There is a particularly Canadian sensibility that I crave, an attitude that feels all too scarce these days. I crave a real sense of history, the kind of thing I grew up watching on the CBC & the NFB. At one time we were very different from the Americans to our south, for our ability to be truthful about our past, without pounding on our chests in perpetual self-glorification. No, that’s wouldn’t be Canadian (at least at one time). But to look ourselves square in the eye, perhaps with an ironic jest, even as we glorify our true achievements? That’s Canadian.
I felt that again today when I walked into Patrick DeCoste’s show on Richmond Street, a series of pieces that feel very much like part of a voyage of self-discovery. He tells us so in the title of the show, which is called Dreaming of Bear and Crow: A Search for Métis Identity. I should add that DeCoste is part French, part aboriginal (sorry I don’t know which tribe), or “Métis”, like Louis Riel.
If I may digress for a moment, my favourite moment in Harry Somers opera Louis Riel is the first scene, where we watch a bilingual encounter between some men who speak English (from the east) coming upon a barricade created by Riel’s men (in the west). The encounter between cultures is magical, because neither really understands the other.
DeCoste’s show also concerns such an encounter, except it’s a first encounter between races from opposite sides of the sea. Here’s DaCoste telling the story in a spell-binding little video.
My favourite line –if something horrific can be favourite– is when the shaman says
“we have heard of these bearded men before. Kill them or flee”
Every piece in the show is in some way connected with that remarkable shamanic dream. My only regret is that there isn’t more art because everything I saw was fabulous, profound, and beautiful. The quality of the pieces, both the craftsmanship –because we were dealing with art that is carefully made from exquisite materials like genuine animal skins –and the complexity of what’s being investigated –left me wanting more.
I have to believe we’ll see a great deal more from Patrick DeCoste.
The story is at the interface between the aboriginals and the Europeans, a primal moment from five hundred years ago. Sometimes DeCoste is gently faithful. At other times he’s more of a trickster himself, playing with this whole inter-cultural encounter, as he leads us ourselves through that magical doorway. We’re looking at objects resembling artefacts from long ago, such as a map on a wolverine skin.
But you look closer. What are those locations on that antique map? It’s Nova Scotia but the locations:
- Guggenheim (etc)
His images can be ambiguous. In the dream there were bears: but they turned out to be bearded men. Notice how the men and the bears can be similar, both with bellies and unsure whether to walk on four or two legs. A French priest strung up (martyred?) on the boat dangles above bear and man, with crows to keep him company. We’re looking at a picture that isn’t so very different at first glance from many traditional aboriginal images, a more commercial & mainstream kind of art. The surfaces, the high quality materials & workmanship make these prized objects to buy.
Oh yes, I did ask the obvious question about that map on the wolverine. It’s already sold.
Dreaming of Bear and Crow: A Search for Métis Identity is on at the OCADU Graduate Gallery, 205 Richmond Street West, a the corner of Duncan until Tuesday March 11th.