UP CLOSE WITH STEVEN LOFT
BY: Marlene Milne
One of four curators chosen to create Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, Steven Loft, is a writer, curator, and media artist of Mohawk / Jewish descent. Previously director of the Urban Shaman Gallery, an Aboriginal artist-run centre in Winnipeg, he recently completed a subsequent two-year position as the first curator-in-residence of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada. He corresponded with Galleries West’s Marlene Milne in late November.
Marlene Milne: Before we get to the exhibition itself, I’m curious about the team that put it together. The curatorial collective: Jenny Western from Manitoba, Candice Hopkins from British Columbia, and Lee-Ann Martin and you from Ontario, obviously reflects a wide range of expertise in writing, speaking, curating, and organizing. How were the team members chosen?
Steven Loft: Anthony Kiendl, the Director/Curator of Plug-In ICA chose the four of us.
MM: This exhibition encompasses continents, includes generations, and, for many viewers, possibly redefines Indigenous art. There’s a widely talented field to choose from. Explain how your curatorial collective chose the artists.
SL: There are so many amazing Indigenous artists practicing today. Trying to put together a representative sample, even in an exhibition this large would be impossible. So, we tried to reflect a sense of the work that is going on in several countries, while sticking to our curatorial premise. We also wanted to introduce Canadian audiences to some artists they’ve never seen before, as well as including many well-known Canadian Aboriginal artists.
MM: The title Close Encounters likely triggers ideas of the future, but the use of “Next” places the exhibition firmly in both the present and the past, and “500 Years” makes me think immediately of Columbus and Carl Beam. How did the title evolve? Am I reading too much into this, or is it a buried layer? SL: It is definitely a thematic that is tied to the idea of future. But it speaks to cosmologies that do not see “progress” as a linear narrative, but one that encompasses what was, what is, and what will be. Different epistemologies that are tied up in ancient teachings as well as current scholarship, customary practice as well as contemporary aesthetics, communal histories and fractured histories. It’s living cultures, not frozen in time, but vibrant, dynamic, and also dealing with, and through, the violence, deceptions and the horrendous genocides perpetrated upon them.
MM: In promoting this show, the Winnipeg Arts Council describes the city’s ‘myriad histories, trajectories, tensions, collisions and self-images’, and at the recent opening of the Plug In our former Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, remarked “Winnipeg is so edgy”. Having lived and worked here, what is in the cultural dynamic about this city that invites a watershed exhibition such as this one?
SL: Winnipeg IS edgy. And it has an amazing art scene, that includes a strong Aboriginal presence. And, its history, and its present are inextricably linked to the large, and growing Aboriginal population here. What better place?
MM: You have all put together an exhibition that has, a multiple perspective: physically, conceptually, geographically, technically and historically. Around half of the participants in this show are Indigenous Canadian artists. Many works address reclamation of narratives, bodies, and identities. Is this part of the journey to a new way of thinking about the whole fabric of contemporary Canadian art?
SL: As Indigenous curators, theorists and art historians, our function lies in creating a nexus for critical discussions of indigenous visual and material culture, identifying the place of historical and contemporary Indigenous artistic production in defining Indigenous presence socially, politically and culturally that take into account differing forms, aesthetic processes, cultural symbologies and histories. It rejects the categorizing of indigenous art in catch-all western canons and breaks down the false boundaries that have been created by so-called experts. As we develop a new language of art history that is located in indigenous cultures, we must create radical, critical and culturally dynamic discourses that respond to, and engage with, an Indigenous cultural sovereignty. In any ways, Manitoba and specifically Winnipeg have been a part of that movement for quite a while. Because of the large Aboriginal population, the dynamic and inclusive arts scene, and the presence of organizations like Urban Shaman, Red Roots Theatre, the arts program at Brandon University, the Wah- Sa Gallery, NSI radio and many others, Indigenous culture is always present here.
MM: In the majority of works the form, media, and process intersect, whether the artist is from Canada, the U.S., South America, Australia, Finland, or New Zealand. Installation, site-specific, photography, film and video, performance, and mixed media predominate. Aesthetically, there is often a blurring of definitions, memory as palimpsest, eclecticism, and also deft finesses of hierarchies, categorizations, and acquisitiveness. Where did this global synchronicity emerge?
SL: I’m not sure we’ve really examined whether there is or not. As this will be the largest international exhibition of Indigenous contemporary art ever held, it will give viewers a chance to look for those kinds of connections. Certainly there is an Indigenous aesthetic sensibility and an art historical trajectory that is specific to Indigenous artists, and exhibitions like this one can help us explore that.
MM: During the recent and related symposium “My City’s Still Breathing”, I attended multi-disciplinary artist and Cultural Ambassador Dominique Rey’s workshop on “slowness”. Maori artist Lisa Reihana also uses that concept in her work for Close Encounters, connecting her past with an imagined future. Do the artists in this show subliminally, slyly, humorously, and subversively invite the viewer or participant to consider or reflect more about what we see, and thus invite us into a worldview more consistent with an Indigenous perspective?
SL: Many do, although we must be careful about generalizing. However, you’ve definitely identified an aspect of many Indigenous artists’ work. “Subliminally, slyly, humorously” …artistic production by Indigenous artists is transformative and transformational; a shape shifter. It is an act of proprietary self-definition and cultural self determination that boldly asserts “this is who we are!” It really is some of the most exciting art being made in the world today.