Culture  Everyday Memory

Through photography and film, Greg Staats explores the loss of Mohawk culture

One’s first impression upon viewing Greg Staats’s exhibition of photography and video at Articule is that of acrid nostalgia mingled with cleanliness and order. The Ohsweken-born artist, now living in Toronto, displays a range of works that reflect on the situation of First Nations peoples in Canada.

Evenly laid out on white walls, black and white photographs feature old vans parked in driveways, what’s left of two cut-down trees in a backyard dominated by bricks and dust, a wooden chair against a wall, the Château Laurier, a bare tree captured from two different angles with branches stretching toward – all the directions of the earth, all portraying a stark encounter between nature and the modern urban landscape.

Artist Julie Tremble talked about the motives of Staats’ work. The chair in one of the photographs, for example, was “one of a set of eight of his grandmother’s chairs, which symbolizes the welcoming of guests to celebrate the native ceremonies.” Other photographs of seemingly useless objects  within a natural background “show the importance placed by Natives in reserves on objects – old mattresses, for example – that would have been abandoned by the Occidental world,” explained Tremble.

On the west corner of the wall, a video of black and white images plays on a small black television. These images – sometimes static, sometimes flashing – jitter to the background of the many sounds of nature. A clear loss for the Mohawk language and culture is expressed in these intricate and contradictory works, all the while establishing a connection with natural sounds and images.

This Sunday afternoon, the gallery was empty except for Skye, a current member of  Articule. Although she was not willing to share her opinion on Staats’s work, Skye gave her personal insight regarding the standing of First Nations artists in the art world.

“It’s definitely difficult for Native American artists to make a name for themselves,” she said. “First of all, you can’t just become an artist, as a Native American. You come with the title; you can’t be an artist like a white artist is. Just like a black artist or a South Asian artist, you come with the name and you’re expected to produce a certain type of art.”

Yet, the situation of Native artists remains hopeful. Tremble explained, “Native art is definitely a growing field. Up to the eighties, the practice of any cultural action on the part of the Natives had been forbidden. Now there are numerous collections of Native art, and official grants dedicated solely to First Nations artists. The art world remains dominated by the Occidental but there is great improvement in the development of the standing of Native artists.”

Staats proves to be an example of this: his Native heritage is featured strongly in his work, intertwined with his religious background and the loss of his culture. “He focuses on joining together urban spaces and the Native culture in search of his identity,” said Tremble. “Coming from a Christian Mohawk family, he struggled with identifying himself as a Native American due primarily to his family’s loss of the Mohawk culture and language with the introduction of the Indian Act, and to being viewed as an ‘inauthentic Indian’ by the non-Christian native families.”

Native artists have surely made a name for themselves among the many current Canadian artists of varying styles and backgrounds. However, their art remains simultaneously strengthened and confined by their roots. Staats’s struggle in finding his identity among the many layers of ancestral practices and cultural history and his present situation as a Christian Mohawk, is transformed into art that can be appreciated by the broader art world. His exhibition expresses the struggle between the past, the present, and the loss of Mohawk culture somewhere along the way.

In an earlier version of this article, Julie Tremble’s name was misspelled as Julie Tremblay.  The Daily regrets the error.