Native ironies

Tisiga's work is deep and whimsical

JOSEPH TISIGA at Diaz Contemporary (100 Niagara), to November 15. 416-361-2972. Rating: NNNN

A whimsical ironist with a gift for surreal humour, Joseph Tisiga (a member of the Kaska Dene Nation) enjoys building dreamlike genealogies of native American imagery that evoke both the absurdities and troubled complexities of indigenous history.

His watercolors, collage and sculpture are on view in the show A Sacred Game: Escape Is Perpetual at Diaz.

Watercolour was a medium used by early ethnographers, priests and settlers to record their first impressions of natives. Tisiga’s deft figures bring the tone of these historical sketches to life, but set them within the much wider field of his imagination.

In Confirmation Of Final Dust, he paints a thatched hut, a dock with canoes, two priests, a female figure in a top hat and Duchamp’s bottle rack. Art history, cultural history and native history all meld in the dreamscape, creating little jolts of amusement that are all equally unsettling.

Imbued With The Spirit features a melancholy young man flanked by two tiny masked medicine men waving rattles, while a buffalo pierced with arrows stands mounted on a wooden box. The shamans could be children and the buffalo a toy. Tisiga plays with the duality of grand spiritual symbols and traditions that have shifted in meaning or lost their original power.

He best evokes native American symbols as both potent spiritual signifiers and reservation gift shop clichés in his large cigarette sculptures. Tobacco is both a sacred native plant and a symbol of the indigenous contraband economy.

The spirit of a culture, Tisiga seems to be saying, lies in its many contradictions, even in its failures and tragedies. Fittingly, his bleak humour brings Samuel Beckett to mind, an artist from another extraordinarily rich culture with a troubled and exploited past.

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