Strategies of Aboriginal Performance Art and the Aesthetics of Diaspora

      The purpose of this paper – the goals I have set for myself in writing it – are to show the First Nations community in Canada as diasporic, and to discuss performance art by First Nations artists as a way of asserting identity, sovereignty, and working through the violence and loss experienced as a result of colonization.  I want to also address issues of gender and sexuality in relation to First Nations performance, and how the similar strategies of insistence employed in performance creates an aesthetic of diaspora. Through their performances these artists are able to speak to global issues of belonging, which perhaps is the reason that performance art is so viable a practice for asserting the self-determination of this diasporic community. As well, I believe that the artistic practice of diasporic communities is significant for two reasons, the first being that there is a quality about art that most effectively negotiates issues related to diaspora by linking it to subjective experience, and secondly, it signals the creative aspect of being a diasporic subject, carving discursive spaces for identity.

The history of the representation of First Nations people in Canada is marked with erasure at worst and marginalization at best.  First Nations identity has been essentialized as exotic, closer to nature, and therefore as an artifact in need of preservation in the face of modernity.  In the museum world, this resulted in the collection of Native artifacts, removing valuable objects from their culture of origin.  In the larger Canadian context, colonization led to the displacement of Native peoples from their lands, forcing them into a diasporic context within the confines of the country’s borders.  This is a unique situation to explore diasporic subjects in, as the loss of land remains immediate due to the fact that some Aboriginals may remain in the proximity of their original dwelling, but the nation has imposed new borders over it.  This signals the contradiction that although first world and third world coexist in the same space in many instances today, when it comes down to the movement of bodies, geographic borders become very real.  

Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism puts forth a politics of difference that homogenizes ethnic identity, while exempting First Nations from the list of “those institutions in charge of implementing the multicultural policy,” thereby simultaneously (and contradictorily) being exclusionary.[1]  This is a double displacement, and it is thus useful to compare it to the displacement of Indigenous peoples in Australia, which has an official policy of multiculturalism as well.  Aileen Moreton-Robisnson describes this displacement, stating that “the nation state places Indigenous people in a state of homelessness because our ontological relationship to the land, which is the way we hold title, is incommensurable with its own exclusive claims of sovereignty,” naming this a postcolonizing strategy, with the implication of an ongoing process that the term signals.[2]

The discordance between an ontological relationship to land and possession of land through government sovereignty raises the issue of ownership that is central to diasporic identities.  For both Australia and Canada, the nation’s claim to land was founded on the conception of an all ready empty land – Terra Nullius, as in Australia’s case.[3]   The nation was conceived as a vast wilderness, and so in Canada, First Nations people became synonymous with this wild nature that needed taming at the hands of modernity.  Contradictorily however, the Natives were simultaneously seen as a dieing culture in need of preservation.  In his essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” William Cronon signals the interrelatedness of the conception of Canadian wilderness with other issues (including, I would argue, the First Nations diaspora) when he notes “although wilderness may today seem to be just one environmental concern among many, it in fact serves as the foundation for a long list of other such concerns that on their face seem quite remote from it.”[4]  The same interest in the wilderness as frontier that stimulated the tourist economy in Canada led to the commodification and naturalization of Native identity.  Cronon’s discussion highlights the damaging effects of such constructions of wilderness, and contextualizes discussions of the un-homing of First Nations peoples in Canada.  As First Nations people were being removed from their homeland and being placed on reservations then, they were simultaneously experiencing the pressures of assimilation and the discourses of preservation that othered them.

            Such discussions are ultimately one-sided however, and beg the question of Native negotiation within these discourses of power.  This calls for a more complex understanding of agency, as Anne Anlin Cheng asserts in “The Melancholy of Race.”[5]  To first return to the concept of ownership, however, Deborah Doxtator raises the important point that ownership can be thought of outside of property, which is a form of agency in that it calls for a reformulation of the term outside of the language of the nation.  Doxtator discusses ownership in terms of owning “the responsibility of who you are and what you belong to,”[6] with the subsequent need for self-reflexivity and intellectual development that also links to the complex understanding of agency Cheng contends for.  Doxtator’s words are rooted in the ongoing discussion of Aboriginal representation in the gallery – the history of collecting practices of such institutions – and larger trends in Canadian nationalism.  She argues for the need for access to cultural objects in order to “communicate and preserve the process and living of a culture,”[7] which calls up the strategies used by the First Nations diaspora to create spaces for identity.  This simultaneously signals diaspora as a creative act, a process, as well as an aesthetic, which is evidenced in the artistic production of First Nations artists.  

Lily Cho theorizes the diasporic subject as in process of becoming diasporic “through a complex process of memory and emergence,”[8] suggesting an attendant focus on productive subjectivity rather than solely on victimization.  This is significant, as in order to enact change, politics must be open to such a process of becoming.  Similarly, Stuart Hall states that “practices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write – the positions of enunciation” (author’s emphasis),[9] suggesting that an aesthetic of diaspora links representations through its subjective positionalities and strategies of representation.  Hall speaks about cultural identity as sameness and difference, and how it is a positioning rather than an essence, in relation to points of reference such as history and place.[10]  Cho writes “they share continuities even as they persist in their differences,”[11] suggesting that such a way of thinking about identity could be used in thinking about diasporic representation.  Another way of discussing diaspora as a creative process is through the act of gleaning.  As seen in the film The Gleaners and I, gleaning from the remains of the past is a tactic for producing the future.  In art, you can make insights, re-write history, show the inside and outside, and these are important processes for understanding the complexity of diasporic subjects. 

            Art calls up our own interiority, which is significant to the representation of diaspora in that it may signal the deeply human origin of racism, simultaneously allowing the speaker to grieve, and deal with the losses that are constitutive of diasporic identity.  Cheng describes this process as melancholia, in that the people we expel remain inside us, and sit in us as anger, guilt, or denial.[12]  The effects of this can be seen in the commodification of cultures for the tourist trade, in that tourists are participating in a sort of self-exoticising practice by consuming another culture.  Inherent in this is the notion of “the foreigner within” that Cheng discusses, in that “the racial other is in fact quite ‘assimilated’ into – or, more accurately, most uneasily digested by – American nationality.”[13]  This is something First Nations artists address in their works, the cultural losses they experience at once constituting their identity, while also carving space for resistance and new articulations.  They do so by using strategies of representation that deals with such difficult knowledge.  For example, one strategy that is often used is parody and humor.  As Lori Blondeau has stated in conversation with Lynne Bell and Janice Williamson, “You have to laugh in order to survive what some of our people have survived.”[14] 

Blondeau’s performances oftentimes employ characters that parody stereotypes of First Nations culture, such as her persona Belle Sauvage (2005), in which she plays the role of a cowgirl.  Strutting and posing for the audience, Blondeau is aware of her objectification, yet clearly revels in the freedom to represent herself.  She performs the role of the Wild West show which many Native women participated in during the nineteenth century.  The character is also based loosely on the 1950s film Calamity Jane, in which Doris day plays a cross-dressing white cowgirl.[15]  Blondeau’s performance has included taking pictures with the audience against a backdrop of a Western landscape scene, thus creating a dialogue between performer, audience, and the history of colonization.  The opening up of such dialogues is significant to First Nations diasporic subjects, in that it allows for new articulations of identity, as well as implicating the audience in the objectification of the performers. 

This performance was done in conjunction with artist Adrian Stimson, who played Buffalo Boy, a gender-bending cowboy.  The hyper-sexualized performance of the personas becomes a commentary on the masculine inflection of colonization, exposing it through humor and parody. Buffalo Boy wears red lipstick and nail polish, and hangs pearls around his neck, showing a little leg as he poses for a picture with an audience member or two. Tanya Mars discusses the significance of humor for feminist performance artists, stating

The ability of the performer to laugh at herself, extends outwardly into the community at large, giving female audiences a chance to identify openly with the performer – she is up there pouring out her deepest, darkest secrets, unafraid. Audiences can in turn laugh with the performer and eachother, and take comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone.[16]


This seems to be similarly applicable to First Nations performances art.  It is interesting to compare this performance strategy of humor to Cheng’s theory of melancholia, in that both are paradigms for dealing with the loss of belonging and identity one experiences with diaspora.  Both expose the idea of the foreigner within, as has all ready been discussed.  It may be useful to think of humor as a strategy for dealing with melancholia, in that humor signals its effects, while allows a measure of control to the performer.

            In another of Blondeau’s performances We Want to be Just like Barbie: That Bitch has Everything (1998), Blondeau draws on the pop culture icon to address issues of body image and sexuality that affect First Nations women, who are either categorized as “squaw” or “Indian princess,” playing the role of Pocahontas.[17]  In this performance Vern Chekosis assumes the role of Ken, who feels marginalized because of Barbie’s fame, likes to try on Pocahontas’ clothing and feels comfortable talking with her.  The performance thus effectively highlights the notions of ideal beauty and sexuality that are implicit in Barbie, and the ways in which First Nations peoples are affected by such discourses.  Blondeau states “I am affected by popular culture’s images of women: I think I should be really thin with the latest hairstyles. Just because I’m Native doesn’t mean I’m not affected. It’s about telling these popular images from my point of view as a Native woman.”[18]  Beyond this however, Blondeau’s commentary on popular culture asserts the contemporaneity of First Nations peoples, denoting the hybridity of First Nations culture in the face of a homogenizing discourse that would relegate Native representation to ethnographic artifacts in the museum.  As discussed by Paul Gilroy, hybridity begins at the place of origin, which affects diaspora through cultural exchange from the outset.[19]  Modernity has always meant social exchange and therefore hybridity.  Blondeau’s performances clearly demonstrate this through her references to popular culture and its influence in First Nations culture as well as its potentiality as a tool of subversion and social commentary.

            Terrence Houle is a First Nations performance and photographic artist based in Calgary who also uses the strategy of parody in his work.  He brought his Casting Call to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario in 2008, in which he sent out a casting notice for First Nations men and women to “audition” for roles of Natives playing Non-Natives acting in Native roles in old Western films.  In this performance, Houle is using the tactics of inversion and humor to disarm the viewer, making him or her question the assumptions made about the place of indigenous identity in contemporary life.  This performance can be seen similarly to Blondeau’s performances in its aesthetic, thereby becoming a site of the assertion of identity for both Houle and the Native community at large, as well as contesting historical representations of First Nations people in popular culture.  Issues of gender and diaspora are also clearly at play in Houle’s work, as the participating audience literally puts on and performs a masculinity that is evident in old Hollywood westerns and seems slightly ridiculous and untenable for viewers today.  This is a significant conversation to be having in the face of the retrenching of masculinity seen in the assertion of strategic nationalism to counter colonialist actions.  Obviously this is not the path that these performance artists have chosen, but it is likely that some in the First Nations communities have chosen such a strategy.   Both Houle and Blondeau clearly have a nuanced understanding of issues of gender and sexuality in Canadian culture at large, and how the discourses surrounding these identity markers affect and are thought of by First Nations people.  If framed in the context of Cheng’s discussion of a complex understanding of agency, Houle and Blondeau’s performances can be seen as enunciations of racial melancholy that signal diasporic losses while rearticulating First Nations identity.

            Another strategy used by First Nations performance artists is through connecting their performances to loss and memory.  In her article on Holocaust memorials and museums in Germany and the United States respectively, Liliane Weissburg describes the difficultly of naming such diasporic losses directly, as giving something a proper name closes down its meaning.[20]   It becomes clear that it is difficult for both the Jewish and the Germans to digest the losses they experienced from the effects of the violence of the Holocaust.  Most significant to the present discussion however, is Weissberg’s question of the ability of art to memorialize the Holocaust.  She believes that this is complicated in the case of the Washington museum, but that it ultimately displays an “aesthetic that thrives on absence.”[21]  Weissberg states that such memorialization is indicative of “America’s – not Germany’s – inability to deal with its own past.”[22]  This is clearly an articulation of the racial melancholy that Cheng describes. 

I would like to transpose the notion of an aesthetics of absence onto Rebecca Belmore’s performance Indian Factory (2000) to argue that although such a strategy denotes the melancholia of a diasporic subject, by doing so it leaves room for the development of meaning – a process of becoming that is a creative act constitutive of identity, as has previously been stated.  Belmore’s performance occurs in five vignettes, “in which [she] bore witness to the freezing deaths of five Aboriginal men outside the Queen Elizabeth II power plant in Saskatoon.”[23]  In her performance, she moved from bathing plaid work shirts in plaster and hanging them to dry in front of an image of the Queen with candles lit below; to dipping a feather in blood and turning a fan on so that it sprayed onto a canvas; to dancing drunkenly around a pole marked with police tape; to hammering nails into an image of a sacred stone printed onto plywood; finishing by being buried in the fetal position in a bed of clay.  The performance ended when one of the audience members – fearing for Belmore’s safety – dug her out.  Belmore’s performance was a highly emotional and charged story of the deaths of five men – the violence of this alluded to in the blank canvas and shell of the clay burial site.  Such a strategy that uses the body (the site of diasporic violence) and materials traditionally associated with First Nations culture, speaks to contemporary struggles without ever requiring the use of words.

The notion of storytelling is an aspect of aboriginal performance art that I would like to explore more in depth in relation to diasporic representations.  The fact that Belmore’s performance is in a sequence of events creates a narrative through which she can address her community’s painful memories.  Storytelling is an important tradition for First Nations peoples, and although Belmore experienced separation from the language of her tribe, it is clear that through her performances she is able to keep this tradition alive.  This is linked to strategies of insistence used by Belmore, as she revisited the deaths of the five men in another performance entitled Temperance (2004), insisting the significance of telling such stories for both the processes of mourning and healing.[24]  Jessica Bradley expresses this notion when she states “the experience of displacement and cultural loss is not so much lamented by Belmore as it is recuperated in her work and reformed into acts or objects of reparation and protest.”[25] 

The act of storytelling also calls to mind the relationship between fiction and diaspora as discussed by authors such as Toni Morrison, and links to issues of diaspora and memory as discussed by Lily Cho.  Morrison signals this connection, stating “no matter how “fictional” the account of these writers, or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory,” and that “it is emotional memory – what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.”[26]  Although her discussion centers on slave narratives, these remarks are applicable to Belmore’s performances in the memory of trauma that is evoked by the remains of her performance.  Indian Factory is especially visceral for Belmore herself, who physically exhausted herself through the actions of dancing, hammering, and burial.  The audience’s experience of this process was very emotional indeed, as it evidenced by the way in which it ended.  Such a performance strategy creates a site of memory, showing that diaspora can be a powerful tool for “thinking through the displacements engendered by colonialism,”[27] as well as being a process for the formation of First Nations identity. 

We have moved then, from thinking about diaspora in relation to the land as discussed at the beginning of the paper, to thinking of it in terms of what Cho states diaspora being “bound to the problem of history and memory.”[28]  These are the strategies of diasporic representation through which First Nations performance artists negotiate the space of diaspora.  The performance artists discussed here are aware of the very particular and subjective viewpoints from which they speak, and how their diaspora is inflected with issues of gender and hybridity.  This awareness itself shows just how useful a tool art is in showcasing the complexities of diasporic subjectivity, and how art and diaspora are synonymous in their creativity and process as frameworks from which to look at diaspora, and to create very contemporary and complex spaces for the self-assertion of First Nations identity.

[1] Smaro Kamboureli, “The Technology of Ethnicity: Canadian Multiculturalism and the Language of Law,” in David Bennett ed. Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity (London; New York: Routledge, 1998) 216.

[2] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “I Still Call Australia Home: Indigenous Belonging and Place in a White Postcolonizing Society” in Ahmed, Sara et al. Uprootings/Regroundings (Oxford: Berg, 2003) 30, 36.

[3] Moreton-Robinson, 24.

[4] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,’ in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 73.

[5] Anne Anlin Cheng, “The Melancholy of Race,” in Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (NY: Oxford Press, 2001), 26

[6] Deborah Doxtator, “The Implications of Canadian Nationalism for Aboriginal Cultural Autonomy,” in Curatorship: Indigenous Perspectives in Post-Colonial Societies: Proceedings (Ottawa and Calgary: Canadian Museum of Civilization, University of Victoria and the Commonwealth Associations of Museums, 1994), 56

[7] Doxtator, 64.

[8] Lily Cho, “The Turn to Diaspora.” Topia. 17: Spring, 2007, 21.

[9] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity of Diaspora,” in Brazeil, Janna and Annita Mannur eds. Theorizing Diaspora (MA: Blackwell Pub.: 2003), 85-86

[10] Hall, 87

[11] Cho, 21.

[12] Cheng, 130

[13] Cheng, 131

[14] Lynne Bell and Janice Williamson, “High Tech Storyteller: A Conversation with Performance Artist Lori Blondeau,” Fuse, 24:4 (December, 2001), 31

[15] Western Front, “Putting the WILD back into the West: staring Belle Sauvage and Buffalo Boy,” October 19, 2006

[16] Tanya Mars, “Not Just for Laughs: Women, Performance and humor” in Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder eds., Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004), 26

[17] Bell and Williamson, 32-33

[18] Bell and Williamson, 37

[19] Paul Gilroy, “The Black Atlantic as Counterculture of Modernity,” in Brazeil, Jana and Annita Mannur Adita eds. Theorizing Diaspora (MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 55

[20] Liliane Weissberg, “Memory Confined,” in Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Liliane Weissberg (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 48

[21] Weissberg, 67.

[22] Weissberg, 70.

[23] “On the Fightin’ Side of Me: Lori Blondeau and Lynne Bell in conversation with Rebecca Belmore,” Fuse, 28:1 (2005), 25

[24] “On the Fightin’ Side of Me,” 29

[25] Jessica Bradely, “Rebecca Belmore: Art and the Object of Performance,” in Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women eds. Tanya Mars & Johanna Householder, (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004), 122

[26] Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Ed. and Intro. William Zinsser (Boston: Houghton, 1987), 119

[27] Cho, 13

[28] Cho, 16


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