Challenging the media misrepresentation of Aboriginals, Concordia University student Jobena Petonoquot curated an all Aboriginal art exhibit at the school’s Native Centre for Education.
“Basically they take the stereotypical images of our people using feathers and fluff and we don’t really look like that. Yes, we are traditional but because we were colonized, things have changed a lot and we look different,” said Petonoquot, sitting beside her own installation multimedia piece.
The show, titled “I Am Indian!”, was a one-day exhibit of paintings, printmaking, portraits, sculpture and multimedia installations. The event took place on April 6 and was opened by a ceremonial prayer by NCE Elder Morning Star, which was followed by a traditional dance performance by Marie Celine Charron. In total, 11 different artists displayed their works.
Petonoquot, an Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi, is in her third year of an art history degree so putting on the show was not only part of her program but an opportunity to share her culture and reestablish her presence within the school as an Indian.
Though some Aboriginal issues get discussed within a classroom setting at the university, Petonoquot finds the subject is an uncomfortable one as many of her classmates don’t react well to Canada’s history with First Nations. More often than not, her classmates express feelings of “white guilt,” whenever topics like colonization or the residential school system comes up.
“I find the more Canadians hear about their history, the more they really hate themselves, which is why I told my teacher that I couldn’t do this or talk about this. She said that I should use humour and that lots of contemporary First Nations artists do this,” said Petonoquot.
So she used humour. Playing around with the idea of the “red Indian,” Petonoquot’s installation piece consisted of a set of red-only 3-D type glasses dressed up similarly to a war bonnet. The glasses were to be used while viewing a slide show of photos of urban Aboriginals in downtown Montreal.
“It’s cute and funny and maybe a little cheeky but it also makes a statement. I realized that at first I was just playing on the notion of the ‘red Indian’ but then I thought about how the colour red is really symbolic and it raises an urgency and a need to stop and look at something that you want people to pay attention to,” said Petonoquot.
For Petonoquot, becoming an artist has also been spiritually fulfilling and a tribute to her own people as she is communicating the way her people once did through her work. Since she does not speak Algonquin, this means of communication has allowed her to reconnect with a more traditional means of storytelling and self-expression.
The exhibit went off without a hitch, and Petonoquot feels that she had multiple successes with the vernissage. Not only did the student body gain perspective on modern Aboriginals but also showcased the university’s Native Centre for Education. Though Petonoquot could have booked the show into a gallery, she felt the Centre was an ideal setting for this cultural learning experience.
“I am very impressed by the work of the other artists. They are all really good,” said Trina Slapcoff, a Norway House Cree from Manitoba, who had one of her pieces in the show.
Slapcoff said her painting depicted a traditional longhouse with herself in traditional regalia and three men who she painted from photographs.
“The idea for the piece came from a dream. Traditionally, a dream with three people in it has meaning; it is a very good omen,” said Slapcoff.
In light of the show’s success and the enthusiastic response it received, it is hoped that others will follow in Petonoquot’s footsteps by bringing more of this kind of work to the fore.