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With dreamcatchers and wolves, this artist is calling out the commodification of Indigenous culture

Recent Sobey Award-winning artist Ursula Johnson makes work that's funny, compelling and cuts to the heart of cultural commodification.

Recent Sobey Award-winning artist Ursula Johnson makes work that cuts to the heart of cultural commodification

Ursula Johnson's "The Indian Truck House of High Art" infomercial. (CBC Arts)

A woman sits on a little ledge on a Halifax sidewalk, dressed in traditional 19th-century Mi'kmaq garb. She's selling trinkets like feathers, dreamcatchers and necklaces on a rack next to her. Her hair is in braids, and she's looking up at passersby with an expression somewhere between friendly and resigned.

When I learned about The Indian Truckhouse of High Art, a site-specific performance that Mik'maw artist Ursula Johnson staged on a Halifax street in 2011, I couldn't help but think about a performance by American artist David Hammons almost three decades before. What do they have in common? Both performances rely on our own culpability as viewers.

Recent Sobey Award-winning artist Ursula Johnson makes work that's funny, compelling and cuts to the heart of cultural commodification. 3:34

The Hammons performance, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, took place in 1983 outside Cooper Union, an art school in New York City. In photographs of the work, Hammons, dressed in a long overcoat, leans against a wall with his wares laid out on a striped blanket — snowballs of a bunch of different sizes. In another photograph documenting the artwork, to Hammons's left, there's a man holding a kind of gnarly plastic bag and hawking ephemera out of a beat-up cardboard box meant for tomatoes. Seen next to his colleague, Hammons becomes part of the community of "those people who sell stuff on the street" — a kind of general label which, of course, comes with assumptions about class, ethnicity and belonging, not to mention the commodification of objects that you might assume are cultural, depending on who's selling them.

But that was the '80s, right? We've come so far.

"Indianness" for sale

In Truckhouse, Johnson is selling the kind of "Indian" knick-knackery that should, by now, make us angry: conveniently-sized dreamcatchers, baskets, beaded necklaces, a lot of things involving wolves howling at moons. In other words, it's silly shit that tourists buy, thinking they're grabbing onto a bit of essential "Indianness" that they can take home and show their friends. And for Johnson, it was as much about getting rid of those same items of cultural commodification as it was about buying them for her participants.

Thing is, viewers — or, just as accurately, "customers" — were kind of getting exactly what they wanted, only they didn't know it. The piece of yarn that Johnson used to tie the trinkets to their price tags was dyed and spun by the artist, who inscribed her status number on the tag that, along with the price, read: "This object is 100% Authentic Indian High Art. Made in Mi'kmaki." And the price itself was vital to the object; Johnson's Indian souvenirs sold for $17.20 to $17.90, the dates of the Treaties signed between the Mi'kmaq and the Crown. The day Johnson sold these items to passersby was Treaty Day, the anniversary of the signing of the agreement.

Ursula Johnson's "The Indian Truck House of High Art." (CBC Arts)

If you bought one of those dreamcatchers and you're reading this now, you might feel tricked. Or, you might wonder what your piece of Johnson's performance is worth. As she explains in the above video by filmmaker Jeff Wheaton, the artist is re-staging her 2011 performance as an installation in the guise of a gift shop, at Central Art Garage, a commercial gallery in Ottawa — a particularly apt spot for an installation about the commodification of Indigenous culture.

Johnson, the winner of the prestigious 2017 Sobey Art Award, won't be on-site during the run of the exhibition in Ottawa — her presence has been replaced by a full-length infomercial she's made that will be airing on local cable throughout the length of the exhibition. The ad is full of "testimonials" by white women who've bought beaded necklaces or dreamcatchers. And there's a further level of cultural commodification at work — now, the items Johnson is selling are not only tokens of "Indianness" but collectible objects, stuff art buyers can grab in the $17 range that may be worth a lot more in a decade if they hold on to them. The transaction, again, is pretty loaded.

Johnson's work is often funny and discomforting. The new infomercial is comical in the way that every infomercial is — it has canned laughter and forced facial expressions, and overly emotive reactions to dime-store jewelry. And it also relies both on our ability to laugh at it and to take some responsibility for the position we hold as the audience. Johnson and Hammons aren't the only artists to operate based on misunderstandings, irony, humour and participation — Black American artist Adrian Piper did it in the 1980s with the calling cards she handed out to people when she overheard elements of racism in conversation; Kent Monkman does it now by inserting diabolical narratives of colonialism into huge academic paintings that would conventionally tell stories of white valour.

Ursula Johnson (CBC Arts)

It's hard to make people think twice if you don't also make them culpable. It's no accident that pointing to the viewer's own responsibility through humour, irony and a little bit of trickery is a strategy that's been successfully used by artists from marginalized communities — the people who used to be secondary characters in art are now calling into question the very way you look at them. Because how else do you make a viewer pay attention to identities they have misunderstood, misidentified or mistreated? But once this art works, it's not to make the viewer cowed — there's power in understanding our position, thinking differently, making better choices. It's art that offers a little bit of agency to everybody.

See The Indian Truckhouse of High Art at Central Art Garage in Ottawa, March 2-April 30.

Watch CBC Arts: Exhibitionists online or on Friday nights at 11:30pm (12am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT) on CBC Television.

About the Author

Lise Hosein

Lise Hosein produces video content for CBC Arts. Before that, she was an on-air arts reporter at JazzFM91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate in visual culture. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an instructor at OCADU and is quite terrified of bees.