March 21, 2023

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Non-Indigenous history is an invention of dominant society, written to exclude Indigenous values and view while claiming to be an objective and accurate portrayal of the chronology of events, when in reality it is a tool of domination.

But what a strange phenomenon that the very strange phenomenon of the decimation and dispossession of indigenous inhabitants of two entire continents is not considered, well, strange. In fact, it is hardly ever considered at all; at the very most, as a great adventure on the part of Europeans.…Jimmie Durham[i]

Indigenous art is not predicated on “colonialism”. What do I mean by this statement? At first glance it would seem counter-intuitive. Colonialism has been the cause of the suffering, oppression, and violence perpetuated against Aboriginal people in this and many other countries for centuries. But attributing the rise of resistance, activism, and the art associated with it to colonialism itself, is disingenuous. Societies, and the people in them, are changed by “events”. It is the interactions of people that manifest the destructive ideologies inherent in colonialism. Or as Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith puts it:

non-Indigenous history is an invention of dominant society, written to exclude Indigenous values and view while claiming to be an objective and accurate portrayal of the chronology of events, when in reality it is a tool of domination.
Slide09_0Which brings us to disturbing images…and disturbing the image.

We must remember the words of Jimmie Durham, who wrote,

all photographs of American Indians are photographs of dead people, in that their use assumes ownership of the subject, which is seen as static, completely ‘understandable’.[ii]

But here I would editorialize a bit and assert that all photographs (by non-Indigenous photographers) of American Indians (and all Indigenous peoples) are photographs of dead people. Further, that the manipulation of the image of Aboriginal people, as academic and theorist Ward Churchill points out, has been to make Aboriginal people

ever more accommodating to the ‘material condition’ of their domination by the colonial master, ever more compliant to the inevitability of material exploitation by the colonizer. For Aboriginal peoples, the imagery of the Aboriginal was not only misrepresentation, it was a calculated tool of colonization, the creating of what Daniel Francis termed, the “Imaginary Indian.[iii]

But what happens when you take back the image, the portrayal, and the perception? What happens when Aboriginal artists turn the gaze to their own communities, their own families, and themselves? The result, as Paul Chaat Smith so elegantly phrases it, is that they become

fearless…they dare to experiment, to theorize, to argue and harangue, to tease and joke. They are not following anyone’s instructions. To use the parlance of the late 19th century, these Indians have ‘strayed off the reservation’.[iv]
Slide23_0They are disrupting the master narrative, the colonial archive. It is an act of decolonization, and an assertion of cultural sovereignty and proprietary self-determination. Dr. Carla Taunton argues that contemporary Aboriginal artists contribute to the decolonization and indigenization of the archive”.[v] And, she goes on, this is occurring “not only through engagement with its settler-colonial based structures, but also through cultural continuities and continuance of Indigenous storytellers and artists”.[vi] The term indigenizing “centres a politics of Indigenous identity and Indigenous cultural action.[vii]

What I want to do is explore the way in which artists have and continue to manifest an “aesthetic of resistance”. For me, Aboriginal art is innately political. It is the culmination of lived experiences, from pre-contact customary societies through the colonial enterprise.  It is tied up in histories that include both pre- and post-contact epistemologies…narratives empowered by continuity, inextricably linked… and it is the assertion of cultural autonomy and sovereignty.

As Paul Chaat-Smith writes:

The camera was more than another tool we could adapt to our own ends. It helped make us what we are today. See, we only became Indians once the armed struggle was over in 1890. Before then we were Shoshone or Mohawk or Crow. For centuries North America was a complicated, dangerous place full of shifting alliances between the United States and Indian nations, among the Indian nations themselves, and between the Indians and Canada, Mexico and half of Europe. This happy and confusing time ended forever that December morning a century ago at Wounded Knee. Once we no longer posed a military threat, we became Indians, all of us more or less identical in practical terms…the truth is that we didn’t know a damn thing about being Indian. This information was missing from our Original Instructions. We had to figure it out as we went along. The new century beckoned. Telegraphs, telephone, movies-the building blocks of mass culture were in place, or being invented. These devices would fundamentally change life on the planet. (Chaat-Smith 4,5)

Photographer and filmmaker Victor Masayesva Jr., writes,

We are indeed in a dangerous time. The camera which is available to us is a weapon that will violate the silences and secrets so essential to our group survival. (aperture 20)

And Theresa Harlan

Creating a visual history – and its representations – from Native memories or from western myths: this is the question before Native image-makers and photographers today. The contest remains over who will image-and own-this history. Before too many assumptions are made, we must define history, define whose history it is, and define its purpose, as well as the tools used for the telling of it. The intent of history is to help us keep our bearings. That is, to know what is significant and, most importantly, to teach us how to recognize the significant. What happens when history is skewed, or when we no longer have the same skills of recognition? We as human beings become disabled by the inability to distinguish what is real from what is not. (aperture 26)

Slide29_0In this series of images, I’ve juxtaposed disturbing images Of Aboriginal people, with works by Aboriginal contemporary artists (although in the case of the work by Adrian Stimson and Jeff Thomas, the artists had already used the historical images as part of his installation). In this way, it is a form of articulate resistance that I define as a process of engaged politico-cultural activism aimed at disrupting ideological narratives, most notably, colonial narratives. And I would characterize the particular concern of Aboriginal artists in recognizing the significant as Rage…Rage in the face of oppression, demonization and racist/genocidal policies and actions.

What is fascinating to me is that this rage has been articulated by Aboriginal artists into nuanced critiques, characterized by humour, strength, and a pervasive sense of agency. It is a reversal of the usual power dynamic, and subverts the usual perpetrated “revenge myth”. So in this sense “rage” becomes the externalized disavowal of the power/authority complex. It is the creation of meaning, and history that is predicated on the particular socio-cultural history of Aboriginal people.

[i] Durham, Jimmie, “A New World” in The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, exhibition catalogue for 17th Biennale of Sydney (Biennale of Sydney, Sydney NSW, Australia, 2010), 100.
[ii] Durham, Jimmie, Partial Recall p. 56
[iii] From the title of Francis’ book.
[iv] Paul Chaat-Smith,
[v] from unpublished thesis dissertation (2011), p. 157
[vi] ibid 161
[vii] Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, p.146


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About The Author

Steve Loft

Steven Loft is a Mohawk of the Six Nations with Jewish heritage. A curator, scholar, writer and media artist, he was named Trudeau National Visiting Fellow at Ryerson University in 2010, where he is continuing his research into Indigenous art and aesthetics. Loft has held positions as Curator-In-Residence, Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada (2008 – 2010); Director/Curator of the Urban Shaman Gallery, Winnipeg(2002 – 2008); Aboriginal Curator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (2000 – 2002); and Producer and Artistic Director of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association (1993 – 1998).

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