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From activism to art

An image from the new exhibition at the RIC that examines indigenous activism through the works of aboriginal artists. Michael L. Abramson, Untitled (American Indian Movement: Lakota Indians), Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA, gelatin silver print, 1973. Reproduction from the Black Star Collection at Ryerson University. Courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre. BS.2005.285357 / 187-546

An image from the new exhibition at the RIC that examines indigenous activism through the works of aboriginal artists. Michael L. Abramson, Untitled (American Indian Movement: Lakota Indians), Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA, gelatin silver print, 1973. Reproduction from the Black Star Collection at Ryerson University. Courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre. BS.2005.285357 / 187-546

The Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) exhibition Ghost Dance: Activism. Resistance. Art., opening on Wednesday, Sept. 18, combines existing and commissioned works with photographs from the Black Star Collection to examine the role of the artist as activist, chronicler and provocateur in the ongoing struggle for indigenous rights, self-determination and sovereignty. The public opening reception takes place Wednesday, Sept. 18 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Curated by media artist Steven Loft, scholar-in-residence at the RIC and the National Visiting Trudeau Fellow at Ryerson University, the exhibition features artists Sonny Assu, Vernon Ah Kee, Scott Benesiinaabandan, Dana Claxton, Cheryl L'Hirondelle, Alan Michelson, Theo Sims, Skawennati, and Jackson 2bears.

“Indigenous art is not predicated on colonialism, but on the events caused by it,” says Loft. “At first glance it would seem counter-intuitive. Colonialism has been the cause of the suffering, oppression and violence perpetuated against aboriginal people in this and many other countries, for centuries. But attributing the rise of resistance, activism and the art associated with it to colonialism itself, is disingenuous. Societies, and the people in them, are changed by events. It is the interactions of people which manifest the destructive ideologies inherent in colonialism. By concentrating on events, we humanize the process, allowing a more nuanced and human response. We can see it was people who committed atrocities against others, not the ideology behind it. And we can see the presence of real people that stand up and resist it.”

Three key events are used as conceptual starting points to examine indigenous activism through the works of aboriginal artists:

“Jack Wilson (or Wovoka), a young Paiute man, had a vision during an eclipse of the sun in 1889, of a place where his ancestors were once again engaged in their favourite pastimes, where wild game and abundant food were restored to the lands,” Candice Hopkins wrote in “Can Beauty Be A Call to Action,” in Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, edited by Sherry Farrell Racette. “He interpreted the vision as the coming of a new age, one where native and non-native people would finally live in peace. This was the birth of the Ghost Dance — quite possibly the first pan-Indian movement in the United States.

• In the autumn of 1969, thousands of American Indians occupied the abandoned remains of Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary that housed America's most notorious criminals until closing in 1963. The occupiers held the island for nearly 18 months, from November 1969 until June 1971, reclaiming it as Indian land and demanding fairness and respect for Indian peoples. U.S. policy toward Indians had worsened, despite repeated pleas from American Indian leaders to honor treaties and tribal sovereignty. The occupation of Alcatraz was about human rights, the occupiers said.

• A peaceful vigil by the Mohawk citizens of Kanesatake who were protesting against a plan by the municipality of Oka to enlarge a golf course on their ancestral territory took a drastic turn on July 11, 1990, when the Quebec provincial police attacked the protesters, leading to a 78-day standoff between Mohawks, the Quebec police, and ultimately, the Canadian military.

The exhibition will be open until Dec. 15, 2013 in the RIC’s Main Gallery, University Gallery and on the Salah J. Bachir New Media Wall.

Also opening on Sept.18, Moving Frames, Shifting Boundaries: Artistic Experiments and Innovation in Film and Video, presents a selection of experimental film and video works produced by image arts students, under the mentorship of professors and co-curators Gerda Cammaer and Pierre Tremblay. Showcasing a new series of innovative and imaginative single-channel works produced over the past two years, this exhibition presents the talent of future media artists, functioning as a “salon des promesses.” Moving Frames, Shifting Boundaries will be on view in the student gallery until Oct. 27, 2013.

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