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The Anishinaabe artist cast 1,250 replicas of bison skulls for his Luminato Festival monument to the country's violent history
BUILT ON GENOCIDE Ontario Square at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West. To October 24. Free. luminatofestival.com
This Thanksgiving weekend, consider pairing your turkey dinner with a visit to Built On Genocide, a Luminato Festival installation by Anishinaabe artist Jay Soule, aka Chippewar, depicting bison skulls in a heaping mound surrounded by imagery of all the ways Canada continues its violence against Indigenous people.
The mound of skulls standing 14 feet high is meant to reflect traumatic archival photos of Bison remains reaching 10 storeys after settlers slaughtered them to starve Indigenous people off their lands.
And though the installation is on display well beyond Thanksgiving weekend, which celebrates some fabricated story about positive relations between settlers and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Rock, Soule agrees it’s a good time to visit and confront the real and traumatic history of these lands. This is his monument to Canadian history, erected just as all those John A. Macdonald statues upholding a false narrative are being defaced or torn down.
Soule began conceiving the installation a few years ago when there was discussion about Canada’s first prime minister appearing on currency or having buildings, streets and parks named after him. He went down a rabbit hole of research, learning about Macdonald’s role in the clearing of the plains and the decimation of the buffalo.
“Within the Canadian history context, it’s presented in a different way,” Soule tells NOW over Zoom. He explains that textbooks written by colonizers suggest buffalo were slaughtered to clear a path for the railroad, when in reality the violence contracted to men like Mississauga-raised Buffalo Bill was a means to dispossess Indigenous people of their land, resources and livelihood.
“For the peoples of the plains and Indigenous people, the buffalo was a very sacred animal. It fed them. It clothed them. It housed them. On executive order of John A. Macdonald, [settlers] would shoot the buffalo. Skin it. The pelts could be sold. The meat was discarded. The bones were piled into these massive mounds. They say at the time of European contact, there was anywhere from 60 to 100 million bison that roamed North America from Canada all the way down to Mexico. And they were decimated to 400-600 left in the wild, purely as a means of starving Indigenous people off their land.”
Soule adds that the mounds of bison bones and skulls, which his installation depicts in miniature, would be shipped by rail and water to England, where it was crushed and refined into bone china.
“A lot of people don’t understand that the idea of giving bone china as a wedding gift is a by-product of genocide. A lot of people within Canada and the United States have a collection of bone china, not even understanding that true history of it.”
While Soule had conceived the installation years before, the museums, galleries and various funders he initially pitched it at dragged their heels. He finally presented it to Luminato. After some delay securing financing, the multidisciplinary arts festival commissioned the massive undertaking.
After sourcing a real bison skull to create the mould, Soule and three helpful hands worked 26 eight-hour days casting more than 1,250 replica skulls in assembly-line fashion. Soule says he developed carpal tunnel syndrome from that labour before even having to sand, refine and paint the skulls.
“I never realized during that whole process how it’s affecting my mental health,” says Soule. “You’re surrounded by a big pile of death on a daily basis.”
The mound of bison skulls at Harbourfront Centre is surrounded by 20 posters: 19 images and an info sheet reflecting all the different ways Canada has and continues to commit genocide against Indigenous people, as defined by the United Nations. The posters have that bitter and confrontational sense of humour we expect from Chippewar, while grappling with the missing and murdered, Sixties Scoop, residential school, mass incarceration, the lack of clean water and forced sterilization.
“Canada presents itself internationally as this peace-loving nation,” says Soule, adding that he wanted to counter that narrative with posters that mimic Soviet and Nazi propaganda. “Canada presents its relationship with Indigenous people as a harmonious one, when in fact we know it’s not the truth. I thought to do my posters in a propaganda style to flip the narrative. Here’s my true narration of where we are today in Canada.”