INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

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Sequential INDIANacts:
A Survey of Several Performances
Daina Warren

During the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in October 2010, James Luna and Guillermo Gómez-Peña performed a collection of their past performances. These iconic works have been widely written about and discussed for many years, and to finally witness these actions was a sublime experience. It is now twenty-five years since Luna first performed Artifact Piece. When considering the history of Aboriginal performance art, this project occurred during a time when Aboriginal artists began pointedly questioning the value of museum and anthropological canons surrounding Indigenous arts and cultures.

In the past, a great deal of attention has critically focused on the impact of his performative anarchism, whereby he disrupted the museum-going experience by placing his physical body amongst the objects. It wasn't until that October rainy evening in Toronto that he explained an integral element of this piece. The artist, while re-enacting the performance, narrated his experience of feeling vulnerable and exposed, and simultaneously constrained by the cursory, off-hand comments of museum visitors. The audience was most affected by the intensity of his emotions while he described that what was most difficult to accept was that he had the physical ability, the independent inertia, to remove his body from the museum at the end of day - unlike the considerable number of objects and bones that were (and still are) confined within museum vaults.1

To this day, Artifact Piece figures largely in the minds of many artists. In particular, visual artist Erica Lord teamed up with James Luna to critically discuss and assess his well-known performance. In return he gave his permission for Lord to re-enact the piece at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York in 2008.2 Her project was titled Artifact Piece, Revisited, and had similar connections to Luna's performance.3 Just as Luna had proceeded with his actions, Lord lay stretched out on a bed of sand in a wood and plexiglass vitrine, half-clothed in minimal leather loincloths. She was surrounded by other museum casings that displayed personal objects from her daily life as well as images and text documents that portrayed the artist's personal experiences; parallel to Luna's arrangement of cards and labels, the identifying marks and scars on her body were identified through various descriptions. Yet there were pertinent differences in content between these two performances as described by Jennifer Stampe in her blog for New York University:

The Artifact Piece thus came to exemplify a postcolonial critique of museums and anthropology that troubled long-standing assumptions about the relationship between "us" and "them."… But where Luna's work relied upon the threat that the museum-goer's gaze might be returned, Lord's depended more substantially on inviting that gaze and the viewer's desire…Lord called attention to ways that constructions wrought by the gaze are not only raced but gendered, such that Native American women find themselves in different relation to museums and anthropology, as well as popular culture, than that experienced by Native men.”4

Many younger and emerging Aboriginal artists have been influenced by the work of well-known First Nations artists, but to date there are only a few conferences that have acknowledged the contribution of performance works that these renowned individuals have produced. The INDIANacts Performance Art conference took place from November 29 to December 1, 2002 in Vancouver, BC. The roster of invited panelists included Warren Arcan, Lynne Bell, Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Reona Brass, Dana Claxton, Marie Clements, Marcia Crosby, Dolores Dallas, Guy Sioui Durant, Anthony McNab Favel, Floyd Favel, Greg Hill, Margo Kane, Steven Loft, James Luna, Aiyyana Maracle, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, Dr. Beatrice Medicine, Shelly Niro, Edward Poitras, Bentley Spang, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. The panel discussions explored five themes: the history of Aboriginal performance art to contextualize the continuum of culture; the question of what is sacred and how far one will go utilizing those ideas and practices in art-making; trauma and testimony; sites and practices of spectacle and resistance; and how performance art has diverged from experimental and Western theatrical arts influences.5

The performing arts and performance art disciplines have had an interesting relationship of continually disentangling themselves from each other, mainly because both disciplines have a similar naming and in each the human body has been exploited as means of expression and presenting live actions. But there exists a vast, expansive difference when considering the intention of how each discipline uses those actions to convey meaning. Yet artists such as Tanya Lukin Linklater have traveled through the performing art channels to cross over into performance art practice; her formal art training has derived mostly from contemporary dance whereby she incorporated her body as means of visual movement.

Her early artworks have been described by Susan Leigh Foster as "a new genre of expression, one that blends native aesthetic and community values with contemporary dance." Foster further elaborates: "As part of that movement, Lukin Linklater's work, Woman and Water [2006], endeavors to reroot dancing, to ground in the world by establishing its location on and connection to the land."6 However, over the last few years Lukin Linklater's works have progressively transitioned into more experimental modes of artmaking, albeit her dance training can be evidenced by the way Lukin Linklater carries and maneuvers the physicality of her body throughout most of her performances. Lukin Linklater admits: "I come from a theatre background, so I think a lot about intention. Every movement, breath, sound and action is infused with clarity of intention."7

In addition, her recent work has been based on her Alutiiq background; she relies heavily on the cultural markers of her northern experience, employing the practices of storytelling, Inuit throat singing, language, and regalia.8 In 2009 during the LIVE Biennale of Performance Art Festival in Vancouver, she performed Isuwiq‐waq.9 She began the performance by spreading out two large pieces of cotton cloth on the floor (one red and one black—significant colours associated with the regalia of Alutiiq snowfalling parkas). She also set out a sealskin and bowls of fresh berries. Lukin Linklater settled onto the red cloth and began to sing a song she had choreographed on her own. She then broke out into hoarse breathing that built into a crescendo of impromptu throat singing. A projection behind the artist displayed images of then Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, participating in an event at which she ate part of a raw seal heart during a community festival in Nunavut in May 2009. Her actions caused a controversy with animal rights activists who denounced her participation, stating that she was publicly behaving contrary to her role as a public, political figure.10

In the final moments of the performance, Lukin Linklater moved onto the black cloth and then gathered the bowls of berries to smear handfuls of the red organic material on her face, arms, and legs. With what berries she didn't lather on her body, she then entered the audience and distributed them as a healing offering and source of nourishment. She finished the piece with a small bow of acknowledgement to the audience.

When considering the other themes in the INDIANacts Performance Art conference—for example, how artists incorporate sacred ideas and actions into a performance—a particular performance by Skeena Reece exemplifies this process and evidences possible outcomes and audience reaction that Indigenous artists need to prepare for when and, more importantly, how artists use revered objects in their art-making.

In preparation for her performance, Reece smudged the grunt gallery performance space, spiritually cleaning the room with the sanctifying haze of sweetgrass smoke. The audience was then invited in one at a time, but all had to step through the purifying smoke before entering the space. Once everyone was seated inside, Skeena began telling a story about a carved wooden Tsimshian Moon mask. Such a mask was passed to the audience for examination. Reece sanctioned only the people wearing protective gloves to touch the object in order to preserve its sacredness. Skeena began with a narrative about her father who had carved the mask for her. She then went into the recounting of how this object represented a certain aspect of her life. During her storytelling, a slideshow of images projected on the wall beside her showed Reece in character with the mask on as she performed interventions in various locations around the city of Vancouver.

Once she finished her story, musician Jason Burnstick began to play an acoustic guitar and accompanied Reece while she sang. The mask made its way around the audience and then back to her. She then covered it in a black shroud, slowly picked up a large, round granite rock, and smashed the mask into half pieces, the sound of the destruction physically shocking the audience. With the obliteration of the object completed, Burnstick began to play his guitar again and sang while Skeena mourned the death of the mask. By destroying this sacred object she challenged the negative experiences that were associated with it, and counter-reacted against the many years of built-up hurt and anger in one sudden moment.11

In the weeks that followed the performance, the outcomes from this specific piece led to expressions of anger and disappointment from the Aboriginal community, some of whom to this day still haven't forgiven the artist for her actions. Recently, during a conversation with the artist, she explained that she had permission from her father to break it. She also explained that the breaking of masks is something that occurs quite frequently with carvers and that her father had broken them countless times before coming to completely finishing any one particular piece.12 Her performance thereby exemplifies that using sacred objects and actions in a performance is the artist's choice of how far one wants to use sacred ideas and objects. However, some artists prefer to use materials or ideas that allude to certain ideas instead of performing with the real object or substance.

The final two works to look at are by Terrance Houle and Jackson 2Bears. In a previous essay that was co-written with Carla Taunton for our March 2011 performance series in Kingston, Ontario titled Acting Out, Claiming Space! Taunton and I described the performance work of Houle - a piece that pertains to the ideas that were covered in the INDIANacts' Trauma and Testimony panel discussion. The performance is described thus:

"…the artist had set up a video projection, which presented images of the Plains landscape interspersed with images of buffalo. The video was projected onto a protruding stone wall, which framed Houle's performance space. As the audience procession entered into the area, they encountered the artist on acoustic guitar accompanied by two performance assistants, Chris Trimmer on drums and Jordan Bennett dancing with Pow Wow bells. The artist and drummer continued to play soft ambient music, while Bennett remained dancing, lasting approximately 10 minutes. As the music built to a crescendo, the images of buffalo became more prevalent. At that moment, Houle stood up and changed in front of the audience from his black suit, white shirt, and black tie into his red loincloth and beaded breastplate…Next, the artist walked to a darkened corner of the alley where he discovered blankets from recent street occupants. By chance, he chose a wool blanket with the iconic coloured stripes of Hudson Bay point blankets. While holding the dirty wet blanket, Houle backed into the crowd shaking it out, at which point the drummer and dancer ceased their actions. Houle then took a moment to ready himself, charged at the stone wall yelling in Blackfoot and commenced to herd the projected buffalo. After this intense act, the artist threw the blanket and himself onto the gravel, and in unison the visual representation transitioned to the buffalo running away from him. Houle lay in a heavy silence for several minutes. The audience was then left to consider the absence of his performing body and the presence of his motionless body.13

Although a great deal of Houle's work is humorous or absurd in nature, this particular piece was inspired by the darker experiences that Houle and his family have personally experienced. Also layered with the performance, the artist implicated and made visible the larger, communal postcolonial experiences of Aboriginal peoples, both historically and currently, and also complexly addressed urban Aboriginal experiences. Taunton and I further deconstructed his work as:

"…the historic violence experienced by Indigenous peoples, the lack of recognition around Aboriginal issues, Houle brought awareness to the apathy directed towards Indigenous people's experiences through his act of heaving his body onto the ground; his intention was to reference a fallen warrior. Houle's work also references a connection between historical remembrances of past losses and the loss experienced in communities today."

The final performance piece is by new media artist, Jackson 2Bears. His work is chosen in relation to the final, fifth theme, Tussling and Public Spectacle, which intended to discuss artistic practices that connect the geo- and socio-political realities of contemporary culture and decolonization, as well as strategies that tussle with concepts of hierarchies and non-Aboriginal government. Since 2000, 2Bears has been choreographing and performing his music. In 2006, he developed his exceptional DJ scratching skills, and paired them with his research of visuals borrowed from popular television and film works that have in turn appropriated First Nations cultures. His website explicitly describes his artistic intent, ideas that he has channeled into a PhD degree based on his performance art practice:

"My performance work is primarily inspired by electronic music and dj/vj culture, and uses the form of the remix as a tool for cultural critique. Often emerging as a playful take on popular Native stereotypes, these Live Cinema/Scratch Video remixes function as mixed-media interventions against extirpative and discriminatory representations of First Nations culture. In this way, these multimedia collages are for me a means of discovering a self-reflexive path of engagement with my own Native heritage by way of remixing and reappropriating Indigenous identity for myself…Similarly, my installation/ interactive works explore popular misrepresentations of First Nations culture and seeks to address notions of cultural belonging for Indigenous people growing up in urban environments outside traditional communities. These new media works incorporate digital images as well as video and sound, and serve as a creative means to resist the destructive cultural caricatures that obstruct the possibilities for an authentic Indigenous identity in contemporary culture."14

In October of 2006, 2Bears' performance, titled Ten Little Indians, was the final piece that concluded a three-part performance series (that also included Skeena Reece and Roger Crait). His performance was approximately ten minutes in length and he had the expected equipment set-up of a DJ with turntables, records, and back-dropped by a large floor-to-ceiling projection screen. His performance began with the popular children's rhyme of Ten Little Indians, but the artist soon transformed the song into a scratch and beatbox version of the lyric; simultaneously on the projection screen was the artist's own animation of the song. This transitioned into the Lone Ranger theme song and then a beatbox version of the Canadian anthem followed, all of which was transformed by the artist's DJ'ing cleverness. Popular television show images were paired with documentation taken from the Oka Crisis, as well as images of the Canadian military and more of his own animation sequences.15 The whole performance built to an exhilarating crescendo due to the speed and boisterous volume of his visual and auditory compositions. The sudden end left a brief moment of stunned silence before the audience broke into applause and cheering.

This is only a small briefing on how well-respected artists, innovators in Aboriginal performance art practice such as James Luna, Rebecca Belmore, and so forth, have had a considerable influence on many artistic individuals. Many young and emerging artists cite ideas, words, images, materials, and visuals that they have carried with them from the beginning of their art practices to where they are currently located in their work. These five themes can be applied to exemplify many individuals' practices, but these particular artists and their projects have come to exemplify some integral points addressed during the INDIANacts Performance Art conference—ideas that were brought forth in 2002 but are still weighted notions that have meaning for artists working today.

Footnotes and Endnotes

  1. Guillermo Gómez-Peña Guillermo, James Luna. La Nostalgia Remix. 7A*11D, 8th International Festival of Performance Art. October 23, 2010, 8pm, Toronto, Ontario. back

  2. Askren, Mique’l. The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), a center of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) – Erica Lord. Accessed July 4, 2011,  back

  3. Lord, Erica. Artifact Piece Revisited – CV/Resume. Accessed July 4, 2011, http://ERICALORD.COM/resume. back

  4. Stampe, Jennifer, Artifact Piece, Revisited: Erica Lord at the National Museum of the American Indian, April 3-5, 2008, accessed July 4, 2011, back

  5. grunt gallery, INDIANacts Aboriginal Performance Art, accessed July 4, 2011,

  6. Foster, Susan Leigh, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance, Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis Publishing (2007), pg 179. back

  7. Knettle, Sherry, Dance the journals of Knud Rasmussen, accessed July 7, 2011,

  8. Jimmy, Elwood, “Performing Memory,” Babiche 23, April 2011. Page 3 back

  9. Live Biennale Festival of Performance Art, Chapel Arts Centre, Vancouver, BC. Saturday, October 17, 2009. back

  10. CBC news Canada, “Governor General's seal snack sparks controversy,” Tuesday, May 26, 2009, accessed August 17, 2011, back

  11. This performance was programmed in conjunction with the Redwire Magazine two-person group exhibition of emerging youth artists/writers, Tania Willard and Gord Hill, curated by Peter Morin, entitled “2400 AN INDIAN ODYSSEY.” Skeena Reece, “Volcano Woman,” grunt gallery, September 2004. back

  12. This fact taken from an informal discussion with the artist in March 2011. back

  13. Carla Taunton, Daina Warren, “Acting out by claiming the space” Modern Fuel, Kingston, Ontario, February 2011. back

  14. Jackson 2Bears, “Artist Statement,”, accessed August 21, 2011. back

  15. grunt gallery, Jackson 2Bears, “Ten Little Indians,” brunt magazine, issue #3,, accessed August 21, 2011. back