Courtesy of the artists, Photo: Blaine Campbell
Duane Linklater and Tanya Lukin Linklater, "A Parallel Excavation," 2016
Duane Linklater and Tanya Lukin Linklater, "A Parallel Excavation," 2016, installation view
My first job was teaching art at the Edmonton Art Gallery. I loved every moment until two First Nations children came to me distraught because other kids were quietly making vile racist comments. I consoled them but decided to address it at the next class. It was too little too late. The children never returned.
A few decades later, almost in the same spot as that horrible incident, a show by two artists addresses the fraught relationship between indigenous peoples and dominant cultural institutions. Curated by the newly formed Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective, which supports the work of indigenous artists and encourages critical dialogue, it includes two artists with international exhibition records: Duane Linklater, an Omaskêko Cree from Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario with an MFA in film from Bard College in New York, and his partner, Tanya Lukin Linklater, an Alutiiq from Alaska completing her doctorate at Queen’s University in Kingston.
Duane Linklater, "Beast of Burden," 2016
Duane Linklater, "Flock," 2016
Duane Linklater, "A Sort of Naiveté," 2015
At first glance, this exhibition is anything but a manifesto. An inattentive viewer could walk among the drywall panels, archeological sifting screens and other seemingly disparate objects and not notice its deeply felt, carefully considered and startling insights. For instance, Duane Linklater’s Id. consists of two plywood, gypsum and steel ribbed panels that lean unassumingly against a wall. The materials were purchased at Home Depot and put together based on his research on architectural drawings of cross sections of the gallery.
Like the soft-spoken Linklater, whose pauses seem more meaningful than words, the work resembles the first sentence of a conversation. Little is said, but a great deal implied. His “dissected” walls allow us to peer into the inner structure of the gallery, to see the invisible, peripheral spaces. The trappings of a powerful institution are broken into basic construction materials. It’s the antithesis of the appropriation that indigenous cultures endure when words like “chief” or “squaw” (from the Cree morpheme iskwēw or woman) are reduced to cartoons. Linklater’s appropriation opens meaning. His work dissolves barriers, seemingly deconstructing the gallery down to the very earth where it stands: Treaty 6 land.
Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Blaine Campbell
Tanya Lukin Linklater, "Horse Hair Question 1 (in three parts)," 2016
Tanya Lukin Linklater, "Horse Hair Question 1 (in three parts)," 2016, wood, horse hair, antler velvet, screens, clay, brass hardware and cotton, detail
Lukin Linklater’s works are equally piercing. Her Alutiiq heritage sensitized her to how cultural objects have been seized from indigenous peoples and suspended on gallery walls, irrevocably changing their meaning. In Horse Hair Question 2 she places Inuit prints under sterile, glass-covered museum cases. A dense geometric grid of an archeological sifting screen is layered over one of them. These small, intimate prints become vulnerable. The lively stories they depict are subsumed by “objective” institutional display.
This show is a gentle revolution: it rethinks the relationship of indigenous peoples to dominant institutions. For Edmonton, the Canadian city with the second-highest per capita proportion of indigenous residents (after Winnipeg) that’s more than a conversation worth having. It’s an obligation. Shows such as this welcome indigenous people. Unlike the children I failed, a new generation will see the gallery as their own.