The pitfalls of Aboriginal identity in art

Recently a woman at my school was writing a paper on my work and phoned me up to ask some questions. It was a saturday night and I was thinking about other things, like this dream I had about being in a German mansion during the war, and the papers I am writing on trans photography, butch representations, and Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s “Two Undiscovered Amerindians in Spain.” Anyway, I should note that the presentation-paper this woman is writing is for an Aboriginal contemporary art class. She was asking if she could find any other work I had done (I had previously told her to go to Video Out because they had more videos than the ECIAD library). I told her I was very sorry but I didn’t have any other tapes with me beyond “Anhedonia.” I’ve moved around a lot over the past few years and my stuff’s not with me right now.

“It’s just that all your videos are about being gay! They aren’t native!” she said.

What?

I suppose I could have explained two spirited identity to her, but I was tired.

I suppose I could have said “Well I’m native, therefore so is the work.”

I suppose I could have said “Why does being gay preclude being native?”

Or I could have said “Ugh, I’m not gay, I’m a homo, a queer, a pervert, a genderqueer, a transgendered butch, a two spirited person.”

There are assumptions made within contemporary Aboriginal art practices that to be an “authentic” Aboriginal artist, you have to talk about specific things in your work. Your work should utilize specific Aboriginal modes of production. And particularily for white looking Aboriginals such as myself, you must continuously “out” yourself as an Aboriginal. You can’t rely on a name like Cuthand to do it for you. (In the prairies you only need to say the name Cuthand and you’re immediately identified as Cree.) I’ve even been criticized for NOT talking about my family in my work (a dubious statement at best, considering my second video was about my sister, although that was about being related to someone severely mentally handicapped, not someone native).

The question is, to what extent are we imposing constraints on the expressions of Aboriginal artists? If I make a video about sex, let’s say, lesbian sex at that, will I be accused of being assimilated and colonized? Will my artistic treaty card be revoked? It’s a fine line my friends, a damn fine line.

There is also a split, a sad ripping apart that has happened within me, where being queer meets being native and people just don’t want to see both going on at once. It’s a lonely feeling, that one part of one’s identity gets jettisoned in favour of another. I don’t do it. Other people do. When I wake up in the morning I’m a halfbreed body dreaming of women, when I go to sleep at night it is the same thing. I find my gender, sexuality, and mixed race identity to be linked, for better or for worse. How else could I live on the borderlands of gender without a lifetime of navigating the borderlands of race? One has prepared me for the other. Even coming out as a lesbian was easy because growing up I had to come out as Aboriginal over and over, often to individuals who had just made a racist statement. I understood the political implications of being open about identity.

So what is my work about? All kinds of things. Whatever is bothering me usually, something gets under my skin and I just have to talk about it. I think that’s a good enough motive for art. Being a person who deals with a full deck of oppressions, I have a lot of material to draw from. And while tensions exist between the Aboriginal and the Queer community (racist queers, homophobic Aboriginals), they are both places from which I derive a lot of strength and support. I started making work for the Queer film festival circut, but surprisingly I was welcomed into Aboriginal film festivals as well, even with work that spoke mainly about being a homo. Now I just make work that needs to be made, without concerning myself too much about what communities the content speaks to. I figure it’s not worth my time to worry about being Aboriginal enough or queer enough. I am beyond that. And I think a lot of emerging Aboriginal artists want to get beyond it as well. We want to be artists, first and foremost, and if our work takes people places they weren’t expecting (whether that be a purely formalist approach to art, politically charged personal narratives, or simply a story about a girl in a dungeon dumping her Evil Queen girlfriend) then so be it.

It’s 2004 as I write this, and a lot has already changed since the turn of the millenium. With the horrifying visions of eroding civil rights in the United States and it’s continual march towards global imperialism, Queers and Aboriginals have more in common than ever. It’s time for us to eradicate racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and all the other isms in order to band together. Any form of oppression hurts us all, including the oppressions we impose on ourselves in looking for “appropriate” subject matter. Aboriginal identity is far more complicated than the current dominant paradigm allows.

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