Ursula Johnson and Jordan Bennett’s performance piece L’nuk (the people)
was at the Anna Leonowens Gallery from October 9 – 20, 2012. This was an endurance piece that claimed space, investigated aspects of the colonial legacy, and explored decolonization of Indigenous/setter relationships, through an Indigenous lens.
Upon walking into the space, the viewer was confronted by a wall dividing a large gallery into two sections; the viewer could go left to Johnson’s performance, or right to Bennett’s. Johnson’s space was marked with ochre hand and footprints throughout, and had a blanket with bowls on it in the middle of the floor, containing ochre powder, bird’s eggs, and shells. Bennett’s space was larger and brighter, with a wall of windows. The space had a stereo and speakers, chip bags and water bottles strewn on the floor, and a microphone decorated with a scarf, feathers, and strips of leather, hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room.
Johnson’s performance was a quiet ritual created specifically for the piece. She knelt on the blanket, her back to the viewer, hunched over objects that were not readily visible – the ochre powder and birds’ eggs. Johnson combined the eggs and ochre; coated the mix in her hair; walked to another part of the room; and placed her ear and hands to the surface of the wall or floor. She paused there for minutes at a time, and then returned to the blanket to repeat the process.
Music was simultaneously playing from Bennett’s space, where he danced around the microphone in a circle, alluding to a powwow dance (but moved counter clockwise, the opposite direction of a powwow dance). Bennett vocally encouraged visitors to dance and join him. At times the group of dancers was large, at other times it was just Bennett.
After the performance period ended, the artists’ performance clothes were hung up on a space between the galleries – Johnson’s ochre/egg stained t-shirt and jeans and Bennett’s clothing and items. Bennett’s belongings may be part of powwow dress, but are not specified as such, so they may have been props – or both.
The two performances were a continuum of juxtapositions – quiet/loud, contemplative/dynamic, private/spectacle, interaction/observation. These contrasts helped to further prompt the viewer, particularly viewers from a settler heritage, to consider their gaze and participation in the space, spectacle, and performances.
The performances constructed references to settler stereotypes of Indigenous identities, cultural practices, and colonial notions of tradition and authenticity. Examples of these stereotypes could be the ritual, dance, and artists’ performance clothes. Additionally, when looking into the gallery from outside, Bennett’s space (with vitrine-like windows) made direct ties to colonial settler practices of the collection and display of Indigenous history, material culture, and bodies.
Both Johnson and Bennett’s pieces were performances created for the show. At the artists’ talk, Johnson and Bennett discussed how the work explored the loss and search for Indigenous cultural practices affected by colonialism; commodification of powwows; and cultural appropriation.
It became apparent at the artist talk that for many settler viewers, L’nuk (the people) may have caused more questions than answers around the content and concepts of Johnson and Bennett’s work. Additionally, the artists discussed the variety of (primarily settler) misinterpretations encountered during their performance. This show creates an opportunity for viewers (particularly settler viewers) to engage with decolonization and the issues highlighted by L’nuk (the people). Decolonization is a complicated, ongoing process and some of the dialogues around L’nuk (the people) highlight the complexities to be tackled; settlers in particular need to take responsibility.
A fundamental component in the mobilization of processes of decolonization is for settler societies to engage in, commit to, and take responsibility for learning colonial histories and understanding contemporary legacies that support and maintain white-settler privilege on stolen Indigenous lands.
“[…] Indigenous scholars, artists, writers and activists have been working towards achieving Indigenous cultural, political, and economic sovereignty rights, and it is now time for settlers (scholars, politicians, artists, writers, educators, etc.) to participate, without encroachment or cooption of Indigenous initiatives, within the project of decolonizing dominant Canadian society, its institutions, myths, narratives, and governments.”
L’nuk (the people) claimed space for Indigenous artists and viewers in the art gallery and provided a strong and engaging critique that pushes settler audiences to further investigate the issues confronted in this work.
-It is important to note that this exhibition review is written from within my white-settler perspective.
1Carla Taunton quoted in “‘No History of Colonialism’: Decolonizing Practices in Indigenous Arts” by Heather Igloliorte in Decolonize Me, 2012.