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Production still from Dana Claxton’s "Mustang Suite."
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Production still from Dana Claxton’s Mustang Suite.
DANA CLAXTON, The Mustang Suite
Alternator Gallery for Contemporary Art, Kelowna
June 9 to July 31, 2008
By Portia Priegert
The horse has long held a revered place in the plains culture of the Lakota people, who see it as an honored friend or relative, a four-legged nation unto itself, not simply as a mode of traditional transportation. In the early 1880s, Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk paid tribute to the horse by creating a ceremonial dance in which four horses, representing the cardinal directions, joined human dancers. The dance has inspired Dana Claxton’s new video- and photo-based installation The Mustang Suite.
Claxton traces her maternal ancestry to the Lakota people who fled to Canada with Sitting Bull after the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. In The Mustang Suite, she evokes imaginative impressions of horses dancing in a projected one-channel video, accompanied by a suite of five photographs on the theme of evolving Aboriginal identities using various metaphors for the horse.
The color red, important in Lakota culture, runs as a motif through images that borrow from notions of family portraiture. In Daddy’s Gotta New Ride, an Aboriginal man with a painted face stands in a business suit beside a red Mustang car. In Baby Girlz Gotta Mustang, twin girls in red dresses and mukluks trimmed with rabbit fur sit on red Mustang bicycles. Baby Boy Gotta Indian Horse shows a youth on horseback wearing red track pants instead of traditional leggings. The quirkiest image, Momma Has A Pony (girl named History and sets her free), features an almost-burlesque medicine woman with a chorus line of four identical blonde ‘pony girls’ of the sadomasochistic subculture. The final photo is a group shot, but unlike historic images of Indians sitting on blankets, the man sits in a chair. “It’s like this classic family portrait,” Claxton says. “But it’s completely weird.”
The project, commissioned by the Alternator with funding from the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, is so fresh that Claxton is still struggling to put words to the complexities of her intuitive exploration. But one theme that clearly emerges is about how cultural practices shift over time. “It’s about adaptability and how, despite that cliché of indigenous cultures being static, they have always evolved and have had to utilize whatever technology was there,” she says. The Mustang Suiteblends traditional cultural practices with contemporary realities in unexpected ways, evoking what Aboriginal curator Tania Willard has characterized as Claxton’s interest in surreal homages that blend “images, sounds and ideas together with a sense of balance, subversion and hope.”
Claxton, who grew up in Saskatchewan, has maintained her commitment to a Lakota worldview for two decades as an artist. A 1997 performance saw her smash dishes with a mallet to lament the slaughter of the buffalo, whose skeletons were used to manufacture bone china. Her 1996 installation, The Red Paper, featured a video of Aboriginal actors mimicking Elizabethan dialogue to comment on the devastating consequences of colonialism. Claxton’s work is in numerous public collections, including the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Mustang Suite runs in conjunction with a national media arts festival, On Common Ground, the largest-ever gathering of media artists in the B.C. Interior. Organized by the Alternator and the Ullus Collective, a regional group of Aboriginal filmmakers, the June 10 to June 14 festival is part of the biennial conference of the Independent Media Arts Alliance, which represents independent organizations that produce, distribute and disseminate film, video and new media. The Alternator’s involvement follows the City of Kelowna’s decision to decommission a 2005 public art project that included a video about the legacies of colonialism on local indigenous residents by Jayce Salloum, a well-known artist who grew up in Kelowna. The festival, which celebrates Aboriginal media production, also aims to encourage cross-cultural dialogue about racism, censorship and indigenous issues.