Summer is a time that urban-dwelling Canadians tend to rediscover the land, and their connection to it. But that can get complicated. Documenta, the prestigious international exhibition staged every five years in Kassel, Germany, is rife this year with works that explore our primal connections with territory, touching on themes of migration, diaspora, territorial conflict and environmental distress.
At the heart of it, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has placed a modest but pithy presentation of paintings by Canadian painter Emily Carr. Seen in this context, her paintings signal not so much a presumption to appropriate aboriginal motifs as her own (for which she has often been censured by critics) but the colonial transplant’s palpable longing for belonging, to attain the sense of rootedness in place that Carr observed in the aboriginal communities she visited up and down the B.C. coast.
This weekend, an offshoot of Documenta crops up at The Banff Centre, where Kitty Scott (a Documenta contributing curator) has assembled a cast of international artists and thinkers for an alpine think tank. Here, too, Canadian landscape art is playing a catalytic role, this time in the form of a new film by Canadian First Nations artists Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater.
Titled Modest Livelihood, the 50-minute film documents a moose hunt in the lush valleys, marshes and riverbanks near Fort St. John, close to Jungen’s home reserve. (He’s a member of the Doig River First Nation.)
The film is a paean to that landscape, which the artists navigate in the company of Jungen’s uncle, learning from their elder in the traditional way. As viewers, we watch them watching, conferring and observing the signs of animal life, patiently wresting from the land what it can offer for their sustenance.
Strikingly, the film is silent. Linklater, who completed his MFA at Bard College last week, says that their choice was a strategic one. “Film and mainstream media have often portrayed aboriginal people as silent,” he says, referring to the cliché of the war-painted man of few words. “Silence is imposed on them. But silence can be a position that we choose. It is clear that these figures function in the landscape from a powerful position of agency.”
Instead of being subjected to the overlay of romantic loon cries and the quavery flute music that one associates with the white ethnographic documentary (or the knee slapping male-bonding guffaws of televised hunting and fishing shows), we find ourselves humbled in the quiet as our thoughts unspool.
Like Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, Linklater and Jungen favour a stark narrative minimalism: We make what we will of these men walking in the woods, roaming the river’s edge, locating and targeting their kill by moonlight, and butchering the animal in the blaze of morning. Along the way, we are offered moments to catch our breath, to look up to see bare branches stirring the sky, or the sunlight dazzling through the blades of river grass.
While Jungen has made sculptures from stretched hide (in combination with freezer units and car chassis parts of the sort found lying around houses in the north), this is Linklater’s first artistic outing of his life as a hunter. For him, as for Jungen, this connection to animals was an important part of childhood, growing up as a member of the Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. Despite his rising career demands, Linklater and his wife and three children continue to live near North Bay. “My wife and I both grew up like that,” he says. “We want our kids to have that too.”