Culture  Taking Aboriginal culture to the streets

“Beat Nation” showcases multidisciplinary Aboriginal art

The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, “Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop, and Aboriginal Culture,” delves into the evolving face of Aboriginal culture, using the lens of hip hop street culture. In its introductory blurb, the exhibit claims to “give voice to the struggle” of Aboriginal youth in the modern era via new and intriguing avenues of political expression. Using such things as the beat, the stage, and the street, the collection, which originated at the Vancouver Art Gallery, claims to effectively “reinvent older traditions into new forms of expression,” through diverse media, such as painting, sculpture, and film.

In Nicholas Galanin’s “Tsu Heidi Shugaxtutaan, part 1 & 2,” a short video of the traditional Tlingit raven dance is juxtaposed with a robot dance performed to the same music, highlighting the interaction and the possibility for exchange between street dance and traditional “Tlingit cultural expression.” For the remainder of the artworks, however, a more accurate way to describe the theme is as an exploration of the broader impact of modern urban culture on traditional Aboriginal art. Examples of the hybrid urban-Aboriginal representation include KC Adams’ “Ipad is Cree Floral,” an actual iPad decorated with Aboriginal beadwork. Highlights also included an installation piece featuring low-rider bicycles adorned with Aboriginal motifs and a fashion display including an Aboriginal patterned corset, skirt, and knee-high spiked and heeled boots. Also exemplary of the exhibit’s theme is “Jilaqami’g No’shoe” by Jordan Bennet, a pair of modified skateboards with carved-out patterns representing the artist’s reflection on contemporary Aboriginal youth activities and “question[ing] what it meant to be Indian [sic] in contemporary society.”

However, while the exhibit claims to present an overarching theme of the interaction between hip hop, art, and traditional Aboriginal society, in reality the interactions sometimes lack cohesion, and appear forced, such as in the colossal eagle motif on a back wall of the gallery, by Corey Bulpitt and Aime Milot. While the creation is spray-painted and does boast a minute amount of typical graffiti in the bottom corner, the street quality seems unnaturally imposed upon the eagle and is somewhat strained and out of place in a gallery, as opposed to the typical setting for Bulpitt’s work: gritty urban spaces (for example, under the Granville Street bridge in Vancouver). Taken out of their original context, the works displayed lose their power as a reflection of a broader cultural phenomenon. Within a museum exhibit, the works’ original intent and authenticity is diminished. Roland Souliere’s monolithic caution tape, utilizing Aboriginal colours and patterns, that wraps around the walls of the gallery in an attempt to translate the symbolic meaning of street culture, was also out of context. This feels so obvious that it tarnishes the intended symbolism. Overall, it is challenging to appreciate the meaning of these works in the white-washed museum setting.

The exhibit also features a significant amount of film media, including Kevin Lee Burton’s “Nikamowin (song)” and “Heritage Mythologies” by Jackson 2bears, which drew influence from electro and DJ/VJ sound. Jackson 2bears’ work highlights an emerging trend in Aboriginal mixed-media art – a remix of rap/electronic music combined with a video of flashing images of Aboriginal life, in this instance on the reserve. Unfortunately, the images of the reserves seem disconnected from the music, drawing few emotional parallels with the beat, unlike in other pieces. A more successful example of mixed media is “Dubyadubs” by Madeskimo, an Inuit DJ.  He merges customary Aboriginal throat singing with sounds of nature and dub and electronic beats, set to footage of the Canadian Arctic landscape and wildlife. He also fuses, into the black and white film, a “fantastic filter” of colourful prisms. By distorting this black and white footage with modern sounds and colour, Madeskimo intelligently draws parallels with the morphing nature of Aboriginal identity in contemporary culture.

Parts of the exhibit also explore notions of persisting personal identity within the metamorphosis of cultural identity. The series of acrylic-painted elk-hide drums by Sonny Assu is representative of the artist’s melting pot heritage (the explanatory blurb refers vaguely to Assu’s “diverse background”), with the flat, wall-mounted drums representing vinyl records. The records are purported to be recordings of his grandfather singing traditional Aboriginal songs, an element that adds an additional facet to Assu’s piece. The records also make a political statement, their number corresponding to the number of years for which the famed potlatch ceremony was outlawed in British Columbia. This simple piece, incorporating both personal and community messages, evokes a stronger response from the viewer than other works in the exhibit that did not as effectively communicate the artist’s identity.

The exhibition conveys a symbolic message about cultural hybridization and traditional motifs through a plethora of nontraditional media. Nonetheless, the narrative of the evolving Aboriginal identity upon interaction with mainstream culture cannot be fully appreciated in the confined surroundings of a large museum. The exhibit aims to show how Aboriginal culture is morphing, adopting and adapting street culture. However, this creation of art happens outside museum walls, and this museum exhibit, an overly formal setting, is little more than an acknowledgement that this is indeed happening.


“Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop, and Aboriginal Culture”will run till January 5, 2014 at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (185 Ste. Catherine W.).