These days, discussions of possible cultural appropriation are fitting, especially in the context of the Idle No More Movement and the Federal Court of Canada’s recognition of Métis and 400,000 non-status indians as “Indians” in the Constitution. Idle No More has brought to light the inherently tense connection between Canada’s indigenous people and the colonizers while the Court’s decision reinforces the problematic identity that First Nations have suffered daily for decades and centuries. So how does this new exhibit by Moncton artist Maryse Arsenault fit into this discussion? Why are eight hundred reworked prints of indigenous people arranged on the floor of Gallery Connexion? The Rick Burns Gallery has been converted into a cemetery of sorts, and Arsenault’s art installation reminds us of the obliteration of indigenous people’s identities.
Maryse Arsenault, by all appearances, is not a killer. Her developing artistic vision shines through despite a timid demeanour. She was in Fredericton on Jan. 19, presenting her artist’s talk to a small, if informed, audience at Gallery Connexion. Her art installation has come to Fredericton from the prestigious Festival Interceltique de Lorient, France, and will be on its way to a gallery in Newfoundland in March. Having recently held her first solo show, Maryse Arsenault is an up-and-coming artist to watch; the complexity of her reflection around her pieces and her creative initiative hold a lot of promise for her future creations.
Titled “Sanguine, terre brulée et autres angoisses” (“Blood-red, burnt earth and other anxieties,” incorrectly translated in Gallery Connexion’s materials as “sanguine, burnt umber and other sorrows”), Arsenault’s solo show melds questions of culture, memory and identity. It also speaks of her family’s cultural heritage -Mi’kmaq, Acadian and perhaps British- resolutely Métis in its nature, like Arsenault’s art installation, which layers digital photos, traditional printing and mounting.
Almost one thousand pictures make up Arsenault’s complete installation; she gleaned the ethnological portraits of indigenous peoples from the Web. Unfortunately, she admits that she was unable to find any pictures of Maliseets to include in her collection, but says that, since this project is ongoing, she will surely find more, as the collection circulates and people make resources known to her.
The digital photos were then reworked by Arsenault if they were of bad quality, printed on glossy paper, in 4×6 inch formats. The next part of the project was the most onerous, since Arsenault mobilized her friends for ten days, in three person shifts, to print eight-pointed stars on each of the pictures. They worked with two-dozen star designs, both large and small, using different paint colours, mostly different ochres, dark reds and blacks. In the Gallery, the pictures are laid out in the eight-pointed star pattern on the Gallery Floor, building a geometric pattern through which visitors wander.
Spectators are uncomfortable as they wander through this makeshift cemetery of obliterated and forgotten identities of the people from many different cultures. Yet, through Arsenault’s installation, we are reminded of what has been done in Canada and in the Americas (and beyond!) for more than 500 years.
Though something that started as a personal reflection, Arsenault’s show leads us to question our collective identity and the way our shared memory is and has been constructed. It also reminds us that there are multiple ways to go about this thinking, the same way we circle and come back on our steps through the star formation in her installation.
Throughout the decades, various artists have done projects similar to Arsenault’s. One only has to think of Andy Warhol’s “American Indian Series” where Warhol reworked portraits of indigenous people (especially of actor Russell Means, but also of cultural icons such as Geronimo and Sitting Bull, for example) using his own unique style. However, this is where our discussion of cultural appropriation comes back. Arsenault situates herself knowingly in the continuum of the Native Métis, so her look at identity is rooted in a personal ancestral search that comes to complement her artistic endeavour. The individual subjects in each photo are anonymous, subject to a collective installation, and many are women.
A member of Moncton’s Centre Culturel Aberdeen since 2006, Arsenault holds a BFA from the Université de Moncton and is currently working on a MFA at Concordia University in Montreal. Arsenault grew up in Moncton and has always gravitated around the city’s vibrant cultural community. Her preschool was located in the building that houses the Aberdeen Centre (founded in 1986) and Arsenault is quick to mention that, despite having sublet it, the studio space she rents is still hers. While away in Québec, she has left her mark in New Brunswick and occupied another space, as Gallery Connexion’s Executive Director John Cushnie, confirms: the “exhibit controls the space of the room.”
Maryse Arsenault’s expo can be seen now through to March 8, 2013 at the Gallery Connexion, 440 York St., Fredericton.