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Artists Protest Columbus Celebrations


On Thursday, October 12th, Americans celebrated a day that perpetuates a national fraud. Columbus Day is the day Americans engage in a national orgy of chest beating and flag-weaving all because of a 10,000 mile mistake in navigation. Schools, banks and offices were closed. There were parades, speeches and fireworks.

Fortunately, the American mania doesn't affect us here at least not yet. But in another three years we re going to be surrounded by so much Columbus Day hoop-la that it will be impossible to ignore.

That's because Columbus Day 1992 will mark the 500th year anniversary of the day an Italian - financed by Spain - looking for India stumbled ashore in the Caribbean and "discovered" America. Plans are already underway in several countries to celebrate the anniversary. These celebrations, combined with the media's obsession for round numbers, means that there's going to be an international media shitstorm that will make the American festivities seem like Groundhog Day.

Luckily, there's a small group of native people in Canada who have already begun to fight back against the coming flood of misinformation and propaganda.

The Om niiak Native Art Group has organized an exhibit of artworks that are focused on the upcoming "celebrations". The exhibit is underway now at the Saw Galley in Ottawa.

It so happens that I'm in a position to appreciate their work, not just because of my political leanings, but also because in one of my previous lives, I was a student of art history. During the 1960s, I spent several years sitting in darkened rooms, looking at slides of what my professors considered The Great Works of Art. I saw everything from the paintings of animals made by cave men to the paint splashings of modern artists that seemed to be made by monkeys. I saw thousands of slides during that period of my life and out of that mind-numbing succession of dazzling images one slide in particular made a lasting, haunting impression. It was Guernica, a painting by Pablo Picasso.

Guernica is a small town in the Basque region of Spain. It's a historic centre, a regional capital and the "holy city" of the Basques. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica was destroyed in a savage bombing raid by the Nazi forces. More than 1,600 innocent civilians were killed a quarter of the town's population.

Picasso was outraged at the slaughter of his countrymen so he painted an unforgettable message of protest and remembrance. The painting's emotional impact comes partly from its size and its stark colour scheme. The painting is huge - it's 12 feet high and 26 feet wide. There are no colours in the painting - only black, white and shades of grey. The real emotional punch comes from its stunning visual images.

Death and destruction is everywhere. A shrieking woman holds her dead child in her arms. A wounded horse screams in pain. The scene is littered with flaming ruins and parts of human bodies.

Picasso made me see, hear and experience Guernica's pain and horror that day. Guernica was just one of the many small towns that suffered during the war but it wouldn't be remembered today if it had not been for the brilliant Picasso combined his-artistry and his rage.

Which brings us to the Om niiak exhibition. It's organized by Malecite artist Lance Belanger. He has included the works of Shirley Bear, Domingo Cisneros, Peter Clair, and Ron Noganosh. Together, they have aimed their artistry and their rage at the "celebrations" planned for 1992. The "celebrations" will commemorate the 500th anniversary of 'Christopher Columbus' landing on Great Turtle Island.

These five artists are the descendants, in a sense, of the people who welcomed Columbus. Five centuries after his arrival, they are preparing another welcome. What these artists want to do is remind the descendants of Columbus - the immigrants, the newcomers, the celebrants - of a history and a reality that many of them would rather ignore.

How these artists arrived at this point in history should be considered. In 1492, after all,there was no such thing as a full-time Indian artist in what is now Canada - with the possible exception of the people from the West Coast. Most Indian societies were not large enough to support full-time artists. "Art" did exist, though. It adorned items related to the everyday work, play, religion or culture of Indian people. The "artist" in Indian societies, then, was everyone and no one. The artist may have been guided by his or her dreams and intuitions but the work itself had to follow the traditional tribal styles and motifs.

In contrast, the art of Europe 500 years ago was also considerably different from what is now. In 1492, remember, Rembrandt hadn't been born, the Mona Lisa hadn't been painted and the artists of Europe were still struggling with the laws of perspective. European artists, like their counterparts on Great Turtle Island, were still grinding rocks and mixing the powder with animal fat to make paint. The great and the not-so-great artists of Europe were supported by the church and by the state. In return, the artists produced religious works and portraiture that glorified the high and mighty.

Obviously, there have been many stylistic changes in the world of art over the past 500 years, but the greatest has been the evolution of artistic freedom. The artist no longer has to serve the high and mighty, the church or the state. The artist can now freely respond to his or her own artistic impulses.

But not all of the artists on Great Turtle Island have been affected by the changes. Some native artists are still working within the artistic confines of their culture. They are still using their tribal styles and motifs to produce objects that are used in the everyday work, play, religion or culture of the Indian people. Their work is helping to keep the old ways alive.

Many more, however, have become commercial artists to support themselves and their families. They still use the tribal styles and motifs, it's true, but their work now decorates posters, greeting cards, prints, carvings, souvenirs and other forms of "native art".

And then there is the small fragment of the native art world that has struck out on its own. They give life to their own creative impulses. They speak their own artistic language. They don't use their tribal art forms but their native ancestry is often evident in their work. They are "modern" native artists.

Some members of this small group of artists make a point of using their art to make political statements. To understand the work of these native political artists, one only has to understand the history of the past 500 years.

The Europeans have taken over Great Turtle Island. They have prospered by plundering the riches of a continent. They have grown mighty. Their"new world" is soon to be 500 years old and they want to celebrate.

Five hundred years after the invasion, though, we as Indian people have nothing to celebrate. We have lost our stewardship of the land. Whole nations of Indian people have ceased to exist. Many of the old ways have been lost. Many of our languages are no longer spoken. We are staring our own cultural extinction in the face.

Canadians should feel guilty about the way they got this land but they don't. They forget or don't realize the real nature of the history of "Canada". The history of Great Turtle Island for the past 500 years has been one of war - a silent, undeclared war. The war has been fought by "civilized" methods but it has been war nonetheless. Few bullets have been fired in this war but there have been many deaths. Smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, alcohol, anger and depression have done all the killing and our people have done all the dying.

The war isn't over - it's still being fought - and the "celebrations" of 1992 will be just another battle. The "celebrations" will be a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the population of Great Turtle Island - to help disguise the theft of a continent and to help hide the guilt.

A lot of people plan to get into the act in 1992. The Americans are planning many activities to celebrate their beginnings. The Italians, obviously, plan to centre their celebrations on Christopher Columbus. The Spanish, however, plan to make the biggest splash since they started and bankrolled the rush to the "new world". Spain, therefore, is sponsoring the Olympics in Barcelona and Expo '92 but so far their plans make no mention of native people. Incidently, none of the many countries involved in the 1992 celebrations plan to compensate or apologize to the native peoples of Great Turtle Island.

Bear, Belanger Cisneros Clair, and Noganosh don't think much of the "celebrations" are still three years away, the Ottawa exhibition doesn't come a moment too soon.

Other native people who care about their origins and their legacy have an obligation to fight back too. But it won't do any good to shout our protests into the teeth of the international media hurricane because our voices will not be heard. If we are to get some attention in this lop-sided war, we - like Picasso must -combine protest with creativity.

The native people of Great Turtle Island need to be reached need to be touched - with a message that appeals to the heart and to the mind. The message can address "celebrations", but more importantly, the message must address our survival as aboriginal people. We need a rousing message that will pull ourselves back from the edge of the abyss.

Art - political art is one thing that can do that.

I like to think that in another 500 years the human species will still exist. I like to think that live centuries from now young people still be studying art history. I like to think that some future art student sitting in a darkened room will look at a slide of one of the pieces from this exhibition. And I like to think that the student will be moved by the image on that slide.

Because that slide will mean one of two things. Either it will represent the turning point in our history and the beginning of a native renaissance. Or it will be our epitaph - our Guernica.