Adrian Stimson taps a comic vein as Buffalo Boy, part of the group show Sovereign Acts.
SOVEREIGN ACTS at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (7 Hart House), to May 27. 416-978-8398. See listing. Rating: NNNN
In this season of graduating students' exhibits, U of T curatorial studies master's candidate Wanda Nanibush goes to the head of the class. Exploring the many dimensions of aboriginal performance, Sovereign Acts showcases work by some of Canada's major artists.
From the beginning of colonization, when Europeans exhibited them as curiosities, through the Wild West shows and cowboy films of the reservation era, North America's indigenous people have had a fraught relationship to the "command performances" they gave for their conquerors, who viewed them with both fear and fascination.
Rebecca Belmore's three-channel video In A Wilderness Garden plays with images of land and captivity. Belmore, her hands tied behind her, runs through the woods and frantically tries to dig with her feet in the earth under dead leaves; on another screen a motionless blanket-wrapped person looks away from the camera at an alien manicured garden hedge "wall."
Adrian Stimson brings deadpan comedy to his character Buffalo Boy, occasionally donning a shamanic horned buffalo robe but more often sporting androgynous regalia of cowboy boots and hat, fishnet pantyhose and fur mini-dress. In a series of tiny peephole videos he attracts attention wandering around Venice or riding a rocking horse.
He teams up with Lori Blondeau, as alter ego gay Wild West show performer Belle Sauvage, for a series of old-timey souvenir-type photos in which the pair engage in assorted hanky-panky behind solemn white people dressed as soldiers, priests or chiefs.
Robert Houle's paintings of historical performers, Terrance Houle's video of the burning of a toy covered wagon, Shelley Niro's impersonation of Marilyn Monroe, and Jeff Thomas's photos documenting the powwow circuit round out the show.
But perhaps its most shocking element is a 24-second clip made at Edison Studios in 1894 of a Wild West show troupe performing the Ghost Dance, a forbidden ritual shrouded in tragedy. It's easy to see why contemporary aboriginal artists, using humour and anger, are still mining this complex history.