Kelly Greene at the Art Lab Gallery
April 21 – May 17, 2022
Visual Arts Building at Western University
For the past year, Kelly Greene has been the Visiting Indigenous Artist in Residence at Western University’s Visual Arts Department. This exhibition of her work is akin to a selected retrospective of her thirty-year artistic career.
Entering the gallery, the very first work is installed on the introductory panel announcing the exhibition title and artist. Allowed to Sprawl (2011) paints a delicate flowering weed appearing to grow from a crack in a sidewalk, flowing across the concrete. I wonder why it is placed here and think about what it might represent: determination in the face of resistance.
Moving into the exhibition, I confront a tall sculpture, Creation Story Tree Tower (2013) that turns out to be an interactive installation. Visitors are invited to sit on the quilt batting arranged underneath the ‘Tree Tower’ in order to peer into the hole at the bottom. I sit and look up into the dark, barely making out the design at the top, a turtle that reminds me of the narrative of Sky Woman who descended from the Sky World to Turtle Island where she began peopling this earth.
Three small sculptures arranged near this Tower build on the theme of interaction with a generous planet earth supporting human procreation. Two are repurposed globes, one covered with the image of a newborn baby whose umbilical cord is linked with the globe/earth itself. The third is a female torso decorated globe-like with seas and continents, and obviously pregnant. This Birth of Vida (2006) is an extended reference to life (vida/vita/life), and to the birth of the artist’s daughter (Vida). The globe-like torso is the mother who is also the earth that nourishes life.
This first group of works emphasizes the significance of our planet as the source and sustenance of human life, demanding our respect and care. On a wall nearby is the painting My Grandma, from Eleanor to Royal (2020), a loving portrait of a woman clearly cherished by the artist. A survivor of the residential school system, she is presented here as a figure of kindness projected by her facial expression. She seems very close to us in this bust portrait, in a landscape with a river and the far shore darkening in the setting sun. On her head, set against the sky, she wears an Indigenous headpiece with the symbolic Turtle and flowers, all linking her to this earth.
Just around the corner from this painting we find an installation documenting the experience of Indigenous children in the now-infamous Residential School system. Titled Deception, Reality and Regeneration (2016), we are confronted with, to right and left, dark pointed panels reminiscent of church windows, with small figures in the centre of each: a crucifix and a Virgin Mary. Between them is a child plaster cast body lying on a table, grasping a cut braid of hair. A drawer in the table is open, revealing a photograph of children at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, the very school the artist’s grandmother attended. The children are shown in a group photo at their Confirmation, all with short hair—their braids were shorn, part of the attempt to destroy Native culture. A quotation inscribed on the ‘flag’ covering the child is from the Haldimand Treaty (October 25, 1784) ceding to the Native peoples of the region, the land along of the length of the Grand River. Greene points to the terrible irony of such agreements that were not respected.
Hanging above this grouping is an altered Canadian flag, a ‘fancy shawl’ with three red feathers replacing the maple leaf, and an inscription written across the flag in Mohawk, that translates: “Our language, culture, and traditions are still alive. We are still alive!”
The painting of the artist’s grandmother takes on even greater resonance for me now. She is so alive in the landscape, caring and determined to persist and flourish on this Turtle Island, despite her difficult experience of the Mohawk Residential School.
Two other works are linked with these ideas. Changing Currency: Prototype Kanata 151 $10 Bill (2018) is a complex representation substituting Indigenous children for the expected historical British or Canadian figure we expect to see on our money. The veritable sea of children pictured seems to extend as far as the eye can see, a duplication of photos of the Indigenous children taken from their families to be ‘saved’. One is larger and in clear focus, singled out in a double image: a before and after, as an Indian and then as a child who was remade to ‘fit in.’ It’s a breathtaking image. We are not likely to see anything like this on actual Canadian bills.
I turn from Currency to find a large wall hanging announcing “White Sale and more”. Strips, Divisions, Yet They Proudly Celebrated (1995 revised 2017) relates the tale of Sir Henry Hudson discovering the huge body of water known as Hudson Bay in 1610, that led to the British founding the Hudson Bay Company and declaring a huge part of what is now Canada to be owned by the group of British nobles who owned the company. At the top of the hanging is a curled wig (the type nobles would wear) and on the floor is a pile of dirt (perhaps suggesting how little respect was shown for this land). Written across a series of strips along the bottom of the hanging is an inscription citing recent company publications that are displayed in a cabinet near the hanging: a handbook for employees ‘explaining’ this history, along with a poster and even a comic book produced by the company. The current Hudson Bay Company continues to commemorate this version of British history. Nothing in the materials suggests that there might be different viewpoints for this past.
Turning to a wall on the other side of the gallery, I see three paintings and a small sculpture placed to one side. The acrylic paintings represent the interactions of bees with flowers, such as Her Reciprocal Love with Coneflower (2022), Greene’s response to our loss of insect life that is significant for our own survival. The small sculpture says it all: The Great Turtle Island Has a Hole (1992 revised 2013).
It is important to note that Kelly Greene is consistent in using recycled materials in constructing her work – for example, paintings are on recycled boards; the Turtle Island is a piece of discarded tree trunk; and so on for every work. Her concern for this earth is a constant in her art.
The other significant constant is her reaction to the history of Indigenous peoples ‘post-discovery.’ In one small area off the main gallery, there are examples of her student work including two videos (1994) that I find especially interesting. One is “Iroquois Solar Longhouse”, 1994 Version. documenting her solo exhibit at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology. This was an installation that projected the longhouse, the traditional house of related Iroquois families, into a future world.
In the video Glamorous Culture Shots, Greene herself is the actor performing for the photographer who directs her in alluring poses, with jokes and wild exaggerations (and an accompanying crazy-laugh sound track). The outfit she wears in the video is displayed near the video monitor: a Frederick’s of Hollywood faux suede “Native” dress ensemble. Here she not only mocks the outfit, but also comments on the dehumanizing of Indigenous women.
With these two videos from Greene’s student work I think of how her focus has remained constant: the situation of Indigenous peoples today; the appropriations and misuse of Native histories and teachings; and the recognition of the dire condition of planet earth, that relates to how the First Nations have always taken care of this earth, as the rest of us have not. These ideas are clear in the works I’ve focused on here, along with the others in this expansive exhibition. Kelly Greene’s approach is always fresh and enlightening, inviting us to think through the issues that are so important to us all in these challenging times.
Greene is herself of Mohawk-Oneida-Sicilian origins, and a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. The works included in “Continuing Accountability” reflect not only the wide range of materials and approaches in her production, but also her ability to at times find humour in some of the most dire situations.
Madeline Lennon has been writing art reviews and artists’ profiles for Centred for the past three years. She is a Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University.
Centred wishes to thank Dickson Bou, for his assistance with images.