Nanabozoh’s Sisters at Dalhousie University Art Gallery, Halifax
Every time I visit my great aunt Ivy’s place in Grand Prairie, Alberta, I am struck by the amount of life and laughter in the house. It brings me great joy, but also sadness. I don’t get the jokes. I am left out because I do not speak my family’s language and experience intergenerational trauma through the absence of my maternal ancestor’s tongue. My auntie’s friend once told me the jokes are better in Cree and therefore I must learn the language.
Rosalie Favell, Voyager, 2003
Walking into Nanabozoh’s Sisters, curated by Wanda Nanibush for the Dalhousie University Art Gallery, I am surrounded by women I have looked up to for the past decade. Artists Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Dana Claxton, Thirza Cuthand, Rosalie Favell, Ursula Johnson, Shelley Niro, and Anna Tsouhlarakis were all brought together for this exhibition centered around the half-spirit, half-human shape shifting Anishinaabe Nanabozho. Their stories are told through the Indigenous narrative of a trickster that uses rebellious humour and parody to break down colonial narratives and stereotypes.
The first works I see on entering the gallery space are Ursula Johnson’s Between My Body and Their Words: life sized digital prints of Johnson’s body and text from kin performance artists Niro, Belmore, Blondeau, and Cheryl l’Hirondelle on vinyl banners. This collaboration uses Johnson’s body and the collaborators’ words to challenge stereotypes and colonial narratives of Indigenous women’s bodies and material culture. On the opposite end of the gallery is Blondeau’s Lonely Surfer Squaw and Cosmosquaw, two works that subvert the squaw and princess stereotypes that are so often attributed to Indigenous women. In a time when The Spunky Squaw, a boutique featuring t-shirts using Navajo designs and owned by a woman who doesn’t see the harm in her colonial settler body using the term “squaw” (despite being told repeatedly that it is a racial slur with a hurtful history), it is more important than ever to have strong Indigenous women showing the humour and resilience of our people.
Through the lens of Nanabozoh, these artists’ works join together to create an exhibition by, for, and about Indigenous women. The language of humour is one I completely understand. Through my artistic education and through my lived experience as an Indigenous woman, I am at ease, strengthened, empowered, and inspired by the presence of Nanabozoh. This exhibition shows people that while you use these terms to hurt us and while you use these narratives to break us, we will survive, we are resilient, and damn we are funny.
Carrie Allison is an Indigenous mixed-race visual artist born and raised in unceded and unsurrendered Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver, BC). Situated in K’jipuktuk since 2010, Allison’s practice responds to her maternal Cree and Metis ancestry, thinking through intergenerational cultural loss and acts of resilience, resistance, and activism, while also thinking through notions of allyship, kinship, and visiting.