Dana Claxton wants to change the way you think about indigenous women
The Vancouver-based artist explores images of indigenous women in new exhibition
"When people think of indigenous women, what do they see? What's the stereotype?" It's a question Dana Claxton often asks her students at the University of British Columbia, where the multi-disciplinary visual artist is an associate professor in the department of art history, visual art and theory.
"I'll tell them I don't want to know the answer, you just think about what yours is," Claxton tells CBC Arts.
Since the early '90s, Claxton has encouraged people well beyond her classroom to consider these ideas through her practice in film, video, photography and performance art, work that's part of collections including the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada.
Claxton hails from Saskatchewan's Lakota First Nations-Wood Mountain reserve, and is now based in Vancouver. Through her art, she explores themes of beauty and representation, especially as related to indigenous people. Made to Be Ready, her latest exhibition — appearing at Vancouver's Audain Gallery to March 12 — follows the themes of much of her oeuvre, whether that means the playful Indian Candy, which took over billboards in seven Canadian cities as part of the 2014 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, or The Mustang Suite, vibrant portraits that merge western and indigenous aesthetics with a touch of irony.
"Indigenous people have been structurally dehumanized in all facets of life in North America, whether it's through education, through the state, through the church," says Claxton. "In some ways, my work has attempted to show us as human beings."
A Victoria Secret model wears a fringed bikini and feathered headdress. DSquared dubs a new collection "DSquaw." It's 2016, but headlines about cultural appropriation on the catwalk keep coming. A major topic of discussion and controversy, Claxton's Made to Be Ready addresses the issue — in one photo especially, called Headdress.
"You're not going to see any Indian wearing those things, but you see all those faux hippies at Coachella wearing them, right?" says Claxton.
"It's insulting. But I understand why. They're beautiful. They feel amazing on. They're comforting. They have manna. They're gorgeous. They're amazing head gear, but they mean something, especially to Plains Indian people. So coming from a culture that has been oppressed and structurally dehumanized, the things that are ours, we cherish them."
"Personally, I find it to be insensitive, and kind of silly, really. Maybe even stupid, because people don't know the history, still," she says.
In Headdress, Claxton uses her personal collection of jewellery and beads and strings them together to form a rainbow veil that adorns the face of the model. When she wears the same beads in her day-to-day life, albeit styled a little more conventionally, Claxton says she experiences something unusual. "It's interesting. Sometimes when you wear your beadwork, people will reach out and touch you," she says. "I've never reached out to touch someone's pearls or emeralds, but why [do] people think when we're adorned with our stuff they can reach out and touch us? It's an interesting phenomenon."
'What is Indigenous beauty?'
"What do I see when I see Indigenous women? I see profound beauty in all kinds of ways," says Claxton, a vision that's reflected in her work, which mixes Lakota tradition with western influences. "It's a mash-up going on. My work's a mash-up — the ancient with what's going on now," she explains.
Take a look at Buffalo Woman 1 and 2, photographs appearing in Made to Be Ready. The model, who has appeared in several of Claxton's images over the last 25 years, raises a crystalline buffalo skull with her muscular arms, looking to the light, and bowing her head in reverence. She evokes strength, spiritual humility — but she's also all glamour, literally dazzling thanks to the sparkle and flash of her sapphire gown, just dripping with beads.
"I do see the photos as glamorous," says Claxton, "but I think of them more within the realm of gorgeousness. And beauty."
"Beauty's such a loaded word, because it's attached to judgement, and aesthetics and all that kind of stuff. I'm not using beauty in any Western, Greek sense," she laughs. "I'm using it in terms of, 'What is indigenous beauty? What is THE indigenous gorgeous?'
"There's all kinds of beauty that circulates out there, so how do we see it? What's the stereotype?"
The origin of the series
"Beauty" is a loaded word, and so is "art." In English, anyway. As Claxton explains, "in indigenous languages there isn't a word for art. […] I think that's what [Made to Be Ready] is partially about, this idea that there's been this question for so long — there's no word for art in our language."
In 2014, Claxton contributed a short to Rising Voices/ Hótȟaŋiŋpi, an American film project about the Lakota language revitalization movement. "The origins of [Made to Be Ready] were there," she says. "As part of that project I made these new works, thinking about Lakota language retention and also our Lakota cultural belongings. What is a Lakota aesthetic?"
It's an element that embellishes the images in Made to Be Ready, for one. A woman carries a Lakota horse dance stick in the photograph Cultural Belongings. "She is moving forward, going into a light, and she has an enormous history that's with her as she continues to move," says Claxton, noting the subject's other personal effects: shields, drums, parfleche bags.
"These things are adorned, they have aesthetic properties," says Claxton. But they're also made to be used — or 'Made to Be Ready,' as the case may be. The title of the exhibition is, Claxton explains, a bit of a play on words. "I love the readymade," she says, "Duchamp's intervention into the whole idea of what art is was so significant." And similarly, this show seeks to challenge how we think about art, especially as it relates to the rattles or masks or beadwork depicted in Claxton's photographs, works usually labelled craft, not fine art.
"[Made to Be Ready] is really just thinking about those cultural belongings and how they fit within the world."
Dana Claxton. To March 12 at Audain Gallery, Vancouver. www.sfu.ca/galleries