After seeing The Island last week, co-devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, I was moved. Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven year imprisonment in South Africa, the play takes a powerful look at Apartheid era South Africa and its political prisoners.
I reviewed the production with its cage-rattling brilliance at the forefront of my mind. Facing the bald repercussions of colonialism writ large at the Young Vic was a welcome shake-up.
And then I read the other reviews. Apparently for some critics, the West’s colonizing past is no longer a timely topic.
In response, I offer a simple rebuttal that speaks for itself: brief descriptions of three Canadian installations in the recent exhibition EcoCentrix: Indigenous Arts, Sustainable Acts. A familiar reality for many living in countries still struggling with the enduring legacy of colonialism, these exhibits and their subjects remain largely invisible in the UK.
The REDress Project
The room is dark, cellar-like. There’s an urgency to its silence. Throughout the space, red dresses hang from the ceiling at eye level; they are solitary, but most strikingly, they are empty. Hollow shells suspended in limbo, the dresses suggest the bodies that are no longer within, offering vivid material traces of the disappeared, the marginalized. Ghosts.
Created by Winnipeg-based Métis artist Jaime Black, The REDress Project honours over six hundred Aboriginal women reported missing or murdered in Canada. The installation prompts us to question the endemic violence against First Nations women in Canada and to look for ways forward.
What happens when England is physically and vocally confronted with the repercussions of its colonial endeavour?
In June 2013, Tahltan artist Peter Morin travelled to London to commune with the past and ‘tag’ the present at iconic sites including the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Pocahontas’s gravesite. One striking scene captured in photos shows Peter singing at the Gates of Buckingham Palace prior to lying on the pavement, a demonstration of resilience in the face of the colonizer.
For Morin, these acts transcend performance, functioning as dialogues with history’s colonial and indigenous figures. Songs are oral records, ways of spreading knowledge and activist tools. They are also clear symbols of survival.
Morin often ended his work at various London sites with the assertion: ‘We are still here’.
The Edward Curtis Project
Inspired by the turn-of-the-century photographer Edward Curtis, who travelled throughout North America to record ‘the vanishing race of the North American Indian’, Métis / Dené playwright Marie Clements and photojournalist Rita Leistner collaborated on a two-year project retracing Curtis’s steps.
The results took the shape of Clements’s play, a moving narrative about a Métis journalist questioning her role in reinforcing stereotypes about Aboriginal Canadians, and Leistner’s photo exhibit, a series of diptychs featuring indigenous people in plain clothes, military gear and/or traditional costume.
Both works question art’s capacity to serve as a historical record and the role prevailing colonial attitudes towards indigenous people had in shaping Curtis’s art. As the photos shown here demonstrate, Leistner’s images succeed not only in bringing us face to face with our own assumptions about Aboriginal people but point squarely at the raw tenacity of indigenous North Americans.
Despite everything, they are still here. And, like so many other survivors of colonialism, their stories remain vital.