Aboriginality: Beat Nation hits Montreal

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When it comes to hip-hop, promiscuity is the key to creativity. Mashing different styles to give birth to original sounds is central to the urban-music scene. That’s why the Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture exhibition, launched October 17 at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain, concentrated on the beautiful bastards spawned by unexpected musical hook-ups.

The creative urges of Kathleen Ritter (from the Vancouver Art Gallery), Tania Willard (a Secwepemc artist and designer) and MAC curator Mark Lanctôt brought this novel presentation to life. Through the work of 24 artists, Beat Nation breaks down what it means to be an Aboriginal hip-hop artist in the context of contemporary urban life.

Many of the pieces use sounds and spoken word in the way other artists might use a brush stroke to paint a picture and tell a story. Although hip-hop is prominently displayed, it is the starting point for many of the artists who crossbreed contemporary life with their Aboriginal artwork.

“Using language as a tool to raise your voice is important to cultural identity,” Lanctôt stated. “We know that very well here in Quebec that language and identity are strongly linked.”

Identity is another theme that flows throughout the artists’ pieces. For some works, it is subtle, but for others the identities that they create are quite prominent and visual, like the Feminine Warrior outfit created by Skeena Reece or Kent Monkman’s transformation into his alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.

“We were really interested in how the artists created these different selves and what they express,” said Willard during a press tour. “What we see throughout is how traditional pieces, like the button blanket, include introduced materials. So again we see what became a traditional aesthetic with cultural value is also this form of adaptation and innovation.”

As Aboriginal culture navigates its way through the contemporary world, the contrast between young and old is reflected in how the youth merge outside influences into the dialogue of cultural tradition.

“One of the things we’re trying to do in this exhibition is to address a continuum of innovation that happens in Aboriginal cultures,” Ritter said. “Even though we think of glass beading as a traditional Aboriginal practice, glass beads were introduced after contact with the European. So it raises the question of what is traditional and what is contemporary.”

A prime example of this melding is the Native Kids Ride Bikes project by Dylan Miner. A different Aboriginal artist designed each bike in Miner’s installation in a way that showcases their personal style and yet, as part of a whole, creates something distinctly First Nations.

“It’s a socially engaged project that I’ve been working on for three years,” explained Miner. “In collaborating with urban Native youth to put together low-riders based on the teachings of the Elders we get conversations going between the generations. The bike becomes a way to think about migrations, sustainable forms of transportation, traditional stories, and healthy living.”

The pieces can’t simply be described as First Nations-inspired urban art; they establish a unique style that pushes the envelope of contemporary Aboriginal culture. “What the artists are trying to do is reinvent tradition within the framework of contemporary society,” explained Ritter.

Beat Nation is on display at the MAC until January 5, 2014. As a part of the program, the museum will be holding separate events. On November 1, there will be Nocturne, a multimedia performance featuring Madeskimo and Jackson 2bears. On December 5, there’s a roundtable discussion on the exhibit curated by Candice Hopkins. And every Sunday until December 1, the MAC hosts Red, Black, and Graffiti, which includes a guided tour of the exhibit and a hands-on workshop.

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