Beyond apologies: two artists set a table for reconciliation

September 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

After learning their ancestors were adversaries, AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson explore what it means to personally reconcile Canada’s colonial legacy

BY SEPTEMBER 25, 2019

A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO SIKSIKA NATION by AA Bronson and IINI SOOKUMAPII: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? by Adrian Stimson as part of TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART Photo: Samuel Engelking

The paths of history can make for improbable crossroads in the present.

Take the case of AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson. The artists have a lot in common – both are queer and use performative personas in their practices. But the two discovered they had a deeper connection: the historical antagonism of their ancestors.

Bronson’s great-grandfather, the Reverend John William Tims, was an Anglican missionary from England who worked to colonize Siksika Nation, the territorial home where Stimson lives in Alberta. Bronson felt he could acknowledge this past with an apology. Seeking a connection with the Siksika people led him to Stimson, a meeting that proved serendipitous. In 1886, Tims founded the Old Sun Boarding School for Boys. The residential school was named after Stimson’s great-grandfather, a chief of the Siksika Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Western Canada.

In a phone interview from his home, not far from the grounds of the now-shuttered school, Stimson agrees the coincidence is uncanny. “The Blackfoot believe in a higher power. It does give you the feeling that larger forces are at work.”

This encounter led to three years of meetings and discussion that is now coming to a head in Toronto. In response to their shared history, the artists have made dual works that debuted at the Toronto Biennial of Art. As part of their work, Bronson also apologized to Stimson in two performances on the exhibition’s opening days (September 20 & 21).

Addressing Stimson, the Siksika Elders and biennial visitors, Bronson gave a relaxed, measured and sometimes emotional performance of his text. Wearing ceremonial dress, Stimson noted in his introductory remarks that all members of the Siksika delegation present were residential school survivors. After thanking Bronson, saying, “We accept your apology,” Stimson went on to personally shake hands with and thank all members of the audience. This open-hearted gesture powerfully underlined the emotional gravity of the moment.

It’s one of the more high-profile projects happening as part of the mega-art event, which organizers hope will eventually develop a larger international pull, similar to the Toronto International Film Festival. There’s a special focus on venues located close to the waterfront, giving substance to the theme “What does it mean to be in relation?,” which encompasses how the city relates to the body of water at its doorstep.

Biennial senior curator Candice Hopkins, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, originally introduced the men in 2016. “AA is moving into difficult territory in a way I haven’t quite seen before,” she says. “[The project] is not about the past, but setting a relationship for the future.”

By working together, she adds, the artists “bring a personal dimension to ideas of reconciliation.”

Adrian Stimson’s installation Iini Sookumpaii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Photo: Samuel Engelking

To date, conversations around reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have primarily focused on government and institutional culpability. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 and this year’s final report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls make clear the devastating and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous people.

During a trip to Winnipeg in 2010, Hopkins had the opportunity to attend the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I was struck at the time by how much emotional labour was put onto the backs of those who testified,” she recalls.

With A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, Bronson and Stimson are creating the conditions for a cultural reckoning: reconciliation in Canada is a shared responsibility.

Stimson expresses a similar idea about what the possible outcome of his work with Bronson could be. “To make change is to recognize that history. It’s a first step,” he says.

The two men first met in person under the glare of TV cameras while filming the CBC Arts documentary show In The Making. In an episode profiling Stimson’s work, the artists had dinner at his home with friends and elders from the Siksika reserve, some of whom are residential school survivors. Despite the initial awkwardness, Stimson describes the meeting as a “seamless first step in what would become three years of constant discussion.

“It was a generative process,” he adds. “Artists have their way of doing things.”

In the CBC show, he talks about their working relationship as part of a wider process of “rebuilding our histories together.” It’s not that Indigenous people just want settler Canadians to apologize, Stimson emphasizes. Rather, the simple request is being made that this historical legacy is acknowledged, so that the country as a whole can move forward together. These are the next steps that lie beyond artistic and ceremonial gestures.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a public dimension for the residential schools,” says Hopkins. “The land acknowledgments [that now precede most cultural events] came out of the TRC. But I want to see how this becomes actionable.”

A Governor General’s Award recipient in 2018, Stimson regularly exhibits in Toronto and has often performed as Buffalo Boy, a drag alter ego that takes a camp approach to macho stereotypes. The performance subverts the more threatening parts of masculinity to explore painful aspects of the past, for himself and his people.

Bronson, born in Vancouver and now based in Berlin, is a legendary artist whose career cuts a wide swath through the international art world. Starting out as a founding member of the renowned Toronto artist group General Idea in the 70s and 80s, the 73-year-old is a self-styled art shaman and healer. He founded the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, and was executive director of NYC art bookstore Printed Matter, a counterpart to Toronto’s Art Metropole, which General Idea founded in 1974.

General Idea had a kind of camp composite identity, a three-person art group (Bronson is the sole surviving member) known for arch commentary on the workings of their own aspirations for glamour and success.

Neither man’s artistic persona played a role in the apology at the Biennial. For this performance, Bronson knew he had “to strip down to his naked self.

“Making myself exposed for the sake of the apology was much harder to do than it would be if I was simply working in character,” he says. “The General Idea persona was embedded in a narrative.”

Self-mythologizing their lives as artists was a major early focus for General Idea. To make the apology, Bronson opted for what he calls a “declamatory approach.” It’s a different artistic tradition, one reserved for expressions of sincerity, as opposed to the ironic commentary that infused his earliest work.

Bronson’s work on this apology began when he was a child. “I have been hurtling towards this project for the last seven decades,” he writes in the opening sentence of A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, 14,000 copies of which are available as a free booklet at the main Biennial site on Lake Shore East.

In many ways, family legacy has shaped his existence. “I always planned to address this,” he says. In the text of his apology, Bronson writes: “We are a community of the living and the dead.”

“As a child, I felt the presence of spirits,” he explains. This continued into his adult life. “My intense experiences of spirit life were related to people who had died.”

His relatives passed down a story about an uprising against his great-grandfather on the Blackfoot reserve in 1895 that forced his ancestors to flee. On a 2015 visit to the archives in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Bronson discovered letters he had written to the museum in the 70s to request – unsuccessfully – documents about the uprising. At the time, his plan was to write a biography of Reverend Tims. He couldn’t confirm the uprising – it would remain hidden, mirroring the tendency among Canada’s official histories of settler relations with Indigenous people.

Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking

Stimson’s response (Bronson says their artistic partnership takes the form of a “call and response”) is a multifaceted installation that includes three large sculptures based on Blackfoot pictographs, a dining table set for 10 that features 10 small bronze bison sculpted by the artist. “Nine people were at the dinner where AA and I met,” he says. “I am adding the tenth setting for the ancestors.”

Also included are 68 photos taken from a family collection that feature boys who attended the Old Sun school. Used with permission, Stimson observes that the figures in these photos are “all our fathers from the Nation.”

Making tangible the connection between historical crimes and present political realities is part of the goal. Bronson describes the residential school practice of keeping children from their parents “very Trumpian.”

In his apology, the artist addresses an expansive range of people. Along with those on the Blackfoot Reserve who would have known and ultimately rebelled against Reverend Tims, Bronson addresses the people closest to him and his artistic collaborators. And he makes clear he also speaks to all political refugees, an acknowledgement that the colonial narrative continues in more ways than one: “the dispossessed and the abandoned… those who travelled across oceans but never made it to this safe haven of Canada.”

“When Bronson first reached out to me,” Stimson explains, “he was looking for someone to facilitate a connection with the Siksika Nation.”

Stimson describes himself as a “scout” reporting back to the Elders, and plans to arrange a private ceremony for Bronson to conduct his apology at the reserve.

Beyond merely “performing trauma,” Stimson sees Bronson as well-suited to the task, calling him “an agent of social change” because of the work he has done throughout his career as a representative of queer communities. General Idea is especially renowned for their activism during the AIDS crisis.

Noting that public discussion on Indigenous issues has taken steps forward in recent years, Bronson sees his participation at the Biennial as the beginning of a process. He does not simply want to perform an apology in front of an art audience. Asked about how he felt after the ceremony, Bronson said, “Having gone through it, I feel it is an ongoing process and I doubt I will have the real answer for some years.”

For his part, Stimson said “given the gravity of the apology” it needed to be him, and not his persona, who performed accepting it from Bronson. “The elders say ‘be humble, be generous,’” he says, adding that he is using the occasion to “put Buffalo Boy to bed,” as the logical conclusion of this phase of his work as an artist. “Every now and then Buffalo Boy has some sort of death, and then renewal,” he explains. “Putting him to bed lets us all have a little rest from his antics.”

Through art, the two men find a context that provides a useful – and non-confrontational – platform for people who are connected by past events to work through Canada’s cultural genocide and its continuing effects in the present.

Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking

“The apologies to the First Nations and Inuit peoples [by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively] were important to the elders who were present. I can’t diminish that,” Stimson says. “But you need to walk the talk. What we are really looking for is systemic change.”

AA Bronson’s ancestors colonized Siksika Nation and were forced to flee in an uprising in 1895. Photo: Samuel Engelking

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/aa-bronson-adrian-stimson-reconciliation/

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