INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

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ART sauvage / INDIAN acts
Guy Sioui Durand


In this essay, I utilize two key notions. The concept of conference-performance serves to explain my Aboriginal approach in the field of performance art. My bilingual expression Art sauvage/Indian acts reflects the early (1869) appellation of “lois sur les sauvages” by the Canadian government. I aim to make a bridge between the meaning in French—which is dominant in the area of Gépèg (Québec) where I live—and the expression Indian acts in the other Aboriginal parts of the North American territory where English is dominant. My argument will be develop in three points:

1) a brief description of The Raven/Coyote/Carcajou’s lesson (or the Trickster’s Inverted Brain (“cervelle renversée”), my conference-performance created during INDIANacts, which was an original and important event combining Aboriginal conferences and art performances (Emily Carr Institute, Vancouver, 2002);

2) a definition of conference-performance as artistic expression of my Iroquoian (Wendat/Huron) vision replaced in the actual context and practices of those I have called the new Hunters/Shamans/Warriors by art;

3) some theoretical reflections on Aboriginal action art, incorporating knowledge from our heritage as well as ideological and political positions of activism, all based on orality.

In conclusion, more than just a call for cohesion between us, I try to introduce some considerations to go beyond new forms of “rez” (reservations), and to challenge proudly the conditions of the universal art field, where many strategic metissages, such as inter-nations, inter-connectivity, inter-relations, inter-activities, inter-mediality, are now redefining art as common experiences of necessary solidarity and “glocalized” (think global, act local) perspectives, including political and social engagement.


In Vancouver my “conference-performance” called The Raven/Coyote/Carcjaou’ lesson (or the Trickster’s Inverted Brain) aimed, first, to establish a mythological and territorial rendez-vous of the spirit of three animals—the raven in the West, the coyote in the midlands, the carcajou in the east legend’s—as resembling performance toward Kanata (Canada). Secondly, I tried to create a participatory experience to introduce some of the dimensions redefining the complexity of Aboriginal action art in Gépèg (Québec) where live Iroquoians (Kanien’ke: a’ka/Mohawk and Wendat/Huron like me) and Algonquians (Mig’mak, Wolustuk/Malecites, Waban’aki, Atikamekw, Algonquins/Anishnabe, Cris, Naskapis) without forgetting Métis and Inuit.

For more than twenty years, those performers which I have called the Hunters/Shamans/Warriors have been changing the attitudes toward action art. They inspired me. That’s why my intervention in Vancouver tried to combine spirituality and geopolitics purposes, integrating many forms of orality (spoken word, rhythms and sounds, visual images and in situ “installactions”) as manifestation of those new interdisciplinary, interactive, inter-relational and intercultural approaches.

I first invited the audience to join me live on the stage, initiating symbolic nomadism by recreating the circle of speech on the stage. This collective movement brought the audience close around me to think in-depth about issues of native performance art. Secondly, with the complicity of the Belmore sisters, Florene and Rebecca, I transformed my theorician’s look into that of an urban punk warrior with a “Mohawk” coif, visualizing the new urban realities for Indians in Kanata.

On the one hand, the need to better link the autochthonous imaginary from East to West in all its complexity—let’s not forget that there are no less than 611 First Nations spread over 2,370 acres of reservation—and, on the other, the need to scrutinize the theoretical and practical beacons of current autochthonous action art (Art sauvage/Indian acts) have pushed me into undertaking more radical action on the substance of the issue as conference-performance.

That’s why the two collective, experiential types of deconstruction, the conformity of the audience, and the body of the speaker, aimed to increase consciousness about co-creativity, communal methods and Aboriginal anarchism as action art “mapping the movement.”


Since 1993, I have experimented with Aboriginal conferences/performances. The course I have followed breaks down into five periods, which I have named:

- L’élan (1976/1983);
- With the Bearer of Woes (Avec Le Porteur des Peines du Monde) (1984/1992);
- L’élan se change en outarde (1993/1995);
- Kanata: from Wendake to Ossasane (1996/1999);
- The Whisper of the Tortoise-Bear (le souffle de l’Ours-Tortue) (2000-2011).

This neologism develops from a fusion of: (a) creation of spatial installation as specific occupation of the site in regard of its prevailing configuration and social context, and (b) body art for all his expressive possibilities as “agirs communicationnels” (Habermas). I combine four methods in their execution:

At the beginning I always introduce, mentally or physically (when possible) the talking circle around me in the place and with the audience. I first begin to talk using a few words in Huron. After, I continue speaking in French, when it’s possible to co-create with the complicity of a translator who joins me as a double who delivers the spirit of the communication. The goal is to make audible, to experiment by listening, for those intercultural distances that exist. It also means that we can together contribute at a common tribune. While my oral intervention informs about savage art/Indian art in Gépèg (Québec), each time I introduce an original reconfiguration of the room and insist on the fact that every person in the crowd physically changes of place to break with the disposition of the panel’s table and lines of chairs (using the circle.) Simultaneously I intend to use the full possibilities of the body and its metamorphosis (ex. changing clothes, maquillage, etc) to make it visible and with acts for art. Then, this type of conference-performance rises as a symbol of the failings of writing and printing as colonialist (and now bureaucratic) political and intellectual support to rehabilitate Aboriginal oral for geopolitics and collective aesthetic expressivity.

Asking for the direct participation of the audience, each one of my conference-performances is in homology with my utopia of “changing the world here and now together!” Then, my conference-performance becomes living metaphor as artistic territories of our geopolitics and spiritual connection with Mother-Earth. More than just a cultural legitimization and re-appropriation platforms, they are an affirmative and inventive disposition, making examples of an activist, critical ethics, where theory is live in action.

For each strategy, of course, this means to be coherent with the actual evolutionary context of the Aboriginal imaginary in the international art field. At the end of the eighties, the conjugation of the postmodern attitude against all forms of cultural colonialism with the interdisciplinary approach in the art field was a good context for the resurgence of Aboriginal orality as audio art, spoken word, rap music, theatre and performances. Today, those interdisciplinary attitudes are rising exponentially in the art of the new generations of Aboriginal artists.

Moreover, I have pursued my conferences/performance experimentations owing to invitations from national and international events. For example, more recently, in June 2010 at Saw Gallery (Ottawa) and in October of the same year in Belfast (Northern Ireland), I presented “la cervelle renversée” for the international exchange, Traversées/Crossings, between Aboriginal and Belfast-based performers.


With my conference-performance, I have taken a side.1 As I explain in many essays, the guiding thread of my conferences/performances is the Aboriginal paradigm of orality. Orality and circularity of vision are two cultural components not only for Iroquoian peoples (Wendat and Hodonausone), but they can be a pertinent approach for all First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists working today. This is also my vision as independent curator of events.

Few critics point out these homologous relationships between our autochthonous notions and the various theoretical discourses of current art. Using these concepts to analyze art now interests me because they have epistemological value that is both Amerindian and universal.

Orality is what structures all Aboriginal civilizations. This mode of communication founds the “Americity” of our traditions. It still strikes a chord in the creativity of today, in particular, in the interdisciplinary vogues and multimedia interactivities, as the living art belonging to everyone every day. In the Amerindian view, orality takes on the trappings of a full intellectual “area” where my vision of theory and art criticism finds its Amerindian uniqueness outside official structures. The “communication acts” created by orality enliven the foundations and spread of original thinking as “knowing about doing” (savoir faire) and “knowing about saying” (savoir dire) before it becomes “knowing about writing” (savoir écrire). Orality in acts precedes written criticism of art. Said differently, its many facets make up an authentic Amerindian practice on a theoretical level and at the level of art criticism in itself. This is the area where existence is first exercised, conferring all its meaning on the second area, the writings.

Exponentially, orality sets in motion a series of audiovisual and multi-sensorial elements which make in situ presence and eloquence overflow the mere exercise of abstraction of the paper-and-ink undertaking—and now the keyboards and connecting screens—which is writing. It makes use of the verb to understand and explain, convince and debate, transform or change ideas with style and courage. This way of proceeding possesses the experience of closeness found in art experiences today but nonetheless does not get rid of the ways of knowing, the “passing on” of heritage.

To demonstrate this perspective, which may seem surprising at first glance, I thought it would be interesting to compare broad notions founded on orality and derive from them a series of interesting homologies with utopias, concepts and post-modern artistic practices. The table below aims to indicate some of these epistemological correspondences:

Autochthonous Notions

Feast of the Dead, Makushan, Potlatch               

Alliances, Treaties, Rhizomes, Nomadism, Métissages, Adoptions, Territoriality, Circularity                                             

Mother Earth, Animal Spirit, Sacred Circle, Suspensions

Rhythms, sounds and story telling                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                


Allochthonous Concepts

Happening, Immersive Environment, Art Event

Networks, multi-, interdisciplinarity, Interculturalities, Internationalities, Cosmopolitanism

Environmental art, public art, site works, art in context

Action art (performance, transactional art, relational art, communication acts); multimedia art (interactivity, videos, art web, audio art)

“glocalization”, engaged art

Amerindian orality is therefore more of an attracting style than a talent for leveraging the verb and words. It is an ethical mode that accompanies aesthetics. It is the reservoir and the method of crossing into an affirmation of identity. Rhythms and sounds, languages and gestures, orality is the bearer of our founding myths, stories, legends of our chants, dances and other “communication acts” seeking to transform the daily life of our communities.

This is a major ethical concern for many of our autochthonous creative artists. For them, developing a professional career is not the point; the point is to intervene in the communities to which they belong. They take the time to clear spaces and create times of hope through their art, models of the future for younger generations.


A passion and enthusiasm for native imagination in the broad field of postmodern action art have always driven me. Whether as a sociologist, university lecturer, independent curator, speaker or writer, I am working to develop an autochthonous theory of the Aboriginal imaginary as “research in action.” I mean to contribute to the construction of this necessary sociology, this Amerindian self-history of Amerindian art. Real conditions for exercising critical thinking in acts with a constructive intention (because of the tie between ethics and aesthetics) can be found in this manner of doing things. These are not only strategies of emergence in the social artistic adventure of the new Hunters/Shamans/Warriors of whom I am the accomplice, but also the “event zones” that are intended to encourage the expression and validation in situ of an autochthonous art criticism of current art, Amerindian or otherwise. Added onto this was the pursuit of conferences/performances which I call Art sauvage/Indian acts.

My work is a living thing. It communicates my art criticism as "Art sauvage/Indian acts". There is something more important: the need to communicate with all the Nations.

Guy Sioui Durand

  1. I have exposed and explained those concepts in three essays: Jouer à l’Indien est une chose. Être un Amérindien une autre (in Recherche Amérindiennes au Québec magazine, 2003), Akwa Enton8hi. From Skills and Saliva (in Making a Noise. Aboriginal History and art criticism, Banff Centre, 2004) and Indiens, Indians, Indios (in Inter, art actuel magazine, 2010). back