Home Arts The remarkable career of Abenaki artist and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is highlighted at the Vancouver Art Gallery

The remarkable career of Abenaki artist and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is highlighted at the Vancouver Art Gallery

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An exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) studies the work of 90-year-old First Nations filmmaker, artist, musician and activist Alanis Obomsawin, presents new archival material that sheds light on the work of one of Canada’s national treasures.

According to the VAG, Children need to hear another story (until August 7) ​​- the first exhibition to examine the work of the iconic Abenaki filmmaker – includes many materials that have never been publicly exhibited before, or not since they were first presented. The exhibition, curated by Richard William Hill and Hila Peleg, covers five decades of Obomsawin’s pioneering career. It also features ephemera, rare works and screenplays from the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), where she was a producer for decades, and Obomsawin’s personal archives. The exhibition was presented last year at the House of Culture of the Welt in Berlin and this is its first Canadian iteration (it will visit the University of Toronto Art Gallery later this year).

Alanis Obomsawin, mother of many children1977 (photo), 16 mm film, color, sound, 28 min Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada

At VAG, the show includes a new 24 minute movie Obomsawin did about the life and work of Bill Reid, the famous Haida artist, during the pandemic. Obomsawin was one of the first Indigenous filmmakers to insist on allowing Indigenous subjects to speak for themselves rather than being mere objects of the colonial “voice of God” narrative. Appropriately, the film juxtaposes the deep, rich baritone of Reid – who worked for years as a radio host – with photos of his childhood in Victoria, British Columbia (where he attended a kindergarten run by the sister of Emily Carr), footage of protests from the 1970s and footage from her career as a master carver, goldsmith and sculptor.

At a VAG event last week, Obomsawin said it was “very moving” for her to rediscover audio of a conversation she had with Reid in the 1980s during his audit of his archives. The exhibit also features a portrait mask of Obomsawin that Reid fashioned in the 1970s, on loan from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The two were close friends and Reid often referred to Obomsawin as the “Lady of Montreal”. The two artists negotiated two worlds amid heightened North American awareness of its Indigenous peoples and their cultures; the film, like the exhibition, documents not only Indigenousness in art, but also a key half-century of Canadian history.

Alanis Obomsawin at the Mariposa Rock Festival, 1970 Courtesy of York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC05824

Born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, in 1932, Obomsawin spent part of her childhood on the Abenaki First Nations reserve in Odanak, Quebec, and much of it in Trois-Rivières, where she avoided residential schools but suffered racist intimidation of his comrades. Young Obomsawin sought solace in her dream world, where magical animals appeared to her as talismanic companions and protectors. The exhibition opens with a selection of his paintings of these fantastic creatures from the 1990s as well as an autobiographical film, When all the leaves are gone (2010), evoking the time when 12-year-old Obomsawin, already steeped in Indigenous traditions, had an epiphany that shaped her life and career.

“I thought if children could hear the stories I hear, maybe they would behave differently,” Obomsawin said in the exhibit catalog. This idea became a driving force in a career that married art, activism and education. It began by teaching Scouts about Aboriginal culture and included a stint as a role model, time as a recording artist singing traditional songs, and decades of making films about First Nations issues. His most famous work, Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance (1993), which she shot behind barbed wire during the Oka Crisis of 1990 – a 78-day confrontation between Mohawks protesting the appropriation of their land and the Canadian police and military – plays in the exhibition’s section dedicated to the 1990s alongside numerous television footage of its own struggle to survive the grueling siege with a reduced crew and copies of letters demanding that the police return his cellphone.

Alanis Obomsawin, Trick or treated?2014 (still), video, color, sound, 85 min Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada

An earlier work. Incident in Restigouche (1984), recounts police violence against Mi’kmaq fishermen in 1981 and is shown alongside correspondence from the NFB initially instructing it not to interview government ministers, only First Nations people. In the end, his interview with the Minister of Fisheries became one of the film’s strongest moments. In the same section, the film Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child (1986), about the suicide of an adolescent in foster care that galvanized the struggle for Aboriginal autonomy in social services, plays alongside related ephemera. Around the corner, powerful etchings by Obomsawin depicting First Nations women and their children read as Aboriginal Pietas.

The exhibition is invaluable both as a study of Obomsawin’s work and as a chronicle of the changing public image of First Nations peoples in Canada. Richard Hill, the show’s co-curator, said its Berlin version touched on some German “romanticizations of indigenous peoples”, but that “here in Canada we have different issues”. Gazing at the steps of the VAG – where a makeshift shrine for Indigenous children who died in residential schools has been in place since 2021 – he added: “We are still in the midst of conversations that Alanis has had for decades.

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