Women, House, and Home in Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art: Hannah Claus, Rebecca Belmore, Rosalie Favell

Article excerpt

While gender and feminism may support different values and find different expression in Aboriginal and settler cultures in Canada, these differences are not immutable, nor are they necessarily defined exclusively by the cultural demarcations that separate Aboriginal and settler people. (1) Like settler women, Aboriginal women ascribe multiple meanings and values to gender, feminism, and female identity; the same applies to the spaces in which these identities are experienced, negotiated, and understood, including the home. Broadly speaking, the home can be understood variously as "a building, a style, a form of representation, an ideology, a material object, a symbolic representation." (2) Feminism and the academic discipline of women's studies have shaped and given nuance to the meaning of the home; given Canada's colonial past, so too has the intercultural history between Aboriginal and settler populations informed the home as site, symbol, and theme in literal and metaphorical ways.

Despite cultural difference, and often because of it, the home remains a dense node of engagement for Aboriginal women artists, especially where it traverses concepts of identity, gender, colonialism, domesticity, family, community, and nation. A selection of works by three contemporary Canadian Aboriginal artists, Hannah Claus (Mohawk and European), Rebecca Belmore (Anishnabe), and Rosalie Favell (Metis), testifies to this range. No single view of the home can be associated with these artists; each considers the space, structure, or idea of home in a manner that invites a discussion of colonialism, nation, family, and identity, themes that intensify when dovetailed with gender and feminism. The various approaches Claus, Belmore, and Favell bring shed new light on seemingly tired discussions of the home, indicating both the need for Aboriginal women's voices in feminist contexts and the dynamic and multifaceted nature of the home as a thematic site.

A seemingly intractable association with separate spheres ideology and its related critiques limits discussion of the home and its creative or discursive potential. This ideology codes interior, private, domestic space as female and exterior, public, political space as male. European feminist scholars like Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray argued that the home conceived by these terms created an environment that restricted and confined women, critiques that powerfully mobilized and coincided with popular Second Wave feminist movements. (3) Subsequently, scholars have shown how separate spheres ideology and the constrictions it presented pertained to a limited community of white, privileged women. This same critique was leveled at other feminist attempts to salvage the home as site of comfort and refuge. (4) Still, within this expression of the home's racial and class politics, scholars articulate a spectrum of meaning. From her standpoint as an African American feminist and relative to her own family history, bell hooks writes about how despite the domestic labor many black women expended in the service of white families, their own homes, "homeplaces" as she calls them, were sites of refuge. These sites "belonged to women, were their special domain, ... places where all that truly mattered in life took place--the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, the integrity of being." (5) Scholars have made use of the model of gendered, bina-rized spaces of public and private to study other antagonistic relationships. Amy Kaplan points to the relationship between domestic and foreign as one that keeps the oppositional values of separate spheres alive through its inclusions and exclusions. (6) Others have usefully considered how separate spheres ideology functions as an arm of imperialism in colonial settings, with regard to the imbrication of race and ethnicity with gender in the pursuit of public (or other high-status) office, and in terms of transnational migrancy and the global workforce. …