On the Recent Work of Krista Belle Stewart
As a curator, I came to consider Krista Belle Stewart’s work after seeing her first solo exhibition, Motion and Moment Always, at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) in 2015. The exhibition marked the culmination of her 2014 residency at the Nisga’a Museum in Laxgalts'ap near Terrace, BC. The works at CAG foregrounded Indigenous women’s roles, revealed Indigenous lens-based practices, and sited Indigenous lands. The exhibition spoke to an intimate site-specificity that resonated with my own curatorial and artistic investment in land-based production. I site my work as an artist and curator within both local Indigenous and wider contemporary art contexts, with knowledge of all the spaces in between. When I was approached by the Kelowna Art Gallery (KAG) to produce an exhibition with a single artist for their One-On-One program, I immediately thought of Stewart.
My interest in organizing an exhibition of Stewart’s work in Okanagan territory, where the KAG is located, is informed by the concept of Secwepemculecw, which is a specific Indigenous territory but also infers kinship and embedded storyscapes within the land.In my teachings, Secwepemculecw refers to not only the land base of Secwepemc Indigenous territories but also to the culture and governance, and the land itself in an animate way. Stewart’s home territory, Douglas Lake, BC (Spaxomin), was part of a 1770s land agreement, the Fish Lake Accord, between our respective cultural groups. This oral and familial Nation-to-Nation agreement between the Secwepemc and Okanagan is notable because it articulates pre-settler concepts of land distribution and governance.The Fish Lake Accord agreement is between the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc ell (&) Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc ell (&) Secwépemc with the Syilc (Okanangan). Kúkpi7 Kwoli’la – Tk’emlúpsemc and his half-brother Kúkpi7 Pelkamú’lóx – Syilc established this to delineate the rights of Pelkamú’lóx descendants (known today as the Upper Nicola Band) and their land base in the Upper Nicola Valley. To ensure this agreement was done in the proper way they each gave one child to the other. My approach to curating, as a vistor in Okanagan territories, was grounded in understanding relationships between our Nations, between us as women and our experiences as such in the contemporary art world. I am always exploring the points of connection and disparate horizons between Indigenous art and contemporary art, and how they relate to one another and to the land. In my curatorial work I consider how artists circulate throughout diverse Indigenous territories as well as cities; the limitations and benefits of working through contemporary art languages, as opposed to specific local Indigenous contexts; and the practices of translation from one context to the next.Previous curators and artists brought into the Kelowna Art Gallery as part of this program did not site their work in the context of the local Indigenous landscape; I am not claiming that they should have but think this difference in approach is worth noting.
This first act of translation focuses on Indigenous concepts of land, as articulated through virtual conversations about contemporary art. Our communication took place primarily over landless Skype calls from my studio in Chase, BC, a rural town within our Secwepemc territory and adjacent to the Neskonlith Indian reserve where I live, and Stewart’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Working over the ephemeral online space of video calls we engaged in conversations about the works. I became aware, through the artist’s practice, of employing a constant tension between foregrounding and obscuring Indigenous identities as both translation and way-finding strategy through exhibition and cultural spaces — where ambiguity might function in a way akin to the work-to-rule organizing principles of the labour movement. Working to rule uses the minimum output of labour necessary to meet contractual obligations. It can be employed when a strike is not an option or where organizing labourers are working to collectivize. Alternately obscuring or foregrounding indigeneity as a tool in her practice, Stewart led me to consider the amount of unpaid work that can go into negotiating Indigenous presence, ideas, narratives, and aesthetics in non-Indigenous spaces — which most contemporary art galleries are — and how much effort an artist/curator might put into the constant, extra, and invisible labour of negotiating inclusion.
Ideas about cultural production as unpaid labour are particularly relevant when we think of Stewart's Indian Artists at Work installation. In this piece, Stewart repurposes elements from a 1976 publication, Indian Artists at Work,Ulli Seltzer, Indian Artists at Work, (Vancouver: J.J. Douglas, 1976). a volume of black-and-white documentary images of First Nations artists in and around BC. The book serves to reinforce the dominance of anthropological contexts of viewing Indigenous art by including large portraits and minimal text. Instead of looking at the product of an artists work, in this book, we are looking at the identity of the artists as rarified and Native. In the context of provincial and national efforts — both past and present — we cannot ignore the histories of how concepts of Native Art and Native-ness have been constructed and consumed by paternalistic interventions.This includes the early charitable organizations that advocated for Native art, such as the BC Indian Art and Welfare Society, active in the 1950s to the 1980s. Stewart takes the publication as her starting point for the installation, appropriating its title and cover typeface and creating a grid on the gallery wall with bright vinyl colour swatches. The grid functions as a way to give form and repetition to the title block text, abstracting meaning through its systemization, drawing closer attention to the words themselves and what they both reveal and belie. On the walls of different galleries, the installation of this work responds (with ever-increasing scale) to the changing histories of aesthetics and Indigenous representation in institutions, including primitivism, constructions of ethnography, modern art, and documentary. Originally a modestly sized installation for Stewart’s thesis at Bard College, subsequent installations of the work respond to the architectural limitations of institutional spaces, as well as the time and labour required to produce it. At the Kelowna Art Gallery, the work is dramatically increased. The narrative of cultural craft production present in the original book becomes obscured by Stewart’s grid, fragmenting the story and questioning the assumptions and contextual devices in documentary image-making. Each vinyl square becomes a placard, a call to examine the space of Indigenous contemporary art and how it fits into the spaces of institutions. Who does it serve? The systemization of the installation, the exhaustive labour involved in erecting the grid itself within the gallery becomes a lived experience, representing the extra work it takes to be an artist/curator, an Indigenous artist/curator, a woman artist/curator.
In Stewart’s new video work, A Sort of “Work to Rule,” a live feed of the artist’s laptop screen is recorded as she leafs through research and images. At first the sequence of images she presents show an anonymous figure placed for scale, one assumes, in the space of the prestigious New York City commercial art gallery Hauser and Wirth. Minimal and beautifully lit works of well-known contemporary artists appear in the foreground; it is slowly revealed the figure in the stills is the artist herself. The title of the video is a quotation from Andrea Fraser writing about artist Allan McCollum’s work in an essay “Creativity = Capital?“Creativity = Capital?” Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005), 20–37. The essay references McCollum's discussion of his series Surrogate Paintings as similar to the strategy of working to rule, within the context of a complex critique of the contemporary art world and artistic products.
In A Sort of “Work to Rule,” Stewart presents a meta-self-portrait that refers to the the paid employment that supports her work as an artist. Many of the images are from her past job with a photographer who documents the work of other artists. Shot on high-end cameras in high-end galleries, the artist’s body appears in the image as a stand-in for human scale, relative to the artworks being documented. The work of Krista Belle Stewart, her Indigenous heritage, and her identity as an artist are rendered anonymous through distance, motion blur, and the appearance of objectivity. Knowing her identity, I read her body as an intervention in the New York art scene. What assumptions do we carry with us into creative spaces? How do we navigate between anonymity and individuality in the worlds, online and real, around us? Are there times when it is important to suspend our own or others’ expectations of how we embody and perform our identity? What happens in cultural institutions when this identity is either intentionally foregrounded or obscured, and who ultimately benefits from this? This is how Stewart’s work compels us to not only observe her, but to place ourselves into the contradictions inherent in the labour of the cultural sector. These points of tension between anonymity and intimacy assert themselves throughout the exhibition and give form to the simultaneous foregrounding and obscuring of Indigenous identities that the artist exercises.
Stewart’s installations and interventions occupy the interstice between documentary conventions and archival research to reveal a complexity and intimacy of entanglement within spaces of cultural production and exhibition. In the body of work on display at the KAG, the artist references the production of late Indigenous artists and photographers Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) and Benjamin Alfred Haldane (1874–1941). An American painter, Polk Smith dedicated his work to understanding form and colour, found in the canyons and valleys, sharp light and hard edges, of the American Southwest as well as in the energy and skyscrapers of New York City. Tsimshian photographer Benjamin Alfred Haldane, on the other hand, created alternate ways of looking at the late 18th and early 19th centuries, periods that are otherwise viewed through a standard colonial lens. When we begin to think about why these artists are not well-known, we encounter not only the challenges of documentary practices and how their assumptions shape histories, but also the circumstances in which these artists worked — a time that was openly hostile to Indigenous identities. It is within Stewart's repositioning of these artists that we can also understand her research-based critical reading of the assumed nature of the archive and lens-based histories.
In "I can’t imagine that there is an end to space," Stewart presents a small back-lit slide of an untitled Leon Polk Smith painting from 1968. A small tunnel of light set adrift in a large white wall draws us into the image, installed at eye level in a hole in the wall. Stewart’s choice to display a reproduction of a Polk Smith painting in the form of a small slide stands in contrast to the large scale in which the painter worked. The monumental scale of Colour Field, Geometric, and Pop Art abstractions by primarily male artists becomes undone in viewing "I can’t imagine that there is an end to space." We are meant to consider it intimately, to be drawn into what the narrative of the object — the slide — represents. The technology itself, in terms of photographic processes, is now increasingly obscure; Polk Smith’s oeuvre is also not well-known outside of circles of academics and art historians. Stewart’s inquiry reveals the holes in histories and archives, and reinstates Indigenous presence, achievements, and narratives through contemporary art.
Polk Smith was one of the originators of hard-edge painting in America and is associated with the modernists of the 1940s in American painting. He was also a queer Cherokee man, likely not the easiest identity to inhabit in his lifetime. When I occupy the introspective space offered by the slide, I think about the artist’s life at that time and how he may or may not have chosen to frame his indigeneity. He was born in the Indian Territories that later became Oklahoma; many of his American biographies touch very lightly on this aspect of his identity, whereas in Germany and internationally his identity is foregrounded. When we think about his identity through an Indigenous epistemology — integrated and embodied in his work — we can see how an Indigenous artist in this time of modernism may have navigated the New York art world and how his unique view of abstraction may be grounded in his experience of land, home, and identity.I am simultaneously aware of the dangers of letting this artist’s identity overly contextualize his practice. For instance, a German source discusses all of his work with the sweeping statement, “Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) was drawn to geometric constructivist art by the Red Indian attitude to life and nature of his forbears.” In Arithmeum, “Leon Polk Smith - Leon Polk Smith in the Arithmeum,” September 4, 2001. Looking to the artist’s own words to understand the complexity of how his identity is articulated in his practice is helpful. On the back of an exhibition card in the online Archives of American Art, he writes: “I paint neither politics, religion, nor philosophy, but you may find your own in my work. I am particularly interested in creating spaces that move in all directions.”Exhibition announcement card from the series Printed Material in Archives of American Art: Leon Polk Smith Papers 1938-1997 Citing Polk Smith as a modernist and a Native American, Stewart proposes new grounds for possible art historical readings that challenge assumptions about Indigenous art as set apart from or lagging behind a wider contemporary art discourse.Leon Polk Smith’s body of work includes works referred to as “constellations” — for example, Oh Happy Day, Constellation Series (1972).
In Stewart's research-based strategy of reclaiming Indigenous art histories, she also revisits the compelling photographer, Benjamin Haldane, one of a very few Indigenous photographers active in the 19th century. In Stewart's translation of one of his photographic images, the jacquard weaving work Sim—real/very, we are compelled to think about all of the missing pieces, the holes, in the limited information we have on both the photographer and his subjects. There are holes in histories: colonialism, capitalism, racism, all of the -isms, have created pockmarks on the landscapes of Indigenous arts, governance, and narratives. There are corresponding pockmarks on our experiences as Canadians, the missing parts of our shared stories that serve the dominant assertions of Nationhood and colonial frameworks of history, excluding Indigenous narratives. What if we could read the pattern of the holes themselves? If we can imagine the ways in which a jacquard loom originally functioned, by following a punch card, we can visualize how a series of holes can make a pattern, a pattern that can be read. Readings of 19th century photographic history have often focused on images of and not by Indigenous people. Haldane’s photographs were almost lost when most of his glass-plate negatives were thrown out; thankfully they were recovered and recent Indigenous scholarship has placed his important work in the context of photography in the 19th century.Mique'l Askren, "From Negative to Positive: B.A. Haldane, Nineteenth Century Tsimshian Photographer" (M.A. Thesis, University of British Columbia, 2006).
By presenting an Indigenous artist who never received his due attention, Stewart’s translation of Haldane’s image into the weaving work Sim–real/very is a way of reframing his practice as a disruption of the colonial lens and the ways it was used to picture Indigenous peoples in early BC history. The original Haldane photograph used in Stewart's work is captioned, “Nisga’a family, Laxgaltisap 1903 (Greenville, BC).” As Mique’l Dangeli (née Askren), an Indigenous scholar, says in her writing about Haldane's practice, this photograph and others illustrate that Haldane was in fact exercising “photographic sovereignty.”Askren, “From Negative to Positive.” At the time the content of the photograph — regalia and ceremonial objects, for example — would have been deemed to encourage “heathen activities,” which Haldane, as a member of the Christian colonial community of Metlakatla, would have been instructed to reject. In direct opposition of this directive, he photographs a number of Nisga’a and other Indigenous peoples in customary regalia. Dangeli is also careful to point out that some interpretations of this image foreground the female Chief pictures as exceptional. Dangeli, rather, asserts the legacy of women chiefs and matrilineal practices by highlighting ways in which colonial moral and governance disparities decentred women's roles and histories in Indigenous communities. Stewart has described being drawn to this image because it depicts a woman chief and suggests other models of women’s roles. Many ethnographic accounts recognize and describe matrilineal systems in Coastal cultures but not in the Interior Salish Nations. As a woman of Secwepemc heritage curating a woman artist of Syilx heritage, it is important to point to other strong women writers, thinkers, and cultural producers in the Interior. As Jeanette Armstrong writes in We Get Our Living Like Milk from the Land, “there were women chieftainesses in some of the senq’a?itkw Southern Okanagan villages.”“There were women chieftainesses in some of the senq’a?itkw Southern Okanagan villages. They were called Skumalt — women of great authority. They were appointed formally at a village meeting, just as a chief is. They were always related to the chief, and at death, the office appointed another female relative. As an example, in a village near Omak, the chief served as the group manager while the Skumalt was the adviser in cases of serious crimes or emergencies. “Original People” in We Get Our Living Like Milk From the Land, ed. Jeanette Armstrong, Delphine Derickson, Lee Maracle, and Greg Young-Ing. (Penticton BC: Theytus Books Ltd., 1994). The patriarchal consequences of the residential schools and the Indian Act now obscure much understanding of gendered roles in Indigenous communities but Stewart’s work points to what we know is missing. The frayed threads of history in Sim—real/very are intertwined, weaving inspiration, resistance, tension, and movement through the colliding constellations of contemporary art and Indigenous identities.
Stewart recently exhibited Sim—real/very in verso, creating a solarizing or negative effect, leading us back to the original material object of the glass plate negative. The actual glass plate is lost and now the photograph and its digital translations are the only extant materials. Its disappearance is one of the ways this photograph may be understood to encompass a kind of power beyond that of an ordinary object. After finding the photograph during her residency at the Nisga’a Museum, Stewart compared the image used for display in the museum to the original photograph and realized that a man on the far left had been edited out. In this cropping of the image, the man not pictured happens to be wearing Western-style pants. The question becomes whether the man was edited out in subsequent versions of the image in order to convey a sense of authenticity, or whether it was simply due to constraints of format and scale. In Stewart’s work, the image of the man who is cropped out is never revealed: rather, it is displayed within a cardboard mailing tube, with postage and other information visible but the contents hidden. We know from the artist that the tube contains the final panel of the weaving; previous exhibitions of the work did not include the fifth panel: as the loom experienced mechanical problems, it was not completed in time. Here, by offering us evidence of the final panel but obscuring it within the tube, we are faced with our own desire to reconstruct the image, see the final panel, and consume the documentary as authentic, despite our awareness of the complexity of the image.
Consuming images of Indigenous peoples is a part of a history of usurping land, stealing resources, and appropriating culture. These functions of consumer culture are omnipresent throughout the exhibition, revealed in the disjointed timeframes of online spaces and the limits of history and unarchived knowledge. One work that can be seen to hold space apart from the world of consumables is Untitled (“OK territory”). The land in the pail, given to her from her matrilineal line, is from Stewart’s home, the Upper Nicola Band of the Okanagan Nation in Douglas Lake, BC. It represents land inherited from women in her family as well as Stewart’s connection to that place, a rootedness in and ancestral belonging to Okanagan Nation territories. The title of the work also intimates a unity with Leon Polk Smith’s story; Oklahoma as Indian Territories (“OK territory”), and also perhaps is a way to settle us in unsettling places — “things are going to be OK.” Stewart and I had a conversation about whether to call the earth in the pail dirt or soil — we settled on “land.” Technically, dirt is displaced soil; as this work is literally soil taken from the artist’s land at Douglas Lake, BC, we could say it is dirt. However, within the concept of the work, it represents more than both soil and dirt. If soil is understood as a complex system — as a skin of the earth, in terms of its role in maintaining healthy earth systems — we can see that both definitions of soil and dirt exclude our human connection to it. Land speaks of our relationship to the soil; it refers to connectedness, memory, and ancestors buried in the ground; it is part of us. The artist describes carrying this land with her to and from the different exhibitions, cities, and spaces she inhabits. I picked it up from a storage locker in Vancouver by meeting with the artist’s aunt. Even within the logistical framework of organizing exhibitions in non-Indigenous spaces, the land asserted itself, requiring me to meet with family and move through distinct geographical and cultural areas.
Moving through spaces sometimes requires guidance. The grid used in Stewart’s Indian Artists at Work can also be understood as a possible map, a route of navigation, not based on hard edges but on the voids in between. These voids could be full of intuition, suggestion, and intimacy, and we can fill them with what we need. We might consider new ways of orienting ourselves — understanding land, form, and colour not as disconnected from socio-political contexts but as rooted in them. Uses of the grid in urban planning and social engineering would suggest order and rigidity, but here the artist employs the same strategies — with all their history, from modern abstraction to social planning — and manages to find freedom and introspection within those orders. What else can we find in these leftover spaces? We are left to consider how grids are dismantled, how threads are disentangled, the beauty that lies within that potential disorder, and the tension holding it all together.