The McCord Museum, located in downtown Montreal, is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. The museum is taking advantage of the occasion to promote its position as a premier history museum as well as maintain its reputation as a thought-provoking, contemporary and progressive institution. The new signature, “Our People, Our Stories”, is representative of this new mandate, the goal of which is to celebrate lives of the present and the past.

One of the McCord’s current exhibits, The Indian Act Revisited, is a good example of the museum’s new direction. This particular exhibit investigates the social history and consequences of the Indian Act, first introduced in 1876. It initiates discussion while showcasing contemporary art from up-and-coming Native artists.

Why revisit the Indian Act? This is the question from which the exhibit was born. Why? And how? Creators Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui and Teharihulen Michel Savard explain that the answer to this question was almost accidental.

The question was raised during a typical conversation between the two artists about upcoming projects for the Huron-Wendat Museum in Wendake. The subject of the Indian Act came up, in part because there was a copy on the table near them at the time. Perhaps unconsciously, the two were inspired. According to Picard-Sioui, Savard returned a few days after the conversation with the same copy of the Indian Act, only it had been turned into a thought-provoking piece of art.

The changed document was made to appear sprinkled with blood and was then “painted with a 12-gauge shotgun”. Having seen similar work on the West Coast, it was clear to Picard-Sioui that this was a subject worth exploring artistically. He had his answer, why revisit the Indian Act? Why not!

With this in mind, Picard-Sioui set out to find Native artists from various First Nations across Canada to help explore the topic. His goal was to create a conversation about how the Indian Act affects present-day life while at the same time creating a platform for upcoming Native artists to express themselves, and gain exposure.

A total of eight artists were asked to join the project. Each applying their own unique and forms of art to explore a section of the Act that is relevant to them, or has affected them in some way.

As the members of the public enter the exhibit, they are faced with a text printed that states “monolithic and obscure, the Indian Act is a body of law that is over 100 years old and still applies to all its members, governments and territories of First Nations Canada.” Not a very objective statement, clearly, but it is not meant to be. The exhibit is not designed to glorify the Indian Act, instead it is meant to raise questions about how this document has affected the day-to-day lives of Native people. It is asking us to contemplate repercussions, explore hypocrisies and even, at times perhaps, ridicule sections of the Act that are redundant, unnecessary and outdated.

As one might imagine, the nature of the subject matter opens the door for a variety of artistic interpretation. While the majority of works are mixed media, each are approached very differently. There are photo installations, paintings, collage and interactive pieces.

The most provocative may be the piece that started it all, Savard’s piece, Reciprocity. This work, his transformed copy of the Indian Act, painted with a shotgun, represents a “systematic dismissal, a barely veiled disgust, a global refusal incarnated in liberating violence.” It is a visceral reaction to the document and the laws it contains.

While Reciprocity may be commended for not only helping birth the exhibit and find its direction, all the works are equally powerful in making one contemplate the issue. Other pieces that stand out include Scapulomancy by Eruoma Awashish and Reserve Soil by France Gros-Louis Morin.

Awashish’s unique piece, a mixed-media triptych using maps, cartography and bones, explores Section 53 of the Indian Act, which discusses access to territory. Her interpretation explores how bones were once used as maps to help people know how to live on a territory, while in contrast today, ministers, not scapulomancy, decide territory.

Morin’s Reserve Soil also investigates land issues. However, hers explores the hierocracy of Section 93, which is designed to “protect” Native land. Through a series of self-portraits Morin invites the viewer to question what theft of land really is. The photographs allow the public to witness her “crime” that of removing soil from a reserve without permission. The stolen soil is part of this interactive art piece and the public is asked to join her crime by taking some of the soil, should they choose to do so. The self-portraits of the crime are juxtaposed by images of quarries on Native land, where the government is “legally” stripping territories of their resources.

While these and the other works are interesting enough on their own, in order to truly appreciate the exhibit it is recommended to read the booklet, provided in the exhibit, by the museum. Viewing each piece this way allows the public the opportunity to better understand the artist’s point-of-view as explained by the artists themselves.

The exhibit may have come about almost by accident, but it is clear that the results are from hard work, dedication and patience. If Picard-Sioui’s goal is to create a dialogue about the Indian Act, as well as in create an opportunity for emerging artists to gain exposure, it is safe to say that he has succeeded.

What’s more is that both Aboriginals and Non-Aboriginals alike can benefit intellectually from this exhibit. The public will not leave with a lack of thoughts and opinions that they will want to discuss more.

The show runs until August 7 at the McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke West.

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