INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

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High Tech Storytellers, Unsettling Acts, Decolonizing Pedagogies
Lynne Bell & Lori Blondeau

There are stories going on right now that are important. (Luna)

The essential role of the artist and intellectual [is] to ask the most difficult questions, but not necessarily to answer them. (Tawardros)

High Tech Storytellers

In the summer of 2000, the Aboriginal arts organization TRIBE hosted a festival entitled High Tech Storytellers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to highlight the work of Aboriginal artists and performers who use storytelling combined with new media technologies. This festival—a mix of performances, installations, exhibitions, panels, cabarets and lots of informal chat—brought together a distinguished group of Aboriginal artists whose storytelling practices emerge from a personal, cultural and historical exploration of the colonial past and its continuing effects in North American society.

In this essay, we focus on two performance events in the High Tech Storytellers festival: James Luna’s The Chapel of the Sacred Colours and Rebecca Belmore’s The Indian Factory. In these performances, live art is at once a site for unsettlement, pleasure and decolonizing pedagogies. It is a space to talk back to the stories of the colonizer, and a space for performers to tell stories about their own and their community’s day-to-day lives.

The Chapel of the Sacred Colours (2000)

The Shameman enters The Chapel of the Sacred Colours. Dressed in leopard skin pants, pink suede shoes, a sequined vest, straw hat and shades, he begins a High Tech Blessing to open the space:

We are no longer in the present. Let me tell you about the future after the Big One. There are very few survivors, except Native people. In America they go foraging at the dumps picking up canned food and commodities left by their forefathers. They believe their deity was called John Denver. But Indian people survived ‘cos we are survivors. The mother pipe stone mine was sold and made into trinkets. We had nothing left. We are survivors. (Luna 2000).

As he sings this blessing, which lasts for just a few minutes, James Luna’s notorious persona, the Shameman, dances around the perimeter of the Snelgrove Gallery at the University of Saskatchewan which has been transformed by the alchemy of art into a chapel draped in white, red, yellow and black draperies. In his blessing, the Shameman transports us to a future after the “Big One” when everyone is scrambling to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Transporting us into an unimaginable future, the blessing is also laden with pastness, reminding viewers of an earlier catastrophe—the European colonization of the Americas—that left Native peoples scrambling to survive. The High Tech Blessing is a story about the resilience, adaptability and inventive powers of Aboriginal cultures.

The Chapel of the Sacred Colours is an installation jam-packed with arresting images and surprising juxtapositions. On the wall, above the central altarpiece, are a series of photographs entitled The Sacred Colours, depicting peoples of differing cultural descent arranged in a circular cartography suggestive of interdependent and egalitarian relationships. On either side of these images, two items of clothing are displayed: a warrior’s shirt decorated with indigenous motifs and plastic watches on one side and on the other, a formal suit jacket decorated with the motif of a dying Indian warrior on horseback. In the centre of the altar table, a High Tech Peace Pipe made of plumbing parts (and not the Christian bible) sits on a black rotary-dial telephone flanked by vanity mirrors. The broad aisle leading to the altar table is lined with glass display cases stuffed with wicked, devotional artifacts including a Hot Medicine Bag (a beaded hot water bottle), Wet Dream Catcher (a tennis racket woven with trinkets and condoms), Dream Hat (a cowboy hat decorated with strings of beads), Nut Grinder (a sex toy in a ceramic bowl), and a Beaded Dildo. This mix of Native regalia, Catholic imagery and Western pop culture is designed to delight and disturb at the same time.

The visual languages of Roman Catholicism, “Native regalia” and “pop cultural icons” are mixed in the luscious space of the chapel (Luna 2000). As the central altar piece suggests, the chapel is a meeting place of sharply contrasting cultural and ideological worlds. It is a space which explores, in Luna’s words, “the shared Christian values of American Indian/First Nations, Hispanic and Trailer park cultures of the US and Canada” (2000). Writing about this Native American practice of “sharing the altar,” Leslie Marmon Silko notes:

Europeans were shocked at the speed and ease with which Native Americans synthesized, and then incorporated, what was alien and new. Mexican Indians…embraced Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the saints almost at once; the Indians…happily set the Christian gods on their altars to join the legions of older American spirits and gods…. For Europeans, it was quite unimaginable that Quetzalcoatl might ever share the altar with Jesus (1997:177).

In telling this story of overlapping histories and shared experiences in North America, The Chapel of the Sacred Colours chapel points to the possibilities of what Paul Bové terms, “real material cultures of co-existence” (2000:2).

Wanting to know more about the Shameman’s chapel, we talked to James Luna on e-mail. Our chat went something like this: We have been following the career of your persona the Shameman and we are wondering why it is now time for him to have his own chapel?

“Ole Shamie is always looking out for ways to make ends meet and to meet women at the same time. Are you single, what is your shoe size?”

[laughter]…You describe the chapel’s altar in your exhibition notes as speaking to the “Native concept of cultural origins and colour designation.” Can you tell us about the altar-piece in the chapel?

“Dammit, I just lost my response and I was in the middle of the third question! Let’s see—but I have to make it brief now. The Sacred Colours of Red, Black, White & Yellow are used by many plains’ tribes. Recently the use of these colours has become a pan-Indian vehicle like other Indian cultural objects and gatherings (ie: Pow wows). My tribe like many others has its colours but they are different. The one teaching that affected me about these particular colours went something like this: In addition to all the particular meanings and uses of the colours, like the directions, clans, animals and medicines, these colours also represent the colours of the first peoples of the world.”

Our next question is about the audio component of the installation. Was it a Jack Kerouak monologue (our memory is fuzzy here)? And why did the Shameman choose this particular soundscape for his chapel?

“Jackie and I go back a long way and he made a big impression on me in my formative years. He helped me see that the world I was being taught wasn’t the only world out there and maybe I was more part of the other world in question. I refer to the Beats when given the opportunity. I believe the other music was John Coltrane, he has his own chapel as well (in San Francisco)—he is a God you know. The other music was from Tibet. I don’t use Indian music normally as that would be too obvious a choice and most if not all songs have an origin (tribe) and meaning so it is not a good idea to borrow them. It would just be my luck for someone to come in and say, “Why is he using our song as that is not appropriate?”

In your exhibition notes, you say that the chapel and its contents, “explore the shared Christian values of American Indian/First Nations, Hispanic, and Trailer Park cultures of the US and Canada.” The chapel replicates the “look” of a Catholic church interior in its spatial layout, rich colouring, and clutter of devotional artefacts. Sitting in the chapel we got to thinking about the doubleness of Christianity. On the one hand, as an organized religion, it was used as a technology of colonialism to oppress Indigenous peoples in the Americas. On the other hand, (and this is evident in your chapel), the belief systems and rituals of Christianity have been appropriated and transformed by so many formerly-colonized peoples for their own purposes and uses. Can you talk about why you mix visual imagery drawn from Christianity, Native American cultures, and contemporary pop culture?

“Two things here: the use of religious symbols is loaded and if handled right brings into question the good & bad thing and all the issues connected to this. If handled right, it shows that belief is a universal thing and, perhaps, after taking off all the layers we are more similar than different as people. Second; I like to appropriate things and make them Indian. I think as cultures we have had to do that to survive. I also like to use combinations of things which at first glance have no common denominator but still manage to work (ie: I do an entrance to Frank’s “My Way”). And one more thing, I am a great fan of pop culture and damn proud of it… Hope this helps, JL.”

We first saw Luna perform live in a large-scale and complex theatrical production at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon entitled Collage: Thoughts, Dreams and Hallucinations in 1997. It was an amazing night. The audience didn’t quite know what was happening to them … except that they had been pole-axed. Luna, at times half-naked, alive, urgent, unruly, performed on stage, just a few feet away, creating an electric bond between performer, persona and audience members. In a series of precise, poignant and ephemeral actions, Luna conjured up powerful imaginative visualizations that mixed subversive mimicry, humour, and a scathing critique of “the mythology of what it means to be ‘Indian’ in contemporary American society” and “the hypocrisy of the dominant society, which trivializes Indian people as romantic stereotypes” (Luna, 2000).

James Luna is a performance artist of many skills. He is a creator of performance texts, installations, a writer, an educator, critic, political activist, academic, autobiographical and community storyteller. In his performances, all of these aspects of his work are in constant dialogue with each other. As a high tech storyteller, he mixes popular culture, critical history, parody, and self-portraits with stories from the La Jolla reservation to point to urgent socio-cultural issues faced by contemporary Aboriginal communities. As Luna notes: “There are more stories inside my yard, outside my fence, inside my reservation, than I have time to tell. Stories about myself, my family, and my community.” He goes on to say: “Some of the stuff I am working on is painful but it needs to be talked about” (1997). In his work, Luna often pokes fun at the racial stereotypes of indigenous males still circulating in popular culture and film. Inhabiting these colonial-image-stereotypes of indigenous men, Luna uses humour to interrogate and unfix them. “I put on these ‘get-ups’ that amplify these stereotypes,” says Luna, “[then] I come out and change people’s focus about what an Indian should look like” (2001). At other times, as the name-caricature the Shameman suggests, the humour is directed at not only white folk but indigenous peoples themselves. In this description of the Shameman we see a stinging critique of the commodification of indigeneity as consumable exotica:

That whole thing about the Shameman was out of anger about seeing phoney spiritual men going out and selling our ways and objects and culture. But also the other thing about people buying it. Who are these people buying it? Who is in spiritual need? Who is the victim here? So I created the persona called the Shameman” (2001).

In talking about his use of humour, Luna notes: “I step on toes but that is what I do. I am a clown. I’m allowed to be self- and tribal-critical because the people out there selling the trinkets and the pipes are our own people. I can’t please everybody. But I use myself as an example in my work. So if there is some dysfunction there—it is mine” (anti-panel:2000). As a high tech storyteller, Luna takes audiences on an emotional roller-coaster provoking laughter, tears, sadness, anger and oftentimes, deep reflection.

In Luna’s work, we see a cycle of return and renewal at work. In his project “Emendatio,” for the 2005 Venice Biennale, for example, Luna returns to the Chapel of the Sacred Colours, reworking and transforming it into the Chapel for Pablo Tec. Writing about this chapel, Paul Chaat Smith states:

In “Emendatio,” his project for the 51st Venice Biennale, Luna creates an imagined Native place of worship built in honour of Pablo Tac. A Luiseno Indian—of the same tribe as Luna—from the San Luis Rey Mission in California, young Tac travelled to Europe with San Luis Rey’s Father Antonio Peyri, arriving in Rome in 1834 to study for the priesthood—and to be studied by others. Before his early death from disease in 1841, Tac produced a written history of the missionization of his people in California. Luna’s installation houses artefacts of the kind that Tac might have possessed or made during his stay at the Vatican, as well as actual Luiseno objects, placed on an altar and shrine-like vitrines. The interior walls recreate the look of a California mission.

The word Emendatio, Chaat-Smith states, is a word that Pablo Tac may himself have used when he attempted to correct errors in the way Europeans understood his people:

“Emendatio” is a project that collapses the time between 1834 and 2005, and the space between Rome and California. “Emendatio” claims Venice as part of Indian history, and in so doing demonstrates a belief held by Luna and many other Native people: that every place is a Native place.” (44)

In both the Chapel of the Sacred Colours (2000) and the Chapel for Pablo Tec (2005), Luna’s delight in the transcultural, (the intermingling of different cultural traditions), stems from the seemingly endless creative possibilities it offers for re-fashioning Indigeneity as a politicized and unsettling force. In his creative use of cultural borrowings, Luna demonstrates that acts of appropriation and re-visioning form, subtle everyday forms of resistance for those who live in a still colonial culture.

* * *

The Indian Factory

In the program notes for The Indian Factory, Rebecca Belmore writes that this performance and installation represent her personal response to the tragic freezing deaths of Aboriginal men in the Saskatoon community in recent years. Reflecting on the need to make a site-specific performance and installation which engages with a particular community, and the political conditions of its present, Belmore writes:

Through the process of performing I’m attempting to address the power systems under which our communities must struggle to survive. I would like to acknowledge those men who lost their lives and the ones who were strong enough to speak out. (2000)

In The Indian Factory, Belmore tells the story of a place where crimes have been committed. Before coming to Saskatoon, she studied newspaper reports of an RCMP investigation into the deaths of five Aboriginal men, along with allegations that police routinely dumped Native men outside of town near the Queen Elizabeth Power Station in sub-zero weather.1 This practice of driving Native men out of town to walk home in freezing temperatures is known locally as the “Starlight Tours.”

The Indian Factory is at once a memorial to the five dead Native men and a testimony to the continuing existence of colonial violence in Canada. In this hour-long ‘live’ performance, Belmore transforms the raw material in the newspaper accounts of the mens’ deaths into a succession of memorable vignettes. The performance (as described elsewhere) is in five parts:2

part one: the shirts. Belmore and her assistant Osvaldo Yero enter the gallery. Wearing a white overall decorated with feathers, Belmore moves in silence across the room and places five buckets of water at the foot of one of the gallery walls. High on this wall is an object covered in cloth. Unveiling the object, Belmore reveals a tin tray bearing the smiling image of a youthful Queen Elizabeth the Second. A brief moment of levity as Belmore stands and looks at this woman wearing a tiara. She then crosses the room to a washstand. Here she takes five men’s shirts and dampens them with water and then recrosses the room to lay each shirt alongside a bucket. While she is doing this, Yero mixes white plaster in the buckets. Belmore takes the shirts and dunks them in the plaster-filled buckets, lifting and squeezing them until the plaster splatters over the wall and floor. When the shirts are heavy with plaster she hangs them on five hooks placed in a row below the image of the Queen of England. Caked in white plaster, the shirts have an exquisite beauty. Each time a shirt is hung up to dry, Belmore lights a candle—shielding the flame, she places it in a holder on the wall above the row of hooks. Inside the gallery only the sound of plaster dripping can be heard. Belmore is totally focussed on her tasks. The stiffening shapes of the white shirts invoke the (absent) presence of the five men.

part two: the feather. Moving to the opposite side of the gallery, Belmore and Yero set up a large industrial fan in front of a white canvas sheet stapled to the wall. Turning on the fan, a feather at the end of a long string begins to dance wildly in the air currents. Catching the playful feather, Belmore dips it again and again in a pail of dark red blood before letting it loose to create a disturbing splatter-pattern over the wall and floor. It looks like a murder has been committed here. After a few minutes the plug on the fan is pulled. The performers retreat to the washstand and begin to wash their hands. Their once pristine overalls are smeared in bloodstains.

part three: the dance. Placing a straw cowboy hat on her head, Belmore takes time adjusting its strap before plugging in a revolving police light attached to a central column covered in signs that warn: Danger Do Not Enter. Belmore crouches down and watches the red police light flashing across the ceiling as the sounds of Merle Haggard’s country ballad, The Fightin’ Side of Me, seep into the gallery. Opening her arms, she begins to dance, circling around the column with its warning signs. Throwing her head forward she steps quickly to the beat of the music. A slight figure, she whirls round and round in a rhythm of intense activity. Then she begins to lurch and stagger as if drunk or dizzy with exhaustion. Belmore stops when she is exhausted.

part four: the buffalo rubbing stone. After a pause, Belmore starts to hammer roofing nails into a large photographic image of the buffalo rubbing stone at Wanuskewin (a First Nations’ heritage park on the outskirts of Saskatoon). Frantically, she hammers in nails, row after row. She is completely focussed on this task. Panting from exertion, she pauses to contemplate the image she has created of a sacred stone bristling with nails.

part five: the burial. Belmore moves across the gallery and lies down on the floor curled in a foetal position with her hands drawn up over her face. During the nail piece Yero has been manipulating a mound of wet clay into fist-shaped balls. Now working in a half-crouch, he combs his fingers through the wet clay and begins to shape, mould and stretch it over Belmore’s prone form, starting with the feet. The clay is the colour of earth. With shock we realize she is being buried alive. Her clay-covered form moves up and down with the rise and fall of her lungs. When her breathing becomes laboured and exaggerated, audience members (in an unrehearsed act) move quickly to help her out of her clay tomb. Rising up, Belmore leaves the shadow of her body on the floor in the broken clay outline.

The day after the performance, the gallery is quiet and dimly lit. Outside, the sound of traffic noises and children’s voices drift in through the window. The installation is haunted by what has occurred in the room. The evidence of a violent crime are everywhere: naked footprints; the shape of a human body curled in a foetal position on the floor—the imprint so fresh it feels as if it is still someone; congealed blood stains on the wall; five shirts stiff with dried plaster; signs warning ‘Danger Do Not Enter’; a bowl of dirty water; blood-stained overalls neatly folded; the nail-studded image of a rock; and a broken blood-soaked feather hanging by a string on the wall. To these objects created during the performance, Belmore has added photographs of her ‘crazy dizzy dance’ and the names of the five dead men stencilled in white on a wall: Stonechild, Dustyhorn, Naistus, Wegner, Ironchild. Writing the names of the five dead men on the wall, Belmore personalizes their deaths—they are someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s brother.

* * *

In 2004, Rebecca Belmore was back in Saskatoon to create an installation entitled Temperance, in which she returns to the “freezing deaths” of Aboriginal men. During her visit, we were able to sit down with her and talk to her about her earlier performance The Indian Factory. How, we asked, did you come to develop the kind of site-specific performance/installation practice that “The Indian Factory” represents?

“My work is stronger if I wait until I get to a place, though I think a lot about a project before working on it. Once I arrive at a place I just walk around. I work this way because I had the opportunity to do site-specific projects in the early 1990s. Site-specific work was all the rage then. Everyone was doing it and there was a lot of debate about it. How site-specific can you be? Is it fair that outsiders come to a place and comment on it? All these issues are interesting. As an artist I want to say something about the place in which I am working. Every place has serious problems that should be dealt with. Working in North America, or South America, there are always indigenous issues to address. I try to live in the present and a site-specific practice has allowed me to develop that sensibility. I am concerned about Now. In dealing with a moment in the present you can also address the past and the future—without being specific about it.”

In bearing witness to the freezing deaths of five Aboriginal men outside the Queen Elizabeth 11 power plant in Saskatoon, “The Indian Factory” also bears witness to issues of systemic racism in the local police force. Can you tell us why you were interested in making work about these particular issues?

“I grew up in Northern Ontario and many of the problems First Nations peoples have to deal with in Saskatoon are similar to those in my hometown. So, I was excited about being able to make a performance that dealt with the issue of racism head on. Saskatoon is a small community and I knew there would be a lot of First Nations people in the audience. This allowed me to make a work that was highly emotional and political. There were all kinds of emotions—including anger—to work with. Maybe I was able to deal with this issue because I am an outsider.”

How did you translate this thinking about storytelling for social change into the visual language of a live performance?

“I decided to start with the title The Indian Factory. I looked at newspaper photographs before I came to Saskatoon. Lori sent me the daily papers so I could read and think about it. I remember looking at this one photograph of a police car and a body in the snow in front of the Queen Elizabeth II power plant on the outskirts of Saskatoon. I noticed that the power plant was very much like a factory. I am very comfortable living beside industry. In Northern Ontario there are many towns—smaller versions of Saskatoon—where there is a paper mill. And many Native people work in those mills. Because the bodies were found outside the power plant, I wanted The Indian Factory to become a work site like the power plant. In the process of making the performance I was also creating an installation. I was thinking of the artist as a worker.

I started with the plaid work shirts—bathing them in plaster, hanging them up, lighting candles and unveiling an image of the Queen above them. I was making a direct connection between the freezing deaths of these men with the plaster stiffening on the shirts. The plaster is liquid, then it dries, and the shirts become rigid. The candles, of course, are like a vigil. The picture of the Queen stands in for the power plant and the place. But, at the same time, it goes beyond that. The very idea of men freezing to death outside an industrial plant that is named Queen Elizabeth II draws my attention to the treaties and the relationship between First Nations people and the Crown. I think the photograph I just spoke about—of the power plant, the police car, and the body in the snow—is such a powerful and poignant image. I was so moved by it. It speaks not just of Now. It speaks of our long history and struggle as indigenous peoples to deal with this relationship.

After the work shirts, I moved to the action with the big fan and the feather-dipping the feather into blood and letting it spray onto canvas. On one level, I was making a painting. At the same time, the feather blowing and dancing in the big wind is how I think of the prairies. The next vignette was the drunk dance. I love redneck music. I used Merle Haggard’s On the Fightin’ Side of Me. I think Native people are often attracted to country music, especially hurtin’ songs, because we can co-opt them and make a new meaning for ourselves. I like the lyrics of Haggard’s song a lot. I was just spinning and dancing. I was in some way mimicking Pow wow dancing. But then I got dizzy and disorientated. Then I was staggering. It was like a drunk dance—a mix of redneck music, traditional dance, and drunkenness. It was also like the dance of the fool.

The next section is the hammering of nails into an image of the sacred stone at Wanuskewin. It is an old buffalo rubbing stone where the buffalo removed their winter hides. I had an image of this stone printed digitally onto a piece of plywood so that I was able to pound nails into it. I like the idea of something that is held sacred by First Nations people and the idea of hammering nails into stone—which is impossible. It’s all about impossibility. In pounding the nails, I started off with anger, but then I tired myself out. I exhausted myself with the effort and the labour of continually pounding in the nails. In the end I was just muttering swearwords. The last segment of the performance was the burial. Osvaldo, my assistant, had on blue coveralls with a red stripe—the stripe was very subtle. He was the policeman. He just buried me in a very sculptural manner. He works with clay a lot so he really did a beautiful job. I situated my body in this burial segment in front of the five stiff shirts from the first action. If you looked at the installation from one direction, you saw the shirts, the Queen, and the body lying on the floor. The placement of the burial segment was deliberate in terms of the composition of the whole space.”

Throughout the vignettes, you performed the simple action of washing your hands. What was going on here?

“This action of washing my hands has a ritualistic aspect to it. At the same time, it is a very common action. There is such a broad range of things you can do with simple actions. I like the possibility that they can be read in many different ways. Everyone can relate to the simple action of washing your hands. Simple actions allow the viewer to connect to me. I try to use actions like this because it’s a way of getting people’s attention.”

You have done three works dealing with the winter of 2000 and the freezing deaths of Aboriginal men outside the Queen Elizabeth power plant. Clearly you place considerable importance on the strategy of insistence. Can you talk about this?

“It is extremely important to fool people into looking at an issue again. [Laughter]. I have worked now for 15 or 16 years—things change slowly in our lives as First Nations people and the struggle is constant. The government is always trying to take away our land. It is really amazing how Aboriginal rights are continually being whittled away. I think that as an artist I have the time, and the space, and the opportunity to address these issues. I think I have to continually address them. I think artists have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to help their communities.”

During the performance, the audience sits against the walls of the gallery. When Rebecca gestures we move so that she can continue working in a different part of the room. Not a word is said. But our role is an important one. As viewers, we work with the performer to generate this testimony to the fact that “Imperialism still hurts, it still destroys, and it is reforming itself continually” (Smith 1999). This is an unsettling “live” performance that brings with it moments of trauma and anxiety. As audience members we are at once witnesses to the trauma being dramatized in the gallery and witnesses to ourselves. No longer innocent bystanders, we are forced to interrogate our own specific and historical locations. How do we experience the performances? How do they place us? How will we act?

The Most Difficult Questions

In recent years cultural critics have looked to performance art as an important site of pedagogical resistance (Luna, 2000; Fusco, 2001; hooks, 1995; Gómez-Peña, 2005). In an essay entitled, “Performance art as a site of opposition,” bell hooks, for example, argues that the power of performance art as a radical practice lies in its ability to function as a space “where folks come together and experience the fusion of pleasure and critical pedagogies,” and where, “ritual play also functions as a site of resistance” (1995:219, 218). Performance art, hooks argues, is at once a site to intervene in the dominant culture and a site for recuperation and healing. It is also a site in which performers, in their direct engagement with a diverse audience, can “engage in coalition building—in the formation of new communities” (1995:218).

The act of bearing witness to difficult knowledge, as Edward Said reminds us, is a powerful historical practice, and something that is worth trying. There is a need, Said writes, to narrate experiences of oppression, shaping them into stories that can be shared and remembered. In his words: “One has to keep telling the story in as many ways as possible, as insistently as possible, and in as compelling a way as possible, to keep attention on it.” In the High Tech Storyteller’s festival, Rebecca Belmore and James Luna create live acts that are sometimes full of pain, sometimes surreally comic, and sometimes painful as they make us laugh. Engaging with the politics of decolonization in a still colonial world, they bear witness to difficult knowledge, creating performances that help us understand that decolonization is always about an “accumulation of little stories.”

The Chapel of the Sacred Colours and The Indian Factory created epiphanies for these two viewers. These two performances lasted for a moment. But their memory creates an intense understanding and energy that colonialism, as Ashis Nandy puts it, is a shared culture; it has deformed us all, and it is everyone’s responsibility to work to change the world. As live acts of visual storytelling, The Chapel of the Sacred Colours and The Indian Factory did not drown out their viewers with too much talk or instruction. Deploying differing aesthetic strategies of unsettlement, Luna and Belmore share control of the meaning-making-process with their audiences, refusing to perform closure, they allow us to fill in the gaps with our own insights. “The most powerful artworks,” Gilane Tawardros writes, “do not offer any easy answers or solutions…they pose questions that force us to confront some of the uncomfortable things that we might prefer to forget.” In The Chapel of the Sacred Colours and The Indian Factory, Luna and Belmore leave us with a series of challenges, provocations and questions: How to bear witness to “difficult knowledge” without leaving testimony stalled in anger and recrimination? How to carry the audience through trauma to a place of coalition, action, hope and healing? How to create a poetic performance art form that moves from the personal to the political and back again? How to explore the impact of history on the individual and the community without being didactic? How to create a performance art-form full of mysteries and questions rather than closures and certainties? How to create unsettling acts that are at once, serious, playful, humorous, and poetic? Drawing us in, they leave us free to find our own way forward.


  1. “[Lawrence] Wegner was found on Feb. 3, 2000, near the Queen Elizabeth station on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Just days before, on Jan. 29, Rodney Naistus was found frozen to death outside the city. After the discovery of Wegner’s body, a third Native man, Darrell Night, complained that two police officers had abandoned him in freezing temperatures near the power station on Jan. 28, while he was intoxicated. Night managed to walk to the power station to raise the alarm. Two constables, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, were convicted, fired and sentenced to eight-month jail terms in the Night incident. Since September, an ongoing judicial inquiry has been looking into the freezing death of Neil Stonechild, a Saulteaux teen who was found frozen in a north industrial area in November 1990.” (The Star Phoenix. February 3, 2004). back

  2. See Lynne Bell, “It’s all about De-disciplining and De-colonizing: Notes from my Working Life as a Visual Historian” in Lynn Hughes and Marie-Josee Lafortune, Penser L’Indiscipline: Recherches Interdisciplinaires En Art Contemporain/ Creative Con/Fusions: Interdisciplinary Practices in Contemporary Art. Montreal: Optica, un centre d’art contemporain, 2001: 98-100. back

Works Cited:

Bell, L. (2001). “It’s all about De-disciplining and De-colonizing: Notes from my Working Life as a Visual Historian” in Hughes, L. and Lafortune, M.J. Penser L’Indiscipline: Recherches Interdisciplinaires En Art Contemporain/ Creative Con/Fusions: Interdisciplinary Practices in Contemporary Art. Montreal: Optica, un centre d’art contemporain.

Belmore, R. (2000). The Indian Factory. Program Notes. Saskatoon: Tribe & AKA.

Bhahba, H. (Spring,1987) What Does the Black Man Want? New Formations.

Blondeau, L. and Laroque, B. (1997/98). Surreal, Post-Indian Subterranean Blues: An Interview with James Luna, Mix: The Magazine of Artist-Run Culture. Vol. 23.3,46-54.

Bové, P. A. (2000). Edward Said and the work of the critic: speaking truth to power. Durham and London: Duke University Press.2000.

Chaat Smith, P. James Luna: emendatio

Derrida, J. Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties. Trans. Richard Rand and Amy Wygant. In Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Ed. Richard Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 3-34.

Fusco, C. (2001). the bodies that were not ours and other writings. London and New York: Routledge and inIVA.

hooks, b. (1995). Performance practice as a site of opposition, in Catherine Ugwu (ed.), Let=s Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance. Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and Bay Press, Seattle, 1995, 210-222.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, Inc. 2003.

Luna, J. (1997). Unpublished Lecture at the University of Saskatchewan. Collage: Thoughts, Dreams and Hallucinations.

Luna, J. (2001). Twelve Minutes. Video

Luna, J. (2000) The Chapel of the Sacred Colours. Program Notes. Saskatoon: Tribe, Snelgrove Art Gallery & AKA.

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