First Nations’ past meets present in multimedia works

Hexsa’a_m: To Be Here Always challenges the western concept of art and culture | Photo courtesy of Belkin Art Gallery

The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery will be the host of Hexsa’a_m: To Be Here Always, a multimedia exhibit that ties together history and the present-day, using art in a way that is not just symbolic but a genuine representation of the vibrant culture and legal issues that exist today.

The exhibit will run from Jan.11–Apr. 7.

A diverse collection

Part of the larger project Mirrored In Stone (commissioned by the independent film-
makers society Cineworks), To Be Here Always was led by Victoria-based Dzawada’enuxw artist Marianne Nicolson and Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger. Lorna Brown, the acting director and curator at the Belkin Gallery, heard about the project some two years ago, when the idea was still in its planning stages.

“The focus of the project,” says Brown, “was to bring artists into the community, and work with emerging artists from there – many being younger – to provide them with skills in video and film production and post-production.”

This past summer, Nicolson and Thauberger brought a number of artists in residence to Kingcome Inlet, a home of the Dzawada’enuxw peoples, to work in situ and interact and learn from the community. In turn, a number of the Inlet’s residents came to Vancouver for workshops, and were provided with equipment for shooting and editing that went back to Kingcome.

“It made a lot of sense to offer to have the Belkin present the culmination of this series of residencies and ongoing exchange and production,” says Brown. “I started working with them at that point to start planning the exhibition.”

There will be a wide variety of works on display in the To Be Here Always exhibition, produced using an equally wide variety of techniques and
mediums, from painting to film to historical records and much more. Brown sees this range of presentation as a strong point, and a way for everyone to find something to connect with.

“All these media present different ways for very diverse audiences to engage with the ideas,” she says. “Some people gravitate towards painting, others towards video…these are a set of languages that can appeal to people of different backgrounds and ages to engage with the ideas.”

More than symbolic

From Hexsa’a_m: To Be Here Always. | Photo courtesy of Belkin Art Gallery

As the project developed, two key dates emerged as focal points of the exhibition. The first is 1914, when delegates of the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission met with local First Nations chiefs to outline the land base for the Kwakwaka’wakw group of nations. The second is May 2018, when the Dzawada’enuxw Nation launched a BC Supreme Court case to extend Aboriginal
title to the ocean, fighting against the right for fish farms to exist in the area.

“There’s so many ways to
approach the content and subject matter,” says Brown, “but the two dates of 1914 and 2018 allowed [the artists] to provide some focus as to a place to begin.”

The legal fight launched by the Dzawada’enuxw will continue to grow, as in addition to the provincial lawsuit the same group will announce the beginning of a lawsuit against the federal government, coinciding with the exhibition’s opening on Jan. 10. The infusion of political issues into the exhibit is not something out of the ordinary for the artists.

“In western culture art can be thought of as a symbolic or metaphoric realm,” says Brown, “whereas in First Nations cultures in general there really isn’t a separation between art and culture and politics and records.”

Brown sees art as a vehicle through which critical cultural issues and questions can be raised and discussed, and is a way for not just the artists themselves but for everyone to think about these issues through the act of making things, and making them in different ways.

“For me,” says Brown, “it is important that an exhibition like this underlines the fact that art can function differently
than being just purely contained to a gallery or museum…when we think about art in this broader way we can think of it as having an impact beyond the immediate; as being a way of recording historical moments and allowing people to think about these issues which are quite charged politically, but think about them in richer, deeper ways.”

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