The Contemporary Art Gallery presented the first solo exhibition of Canadian artist Krista Belle Stewart, the culmination of fall 2014 residencies at the Nisga’a Museum and Western Front comprising new works developed in Nisga’a and at her ancestral home in Douglas Lake, BC.
Stewart’s practice reclaims personal and cultural narratives from archival material, situating them in dialogue with contemporary Indigenous discourse and engaging the complexities of intention and interpretation. In relation to this reframing of documents, Stewart’s new installation considers First Nations women’s self-representation and sovereignty. Working with her personal stories and those of the women she met in Nisga’a, Stewart investigates how cultural knowledge is created and exchanged, weaving together new lens-based works with archival photographs and objects from Nisga’a.
Central to the exhibition was an ongoing project, a bucket filled with distinctive dried clay from land owned by Stewart on the Douglas Lake reservation, and passed down to her from her mother’s family. Not only is this a physical connection to her heritage but also a response to the continued dispossession of First Nations women’s land rights. The projections in the exhibition depicted two geographically and culturally diverse landscapes, showing personal stories rooted in an understanding of place evoking a diversity of embedded experiences on Indigenous land.
In 1998 the Nisga’a Nation signed a treaty with the BC and Canadian governments that recognized their land sovereignty and right of self-government, the first to be signed in the province since the 1850s. Such recent challenges to government control of Indigenous lands, also including the current fight against Kinder Morgan and the Northern Gateway pipelines and “Idle No More”, highlight a growing urgency in First Nations communities to detach from Canada’s colonial confines. Although delineated by the Canadian government, both reservation and sovereign lands offer potential in developing new and revived connections with pre-colonial First Nations economic and political traditions.
Opened in 2011 in the town of Laxgalts’ap (also known as Greenville), the Nisga’a Museum holds over 300 repatriated cultural objects that have been absent from the community for over a century. It is a multifarious space operating as a potential economic driver in the community as both a monument to and entry point into Nisga’a culture, while also existing as a site seeking to develop intimate dialogues among contemporary Nisga’a and their ancestors. While hosting a permanent installation that utilizes the tropes of colonial histories through the development of a linear and didactic narrative of Nisga’a culture, it is also an institution evolving through engagement with local community. Lacking detailed archival notes on each object, the museum has focused on connecting Nisga’a oral histories with these artefacts through tours and ongoing conversations with community elders. The Nisga’a is made up of four pdeek (tribes): Laxsgiik (Eagle), Gisk’aast (Killer Whale), Ganada (Raven), and Laxgibuu (Wolf). With ceremonies, customs and histories specific to each tribe there are layers of conflicting interpretations and information for many objects in the collection. Through the repatriation of their material cultural history is emerging a contemporary revival of precolonial traditions, asserting the museum as platform for active knowledge exchange across generations and offering opportunities for personal and collective decolonization.
Alongside new works Stewart selected pieces from the Nisga’a Museum including an image showing a Nisga’a woman in a full chief’s regalia surrounded by men dressed in traditional and western clothing. Originally shot by Benjamin Haldane, a Tsimshian photographer from Alaska who travelled throughout the Nass Valley area in the early 1900s actively documenting the people of his community until his death in 1941. Recording a time of great cultural and social upheaval on the northwest coast his images of families, social events and traditional ceremonies such as potlatches (illegal at the time) document a contemporary and evolving culture. Haldane’s photographs offer an example of First Nations self-representation, a counter to the more usual colonial-settler’s gaze.
There is a kinship between Haldane’s and Stewart’s practices through the production of complex and diverse documents of First Nations self-representation. Within this Stewart infiltrates male-centered narratives of colonial culture and reasserts connections to pre-colonial matriarchal traditions while considering the tensions present between the institution as colonial support structure and a living entity shaped by the community it represents.
This project was made possible with the generous support provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, British Columbia Arts Council, the Nisga’a Nation through the Nisga’a Lisims Government. Production was supported through a Media Arts Residency at the Western Front. Additional assistance provided by Budget Car and Truck Rental, Terrace.
Krista Belle Stewart is a member of the Upper Nicola Band of the Okanagan Nation, living and working in Vancouver and Brooklyn. Exhibitions include Fiction/Non-fiction at The Esker Foundation, Calgary and Music from the New Wilderness, Western Front, Vancouver. At Western Front, Stewart produced a collaborative multimedia performance working with, circa 1918, waxcylinder recordings by anthropologist James Alexander Teit of her great-grandmother, Terese Kaimetko. A string quartet responded live to Stewart’s loops of these traditional Okanagan songs presented alongside visual projections. Most recently, Stewart was commissioned by the City of Vancouver as part of the “Year of Reconciliation,” Public Art Project at the entrance to the Canada Line City Centre Station at Granville and Georgia where Stewart’s Her Story, a public photo mural and video installation, utilized footage of a CBC documentary entitled Seraphine: Her Own Story, a scripted interpretation of her mother’s journey from residential school to becoming BC’s first Aboriginal public health nurse. This work was also exhibited in Where Does it Hurt? at Artspeak. Stewart juxtaposes the 1967 film, in which her mother plays herself, alongside a video of her mother’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission interview, generating a conversation between depiction and lived experience.
Gabrielle Moser is a writer, educator and curator based in Toronto. She regularly contributes to artforum.com, and her writing has appeared in Art in America, ARTnews, Fillip, Photography & Culture and the Journal of Visual Culture. She has curated exhibitions for Access Gallery, Gallery TPW, Xpace and Vtape. Moser holds a PhD in art history and visual culture from York University and teaches at OCAD University. She responded to the work of Krista Belle Stewart.
This series invites cultural and critical producers to present thoughts and ideas rooted in their own interests and practices, and invites audiences to join in the conversations that will explore relevant contemporary issues, theories, ideas and culture.MORE
Krista Belle Stewart
Nisga’a Museum New Visions Artist Residency
This Fall, in partnership with the Nisga’a Museum, the CAG launched a collaborative artist in residence project. Vancouver based Okanagan/Upper-Nicola artist Krista Belle Stewart travelled to Nisga’a in late October to mid-November to develop new work that will be exhibited at the Nisga’a Museum. A key component to this residency is community engagement and participation. Stewart’s project is centered on narrative and storytelling. She is curious to explore, learn about and listen to the stories/oral histories of Nisga’a people, their life and connection to the land. While in residence Stewart engaged with youth and elders throughout Nisga’a’s Nass Valley through visits, talks, workshops and the sharing of stories. Investigating how these stories are being preserved in the community; how they are shared and how community members talk about the past are critical components to the residency and future work created by the artist. Out of these community engagements Stewart is developing a video-based work.
Krista Belle Stewart is a member of Okanagan/Upper Nicola Band. She lives and works in Vancouver. Stewart holds a BFA from Emily Carr University and is currently working on a MFA from Bard College in New York. Recent exhibition and performance history includes Music from the New Wilderness at The Western Front, Shelved at the Burnaby Art Gallery (with Rebecca Belmore) and the Fiction/Non-fiction at the Esker Foundation (Calgary). Krista’s work explores First Nations identity, particularly by individuals and groups who have no direct links to North American Native culture, other than through romanticized/ fetishized interest such as health products that tap into the wisdom of the elders to help relieve your carpal tunnel syndrome; sculptures and trinkets that depict proud, ideal figures, and phenomena such as the German Indianer Klub, where members don elaborate buckskin outfits while interpreting Native American song and dance. Stewart’s photographic practice creates a dialogue between past and present, the romantic and the real, creating an awareness of the implications of misrepresentation, stereotypes, and racism. Her work engages the complexities of intention and interpretation made possible by archival material. The work approaches mediation and story-telling to unfold the interplay between personal and institutional history.
Most recently, Stewart was commissioned by the City of Vancouver as part of the Year of Reconciliation. The City’s Public Art Program commissioned 10 new artist projects overall with the first five debuting in March 2014 and new projects being introduced monthly through August 2014. The Granville and Georgia entrance of the Canada Line City Centre Station will host Krista-Belle Stewart’s Her Story, a large photo mural and a video work derived from the 1967 CBC documentary Seraphine: Her Own Story about her mother, the first Aboriginal public health nurse in BC. The images reflect personal and institutional histories and the complexities of residential school history. It touches on the young woman’s journey from residential school to UBC and the city.
This artist residency is supported by and made possible through the generous funding provided by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, British Columbia Arts Council, and the Nisga’a Nation through the Nisga’a Lisims Government.MORE