Transforming Indigenous Cultural Politics through Art and Dialogue in Rural and Remote Manitoba

By Nagam, Julie | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Transforming Indigenous Cultural Politics through Art and Dialogue in Rural and Remote Manitoba


Nagam, Julie, Women & Environments International Magazine


In localized areas of Manitoba, there are Indigenous women artists that are moving beyond a counter-discourse, or resistance. They are in the state of "untested feasibility,"1 since they are working towards a dream, or a vision of socially-engaged art. This article concentrates on my research (including personal testimonies) on Indigenous women acting as activists or social change agents2, their work socially engaged in current political performance and dialogical discourse. The focus of this article will be on the artwork, observations, and conversations with three rural and remote Indigenous women artists, Margaret Dumas, Cathy Mattes, and Colleen Cutschall.

Dialogical aesthetics3 is a method to interpret and understand artwork through conversations and dialogue-based aspects, instead of focusing solely on an object created by the artist. In order to set the framework for dialogical aesthetics, the reader must envision an artform locked into a collaborative process that is socially engaged and applies "a performative, process-based approach"(Kester 1), and can challenge aesthetic concepts of the avant-garde object-based art4. In order to comprehend dialogical aesthetics, one has to have a comparative aspect, so avant-garde art is the contrast nevertheless. I am not stating that either type of aesthetic is superior. However, the works I will be discussing still have elements of avant-garde object-based aesthetics; it is the analysis of these artworks that will differ. In order to begin comprehending the framework of dialogical aesthetics, it is important to note the following:

In dialogical practice, the artist, whose perceptions are informed by his or her own training, past projects, and lived experience, comes into a given site or community characterized by its own unique constellation of social and economic forces, personalities, and traditions...What emerges is a new set of insights, generated at the intersection of both perspectives, and catalyzed through the collaborative production of a given project (Kester 95).

This type of art practice shifts the primary focus of an individual artist or object, image, or system that is challenging the viewer's expectations into a collective or dialogue based upon disruption of perceived social norms. In avant-garde aesthetics, the social norms are transformed into social practices, which include the notion that the artist is the sole creator, the main concept is created by the artist and is considered to be a new idea, and that artwork is an object to be viewed. A dialogical aesthetic rejects these norms and practices thorough the artists' ability to become part of a process where they listen to people, and participate in the overall collaboration of creating a body of work. The final work becomes a "collective interaction" (Kocur & Leung 81) rather then a final shocking project, and the whole process ultimately transforms the role of the artist and artwork.

The first example of "collective interaction" is in the creation of the first Cree immersion school in Thompson, Manitoba. The artist, elder, and educator, Margaret Dumas, who is a resident in the area, envisioned a need for a community-concept Cree immersion school. In this northern community, where the majority of the population is Cree, there was no educational institute that taught Cree as an immersion language. The dream was to stop watching people in Dumas's community lose their language and cultural ties to their Indigenous roots. Therefore, the goal was to create a space where key individuals could speak openly about issues surrounding the complexity of loss of culture and language that was simultaneously contributing to high suicide rates, crime, substance abuse, family breakdown, and domestic abuse for Indigenous people.

Dumas and others transformed a small group into multiple discussions resulting in the Wapanohk Cree Immersion Community School. They brought elders, principals, school board members, parents, and government officials to a table to discuss these issues and advocate for the creation of this school. …

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