On Sparks Street there are several souvenir shops. These shops are full of stereotypical Canadian objects: moose, maple syrup and a million combinations of red, white, CANADA, and a maple leaf. As well, these shops sell “icons” of Indigenous people in Canada with totem poles, dreamcatchers and inuksuks.
Does a moose define Canada? No. Being Canadian is more than that. Even if they sold statues of Sidney Crosby holding a poutine in one hand and a document outlining public health care in the other, it would still fail. Similarly, does a dreamcatcher encompass Indigeneity in Canada? Mi’kmaw performance and installation artist Ursula Johnson’s exhibition Indian Truckhouse of High Art responds to this question with an intentionally funny, yet deeply serious, NO.
From March 2 to April 30 at the Central Art Garage, visitors are invited into a typical souvenir shop full of cheap mass produced, supposedly, Indigenous objects. Being both humourous and serious, the exhibition provides a commentary on the commodification and continued tokenism and simplification of Indigenous culture and identity in Canada. The humour emerges out of the presentation and density of objects that represent the lowest and most disingenuous attempt to express Indigenous culture. What becomes more serious is the way she marks each piece, which includes handspun yarn and hand printed tags that include her status number and priced with the different Treaty signing dates between the Mi’kmaq and the Crown.
As both an art framing studio and commercial gallery, Central Art Garage is able to host exhibitions that transcend or rely less on saleable artwork that’s usually required to keep a gallery’s doors open and lights on. The gallery’s owners, Danny Hussey and Bridget Thompson, had reached out to Ursula about an exhibition and she felt the Truckhouse would be a timely fit for the Ottawa gallery. With the growing public awareness and conversation around Indigeneity and Indigenous art in Canada, Danny Hussey sees his role in this context as providing a space for this conversation to take place. Ursula Johnson intends to animate this conversation in Ottawa and hopes it reaches those on Parliament Hill.
Through the Truckhouse, Ursula Johnson argues that first, Indigenous identity is more than just ancestry (blood quantum) but is complex and rooted in language, belief, and ritual. Further, she argues that a desire to connect with Indigenous culture through the consumption of material objects perpetuates the commodifying and simplification of Indigenous identity.
Johnson acknowledges these are difficult conversations that need to be had and the humour of the exhibition is a welcome invitation to enter into this challenging context. Once inside, however, she hopes to create a sense of being uncomfortable and from this, an opportunity to think about the complexity and depth of Indigenous culture and identity. More generally the exhibition provides an opportunity to reflect on consumerism, mass consumption and identity and that we should be cautious about seeking meaning and identity through things.
Indian Truckhouse of High Art runs from March 2 until April 30 at the Central Art Garage (66 B LeBreton St. North). The vernissage will be held Friday, March 2, from 7pm to 10pm.