Krista Belle Stewart
Motion and Moment Always
January 23 – February 15, 2015
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.