Indigenous Artists Are Creating Boundary-Pushing Pieces That Inspire Strength and Healing
Meet the artists leading the way.
by : Kelly Boutsalis- May 19th, 2020
Cloud by Chief Lady Bird
While it seems like 100 years have passed since the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released, it has actually only been a year. It was an emotional time for the friends and family of the women whose experiences were integral to the report – including women from my own hometown of Six Nations in Ontario. It was also an overwhelming time to simply be an Indigenous woman in this country. After all, sexual violence against us remains a national crisis: We are assaulted three times more often than non-Indigenous women.
One of the calls to action in the report – which included input from 2,380 family members, survivors of violence, experts and Knowledge Keepers – was a plea to the media to “take proactive steps to break down the stereotypes that hypersexualize and demean Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people and to end practices that perpetuate myths that Indigenous women are more sexually available and less worthy.” In the report, scholar Janice Acoose explains how damaging stereotypes like the Indian princess, the squaw, the helpless victim and the tawny temptress remove the reality of who we are as people: daughters, friends, aunties, mothers and grandmothers as well as teachers, lawyers, nurses, land and water protectors, healers and businesswomen.
While mainstream media has been slow to hear this appeal, a tide of Indigenous female artists are responding by smashing stereotypes and taking ownership of their own sexuality in their work. Crafting provocative pieces – from beaded BDSM masks to burlesque performances centred around residential schools – these creatives are striving to make space for positive representations of our bodies and sensuality by producing art that can help heal both the viewer and the maker.
Indeed, when I came across the work of Toronto-based Anishinaabe visual artist Chief Lady Bird, it felt like a soothing balm. As I scrolled through her Instagram posts, which are a combination of the Woodlands School of Art style of painting (winding branches and florals rooted in the work of the legendary Norval Morrisseau) and digital illustrations of Indigenous women, including the artist herself in sexy black lingerie, it hit me that I was seeing a positive representation of an Indigenous woman being openly sex-positive for the first time.
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“I’ve always been a very sexually open person,” says the artist over the phone from her home reserve of Chippewas of Mnjikaning, near Orillia, Ont. But she didn’t feel empowered to bring that theme into her art until 2017, when she created a portrait of a tattooed woman reclining in a sensual pose. While the piece celebrates sexuality and body sovereignty, it also signals much more. “Through our reconnection with our bodies, we’re addressing the impacts of colonialism on our connection to our language, ceremony, medicines and the land,” says Chief Lady Bird, which is the spiritual name she uses as her artist moniker. “Why don’t I get to be sexual when I’m Indigenous? It’s like sex was only allowed to exist in the imaginations of settlers.”
However, it wasn’t a breezy ascent to where she is today, working full-time as an artist, illustrating children’s books and adult-fiction covers and partnering with vibrator brands. She studied art at Toronto’s OCAD University and says she now “shakes just thinking about those days,” when her non-Indigenous male schoolmates would reproach her for posting sensual selfies to Instagram and lob racist comments at her that she refuses to repeat now.
Montreal-based photographer Dayna Danger is familiar with that brand of pushback. “But I’m not here to convince other people that my work is empowering,” says Danger. In fact, when a white male curator said that he couldn’t relate to Danger’s portraits that feature women and trans and gender-nonconforming people completely nude, covered in baby oil and wearing metaphor-rich pieces like an antler as a strap-on or a fully beaded fetish mask, Danger responded simply, “This work is not for you.” (That statement later became the title of the editor’s letter in the issue of Canadian Art magazine that featured Danger’s work on its cover.) “There’s more complexity for racialized bodies, for bodies that are fetishized and sexualized,” says the Metis-Saulteaux-Polish photographer, who identifies as queer two-spirit. (“Outsiders are definitely welcome to read and see themselves in our work, of course, but they should understand that they’re guests – that this is not for them, and that’s okay,” agrees Saskatoon-based photographer and writer Tenille Campbell.)
The time has come to focus on joy in the hope of releasing past pain, says Adrienne Huard, who is a frequent subject (wearing those antlers) in Danger’s work. An Anishinaabe pole dancer, Winnipeg- based Huard is working remotely on her master’s in arts criticism and curatorial practice at OCAD University. Her focus is on “Indigenous visual culture that celebrates our pleasure and happiness, because there’s so much out there that paints us as broken around love,” she says. While residential schools tore Indigenous people away from family and ancestral territories, creating generations who felt disconnected from their bodies as well as their sexuality, “I feel like we’re coming back to our bodies, celebrating them and the different things that bring us joy and pleasure,” she adds.
Burlesque performer Scarlett Hummingbird has lived that long journey toward reclaiming her body. The Victoria-based queer Latina-Coast Salish dancer says she came to burlesque dancing almost by accident when she casually signed up for a class with British Columbia’s pioneering burlesque performer Rosie Bitts in 2018, hoping it would teach her some much-needed self-love after years of shouldering the pain of a sexual assault. “I’ve struggled with [not] feeling sexy in my body [after] trauma and [because of ] all the realities that come with existing as an Indigenous woman,” says Hummingbird. It turned out that the class wasn’t intended to teach a few flirty moves; it was designed to train the eight students to become onstage burlesque performers. Two years later, Hummingbird has moved beyond traditional burlesque to create deeper performance pieces that speak to painful topics like residential schools and colonization. One starts with Hummingbird dressed in a school uniform and sitting on a chair, centre stage, next to a table covered in cultural items, like a cedar hat. As she gets up, a schoolteacher enters and a tug-of-war ensues before Hummingbird pushes free; as Iskwe’s song “The Unforgotten” cuts in, she begins removing her clothing as a symbolic shedding of colonization. “It focuses largely on breath work, feeling my body and saying ‘This is mine.’”
Though Hummingbird has received criticism for playing into the existing hyper-sexualization of Indigenous female bodies, she’s clear that such a perspective misses the point of her work entirely. “We’re flipping the script and saying that this is what Indigenous sexuality can be,” says Hummingbird. “When I’m up on that stage, nobody gets to touch me. People only get to see what I choose to let them see, and there’s a lot of power in that.”
As these artists revel in seizing control of the narrative, they are rallying Indigenous women to come back into their bodies – to take pleasure in and ownership of what has been theirs all along. “We are allowed to have fantasies and desires; we’re allowed to be human,” says Chief Lady Bird. “It’s unfair that we have had to tiptoe around being sexual – that’s victim shaming. And when we take it into our own hands, we refuse to be victims.”
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