Long (Dragon) House empowers communities and opens imaginations
Collaborative performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario aims to promote unity
The rhythm of a steadily beaten hand gong accompanies multidisciplinary artist Gein Wong's haunting song. She walks slowly toward the entrance of Song Dong's Communal Courtyard where an audience waits expectantly.
It is the opening of Long (Dragon) House, a performance by production company Eventual Ashes and Indigenous hip hop movement Red Slam Collective. Long (Dragon) House is the first of several performances and activations commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) for an artist residency series within the Song Dong exhibit.
Following Wong, the audience steps into an installation comprised of 100 vintage Chinese doors. Winding through a maze-like structure of oval-shaped rooms and narrow corridors, Wong guides them to an opening and asks the audience to make a circle imagining that we are in a Beijing of yesterday, where traditional architecture encouraged communal gatherings and points of meeting.
She repeats the word "hutong" reminding the audience constantly that once you say it, it is kept alive. Hutong is the name for the narrow streets or alleys in traditional Beijing.
"One of the things about this exhibition that really jumped out to me is the fact that Song Dong is taking doors from specific neighbourhoods in Beijing called hutongs," Wong said. I spoke with her and her co-collaborator Mahlikah Awe:ri before their opening night performance on Wednesday.
"I used to perform a lot in Asia and I've done performances in hutongs over there. It's something that I've known through my family growing up, what they are.
"Essentially they are indigenous communities over in Asia. Hutong itself is an indigenous word. There are a lot of parallels with what's happened with these hutongs in Beijing and how they're disappearing and how the indigenous history and presence is disappearing over there and what is [happening] here in Toronto."
Indigenous narrative is centered throughout the performance. Gein introduces the members of the Red Slam Collective. After a short performance together, they split up and venture into different areas of the installation, moving into the small, oval rooms to tell stories through dance, visual art and words.
In the artistic statement written for Long (Dragon) House, the artists highlight the threads of connection between the exhibit and Indigenous culture.
"In Beijing, the communal courtyards and hutong culture harkens to a time and mindset where people shared compact living spaces and were constantly in close physical, social and spiritual contact with each other. The word Long in Chinese means Dragon. In Tkaronto, or Toronto, Indigenous peoples thrived since time immemorial in close knit and spiritual communities, sharing lives and spaces either in longhouses or wigwams depending on the nation and time. The very name of one of the original caretakers of this territory the Haudenosaunee means, 'The People Of The Long House'. In both Beijing and Tkaronto, this communal and interdependent nature of existence contrasts with the individualistic and compartmentalized lives of these modern day cities."
Steadily the performers move from the traditional to the contemporary; storytelling turns to rapping, the crow hop transitions to breakdancing and the canvas is adorned with the graffiti writers' marker.
Reflecting on traditional teaching through hip hop culture has become an indelible component of Aweri's artistic practice. "Hip hop to me is Indigenous futurism. It's really a part of so much of the now and how we're able to address issues like gentrification [and] displacement in a very entertaining but straight up way. That feels very empowering, especially when you come from a community where you've been silenced and marginalized." Wong argues that hip hop culture is not an entirely new phenomenon in Asia and can be traced to existing cultural practices. "You walk down the street in certain parts of Asia, grandfathers like 80 years old are rapping on the street, there are cyphers on the street. They don't call it that, they don't call it rapping but that's also part of the culture of rhyming and poetry; to tell stories."
The artists reconvene in the communal area, standing before a backdrop of 100 doors from Beijing. Aweri has replaced her shawl and headwrap with a backpack, sunglasses and a toque. Classic Roots, still adorned in his traditional regalia, settles behind the turntables and ScratchWon begins beatboxing on the mic. It's a powerful moment of cross-cultural connection grounded in more than the superficial sampling or tourism-inspired voyeurism that often underlies celebrations of multiculturalism in Toronto. The circle made by the audience transforms into a hip hop cipher and after performing several verses and a breakdancing set the performers encourage the audience to join in.
Community is a key theme throughout the performance and the intimacy of the hutong brings the audience in close proximity not only to the artists, but also to each other. That physical closeness is a reminder of the alienating experience that seems inherent to contemporary urban life. "How do we form community now? Especially in a city that is so individual and isolating," says Wong.
As she reminds me, it is the rapidly changing urban landscape in Beijing — one that has resulted in the displacement and gentrification of hutong communities — that has enabled this exhibit to even exist. From Parkdale to Lawrence Heights and Regent Park to Eglinton West, similar stories of urban renewal and rapid change are happening here in Toronto.
During our interview Aweri spoke about the significance of having this performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario, recognizing the work of Indigenous contemporary artist Carl Beam that opened the door for contemporary Indigenous artists within Canadian cultural institutions.
"Up until that point, we were seen as a past people — we weren't existing today. And we weren't creating and commenting on our experiences in a contemporary way. So to me, it's such a huge honour as an Indigenous person to be able to express my art and my commentary in this space where so many artists before me, made that possible.
"I wouldn't be here, [without them]. Especially doing what we're gonna do tonight?" She laughed. "No way. It's a big thing."