A cyberpunk spaceship has landed inside Canada House in London’s Trafalgar Square, and its virtual crew, a cast of Indigenous time travellers from the 15th to the 23rd centuries – created by Kahnawa:ke-born, Montreal-based multimedia artist Skawennati – are poised and ready to meet any curious Earthlings who would like to get on board.
Avatars Aliens Ancestors, on view to March, assembles characters from all corners of Skawennati’s artistic universe. Among them, there’s Kateri Tekakwitha, born in 1656 and the first Indigenous woman to have been named a saint by the Catholic Church; elders from SkyWorld, the planet our ancestors are said to have come from, who wear white clothes with circles cut out of them to expose their technicoloured skin; and “xox”, Skawennati’s own avatar from online game Second Life, where she designs and builds many of the virtual worlds populated by her figures.
She calls her works machinimas (a portmanteau of “machine” and “cinema,” meaning movies created in virtual environments) and machinimagraphs (photographs taken in these virtual environments by her avatar), and creates them with help from her team at Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a creative research network for Indigenous youth that she co-directs with partner Jason Edward Lewis.
“Youth truly are the future,” she says. “Through our Skins workshops in Indigenous Storytelling and Digital Media, we aim to empower them to be producers, in addition to users, of digital media.”
Active in cyberspace since the 1990s, Skawennati has repeatedly called out the fact that the most common representations of Indigenous peoples in popular culture are from the past. Look into your mind’s eye and you’ll see them: anonymous, sepia-toned and serious-looking, in traditional garb. “I fear that if Indigenous people cannot envision ourselves in The Future, we will not be there,” she says. “We need to visualize ourselves as full participants in the multimediatized world of today and tomorrow to help ourselves become active agents in the shaping of new mediums and new societies.”
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