sensory and intellectual engagement. These works attempt to bridge this precipice between the material and immaterial realms and the historical and contemporary.

Three new large-scale paperwork of ceremonial dance regalia were created specifically for this exhibition. They stand as a testimony to the survival of dance and its resurgence and continuity though the integration of beadwork and contemporary electronic component materials. The use of capacitors, resistors, circuit boards and light emitting diodes is also a direct reference to the contemporaneity and immaterial realm of our digital age.

The medium selected to construct Jingle (2021), Traditional (2021) and Buckskin (2021), is paper. The materiality of the paper and electronic components is integral to understanding these works. Paper is very delicate and evokes ephemeral qualities. These works stand as a metaphor for the fragility of cultural knowledge, memory, spirituality, and ceremony in our post-colonial society. In using the contemporary medium of electronic components (capacitors and resistors) to recreate Great Lakes style floral motifs, they draw attention to the longstanding aspects of Anishinaabe cultural continuity, survivance, innovation, and change as direct responses to perceived cultural stasis. The three works incorporate Nepalese lokta handmade paper that is derived from the fibrous inner bark of the Daphne bholua and Daphne Papyracea plants. These regenerating lokta plants grow in the Himalaayan forest regions of Nepal. Nepalese women harvest the lokta in protected conservation areas and this paper product supports a longstanding local economy that is based on a renewable resource. The lokta bush regenerates to full maturity in 5 to 7 years.  The earliest surviving lokta paper documents date to 1,900 years old, where it was used for sacred Buddhist texts due to this longevity and resistance to decomposition from the elements. Similarly, Anishinaabeg used birch bark to record sacred texts. The lokta paper melds seamlessly as a ground material for Ace’s Anishnaabeg ceremonial regalia.

Sacred motifs of Anishinaabeg power and protection are overlaid on top of the lokta paper, as represented by manidoominens (glass beads) which translate from Anishinaabemowin to “spirit berries” of energy. The integration of glass beads coalesces with the electronic component floral motifs referencing Anishinaabe beadwork and medicinal plants, and together these glass beads and component floral works are a simile for individual and collective healing as they both store and release energy, as does the sound made by the copper cone jingles. The curvilinear stem-work pattern also references electronic circuitry schematics and can be read as a fully functioning system, and like our global society, it is in a constant state of vulnerability and susceptible to disruptions, malfunctions, breakdowns, or attacks rendering the system damaged or inoperable. For Indigenous peoples, this references residential schools, loss of language, dispossession of land, poverty, substance abuse and other adverse impacts. As well, it also points to how we have sought new and innovative ways through cultural revitalization, control of education, self-determination, and self-government science, medicine, and advocacy to monitor, manage, troubleshoot, and repair these dysfunctions and aberrations.

Symbols of Power and Resistance (2021) is Ace’s first large scale work. The 121 x 244 cm wood wall panel consists of close to 10,000 individually painted and wired 3/4 inch wooden beads in the form of an Anishinaabe wampum belt fragment. The work is a focused element based on one of Ace’s textile works from Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin(2016) a series of honouring blankets for the five Great Lakes. For this work, Ace linked five Hudson Bay trade blankets each adorned with a unique Anishinaabe inspired blanket strip that remixed intricately designed floral motifs and geometric iconography comprised of traditional glass-cut beads and contemporary electronic components (capacitors, resistors, and diodes). Each blanket pays homage to one of the Great Lakes and recounts Anishinaabeg historical and cultural narratives using mnemonic iconography and code embedded into each blanket strip. The suite of contemporary honouring blankets bear witness to the persistence of Anishinaabeg cultural continuity, through the confluence of the historical and contemporary.

Symbols of Power and Resistance (2021) is drawn from a specific fragment of Ace’s honouring blanket for Gichi-zaaga’igan: Lake Ontario (Big Lake) (2016) that consists of a suspended white Hudson Bay blanket with a purple velvet covered blanket strip and geometric motifs and medallions, representing the sacred wampum belts of the Haudenausone and Anishinaabeg. The original wampum belt depicts the five Anishinaabeg communities from Sault Ste. Marie to Manitoulin Island to Mjikanning (Rama) who came together during the fur trade to form a confederacy to challenge the Haudenausone, who were invading Anishinaabeg territory, forcing them back to Lake Ontario. For Symbols of Power and Resistance (2021), three of the five diamond shaped white motifs are set against a purple bead ground (symbolic of Quahog shell beads used in wampum) representing Anishinaabeg alliance communities who came together for resistance and who are watched over and protected by the Thunderbird and medicinal flower motif on a raised medallion trimmed with simulated synthetic horsehair. The fragment also points to the adverse impact of colonization on traditional knowledge and culture.

To exemplify and to speak directly to the basis for this cultural rupture and fragmented state of traditional knowledge, How Can You Expect Me to Reconcile, When I Know The Truth? (2018) and a silent film entitled Indian Powwow (1925) are two poignant examples. Residential schools focussed on stripping the culture and language from Indigenous children and while legislative arm of the Government of Canada prohibited the practice of ceremonial dance and the wearing of traditional regalia in 1925. Although these painful tactics of assimilation were extremely damaging, they were unsuccessful in totally eradicating traditional knowledge and culture.

For more information on the Spanish Residential Schools (St. Joseph for Girls and St. Peter Claver for Boys) in Spanish, Ontario: The Shingwauk Project. Residential School Research, Archive, and Visitor Centre. Algoma University

This exhibition provides Ace with a new opportunity to examine the relationship of material and materiality and how it informs his work and subsequently the audience. As well, the work provides an opportunity for self-reflection and are indicative of Ace’s cultural knowledge of Anishinaabe protocols, ceremony, dance, teachings, and initiation that he personally underwent upon entry into the powwow circle. These new paper works can also be read in the context of his personal meditations on his site specific Paris dance performances A Reparative Act in 2010.

All works in the exhibition are available for purchase at Central Art Garage.