Aboriginal Art in Crossroads

Aboriginal Art in Crossroads (Social Studies 9)

Although I feel Crossroads did a fair job incorporating art history into the textbook to provide a visual for reader understanding, which could be bolstered with teacher influence, the chapter devoted to “The Native Peoples of Canada” and their culture was a little disappointing.

First of all, the majority of art and other pictures used in this chapter seem to come from a European lens. Many of the pictures are the artist’s renditions of Aboriginal life, with scattered artifacts of actual aboriginal artworks that have little context other than the mention of their beauty.

Crossroads, pg 193. There are many examples like this in the textbook.

While the text does a good job explaining the daily life and culture of different Aboriginal nations, I have a bit of a problem with the decorated paddles on the left of this page (206). There is no information about them except that they are beautifully decorated and from Bella Coola. I find myself asking which nation do these come from? What do the symbols mean? What was the importance of these decorative paddles?

My other problem with parts of the text are that some of Aboriginal culture is explained in terms of the past while these cultural elements continue to exist today. For example, on page 206, “Totem poles were used by each clan to tell the story of its origins and deeds, each clan reckoned descent from a mythical common ancestor…and each clan had the right to use specific images on their totem poles”. I wonder why the text used the past tense here for facts that remain relevant to this day. Of course, this can be made into a very “teachable moment” for the class. While not trying to discredit the textbook, students may be asked how something so simple as a tense change affects the way we learn about history and culture.

Another thing I see lacking here, which I understand for the text trying to come from a historical viewpoint, are contemporary art pieces from Aboriginal artists. If a teacher would introduce a few traditional and contemporary aboriginal artists to the curriculum, students would understand that Aboriginal cultures are still being lived, practiced, and transformed despite European influence and assimilation tactics.

Canada Council for the Arts Research and Evaluation Section prepared a knowledge and literature review for Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. It is a very insightful document that I accessed it here http://www.canadacouncil.ca/publications_e. It mentions that “for most Aboriginal people, ʻartʼ does not stand alone without a cultural context. The distinctions among cultural practice, art and craft as separate categories are not articulated in the same way as mainstream arts.” This, to me, makes the case that the arts are so tied to Aboriginal culture it is hard to explain one without the other. The document also warns that “Western art history both glorifies European artists and their art forms and, at the same time, denigrates or ignores those art practices from other peoples in the world. For example, “Edward Curtis imagined [Aboriginal peoples] as a “vanishing race” that needed to be documented before they and their ʻprimitiveʼ artistic objects were extinct.” (pg. 47).

Students also need to understand that there are many practicing artists incorporating modern techniques, materials, and imagery into their work that may have just as much cultural relevance as something more traditional.

Perhaps the most disturbing, yet challenging, barrier facing Indian artists today is posed by the western art terms ʻprimitiveʼ and ʻethnicʼ. Ironically, these terms have been used historically by the dominant western cultures to distinguish ʻhighʼ art from the art it has often appropriated from other cultures…These terms have conveniently situated Indian artists into a stereotype that treats their art as something static and/or peripheral, or even worse, dismisses their art as ʻunauthenticʼ for any noticeable signs of modernity.

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Scorched Earth, Clear-cut Logging on Native Sovereign Land. Shaman Coming to Fix, 1991

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun
Canadian, 1957, acrylic on canvas

In James Duthie’s A Handbook for History Teachers (2012) , he mentions a wonderful idea for a lesson for Renaissance art that could easily be applied to a unit on Aboriginal art (pg. 100).

have students act as a curator on an exhibition of paintings on a particular subject or period. They have to choose a specific number of paintings typical of the subject or period and write the catalogue of the exhibition, explaining reasons for their choices and the significance of the chosen works

To adapt this assignment, students could choose a different Aboriginal nation and write about the cultural influences on the art styles and symbols.

 

Here is a Non-Exhaustive List of Contemporary Aboriginal Artists Worth Checking Out:

Bill Reid

Roy Henry Vickers (Visit his beautiful Aerie Eagle Gallery in downtown Tofino!)

Yuxweluptun

George Littlechild (Also see his book “This Land is My Land” in the Curriculum Library)

This Website is also a handy tool for finding local artists

I also encourage anyone to check out the Urban Thunderbirds exhibit at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria while it’s still going on for a limited time.

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