#CALLRESPONSE, the current exhibition at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery (and co-presented with Eyelevel Gallery), is both timely and important.

It coincides with the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s International Gathering that will happen in Halifax October 10–13, which is accompanied by numerous exhibitions, events, lectures, and panels. It’s the first time that this national program has been held in Halifax and it should prove to be a dynamic force for artistic dialogue and cross-cultural communication.

Its mission is to bring to focus distinct forms of aboriginal feminism, and to highlight how those feminist approaches can aid in building activist communities.

Originally a series of local art commissions across the country, #CALLRESPONSE now includes a website and other online platforms. It also comprises the touring exhibition now on view in Halifax, and a series of related performances in each community to which the show travels.

With installation, video, sculpture, and text, the exhibition features works presented under the rubrics #call and #response. Many are collaborations, either between the artists in the original project or one of the participants with other guest artists.

Ursula Johnson, for instance, partners with another Mi’kmaq artist, Megan Mousseau, on a performance project where they create songs for and from the land and waters of Mi’kma’ki. Their series of song and drum performances, held across Nova Scotia, are referenced in the gallery by a series of maps tracing the route from Halifax to Johnson’s ancestral home of Eskasoni in Cape Breton.

A large video projection at the back of the gallery features two works, shown in succession. The first work, “Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land, and the ice),” by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory is a performance for video set on the Arctic ice, “on the edge of winter.”

A lone figure is filmed against the ice, with haunting vocals and instrumentals as the soundtrack. Based on a Greenlandic mask dance, this work is powerfully intimate, while still expressing the immensity of the arctic landscape. The sister piece is a video of a performance responding to the first work. In this we see tw figures performing before another projection of Timiga nunalu, sikulu (My body, the land, and the ice). The mesmerising performance features the mask dancer from the original video and noted Inuit singer (and NSCAD graduate) Tanya Tagaq.

All of the works in this exhibition reflect the concern with dialogue alluded to in the exhibitions title. For instance, Tania Willard is showing a small work made by adding text to a found first nations basket. The discourse is built right into the title: “Basket Rescue Operation (talking to Peter Morin and remembering Dana Claxton’s talk for the CAMDO in Whistler).”

The work is simple and complex at once. Simple, in that it is a small birchbark basket with the text “Give it all Away and Start Again” flame cut into one side. Complex in how it refers to the traditions of first nations objects that have been launched into the tourist economy. This basket was purchased by the artist in an antique shop, and she followed what fellow artist Peter Morin calls “rescue operations.”

That is, buying works from thrift and used stores to put them back into a meaningful context vis a vis their history and that of the communities from which they came. The quote is from Lakota artist Dana Claxton’s talk at a conference in Whistler, B.C. to Canadian art museum directors. (Coincidentally, I was also at that conference, and at Claxton’s talk).

She was referencing the historical objects in Canadian museum collections and the ongoing debate about repatriating such collections to their source communities. She challenged the assembled directors, custodians of so much visual culture of First Nations peoples, to “give it all away and start again.”

It’s complicated advice, but it is a position that must be addressed, and around which institutions must have dialogue. How well they, we, succeed, will directly impact how the dialogues around reconciliation and recognition in this country have effect.

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