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Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Kamie ya uriji pi jami Parawa ujame theperekui uriji ter- imi thepe komi kua [Where I live in my jungle and in the Orinoco river all these animals also live], 2018. Acrylic on 79 sheets of cane fibre paper, 35 x 51 cm each. Courtesy Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Arctic/Amazon advance images Power Plant

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, a Yanomami artist from Venezuela, creates an art of pointed restraint with works like Kamie ya uriji pi jami Parawa ujame theperekui uriji ter- imi thepe komi kua (Where I live in my jungle and in the Orinoco river all these animals also live).Courtesy Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

At the Power Plant art gallery in Toronto, Peruvian artist Olinda Silvano is singing as her hands flutter over the ziggurat and cruciform patterns of a colourful mural, revealing the sacred meaning of its dense geometry through song.

Silvano is Indigenous, from the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Amazon, although she now lives in Lima where she’s a community activist. She has travelled to Toronto with colleagues Wilma Maynas and Ronin Koshi to create three large murals with the help of local art students, works that combine a forest of black-and-white pathways with bursts of hot colours and passages of ochre. The patterns are larger versions of ones on Silvano’s beaded headband, necklace and skirt, and in the ochre body paint on her bare legs. The song describes the patterns, which in their origins also emerged from song.

There’s not much leadership at the Power Plant these days – after the departure of long-time director Gaetane Verna in September and the resignation of the board in a dispute with Harbourfront Centre – but there sure is a lot of art.

The Peruvian artists are participating in an exhibition entitled Arctic/Amazon, a group show of work by 11 Indigenous artists from the circumpolar regions of Canada, the United States, Finland and Norway and from the Amazonian regions in Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. Led by the Indigenous curator Gerald McMaster of the Ontario College of Art and Design University (where the students helped paint those murals), the exhibition began with a 2019 symposium discussing similarities between Indigenous issues in North and South America despite their very different climates. Then organizers began planning a show addressing those issues, but the results were delayed because of the pandemic.

The exhibition, which finally opened last week and was also organized by Noor Alé of the Power Plant and the Brazilian curator Nina Vincent, identifies four subject areas: contact zones, land relations, traditional knowledge and Indigenous world views. Its themes are what you might expect: Nobody here thinks colonialism, territorial expropriation or the destruction of natural habitat are good things.

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Uýra, Série Elementar – Rio Negro 2. Photograph. Photo: Ricardo Oliveira.
Arctic/Amazon advance images Power Plant

Indigenous Brazilian drag artist Uyra contributes a series of forest photographs in which they pose in arresting costumes.Courtesy of Artist

Yet if art has some power to sway that speeches do not it is with its emphatic physicality on the one hand and its subtle evocations on the other. One of the most pronounced artistic themes here is a play with scale, a making of little things big and big things little, which has obvious political implications as these artists assert the Indigenous presence.

Just as the Shipibo-Konibo muralists turn their decorative patterns into wall hangings large enough to fill an urban art gallery, Couzyn van Heuvelen makes large mobiles inspired by colourful fishing lures that would be about the size of your thumb. He’s an Inuk artist based in Southern Ontario, interested in traditional hunting practices and the history of Inuit art. One of his fishing lures – which are molded from plastic or glass – features the familiar sunburst created by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak.

When government agents in the 1960s encouraged the Inuit to make soap sculptures weighty enough to fill corporate lobbies or delightful enough to sit on coffee tables, the artists were working from a sculptural tradition dating back to ancient amulets that could be slipped into a parka pocket. Van Heuvelen explores these relationships with a huge soapstone sculpture representing a qamutiik – the wooden, rope-bound sled used for hunting – thus returning what has often been recreated as a tourist trinket to life size while preserving the artistic material.

There’s another show-stopping example of enlargement created by the Norwegian artist Maret Anne Sara and the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuna. It’s a series of massive knotted cords hanging from the ceiling like bedsheet ropes and made from ripped clothing: both the blue and red felt jackets of Sami reindeer herders and bright Chilean fashions. The effect is large but the reference is small, to knotted cords called quipos, which were used as some kind of recording or counting device in ancient Andean culture.

On the other hand, Sonya Kelliher-Combs is an Athabascan and Inupiaq artist based in Alaska who makes her statements pint-sized, putting traditional needlecrafts to evocative use. Her Red, White, and Blue, Small Secrets features a horizontal series of cloth pockets, each one about the size of a finger and daintily sewn in an ironic choice of stars-and-stripes colours, as though enumerating the little individual lives lost to the concept of a mighty colonial nation.

She is also represented by Idiot Strings – Credible, mittens made of fabric maps of Alaska, one pair for each Inupiaq village where there is a credible accusation of sexual assault against Catholic clergy. There is a certain sly shaming in her work, deliberate but delicate: As Arctic/Amazon was opening last week, she was still busy working her needles to cover one wall with threads in all the different skin colours of the world for a piece entitled Shedding Skin.

As these descriptions suggest, the Western division of art from craft collapses here, both naturally as the Shipibo-Konibo extend their visual traditions into an art gallery or through the kind of subversion that Kelliher-Combs and van Heuvelen are enacting. He also contributes a series of mylar balloons in the shape of an avataq, a float made from an inflated seal skin, which was used to track a harpooned catch. The artist had been making these odd-looking silvery inflatables by hand, but for large outdoor displays at the recent Nuit Blanche, he turned to a balloon factory and talked them down to a minimum order of 2,000. Perhaps it’s just a more artistic version of the snowmobile replacing the dog sled, but Inuit know-how meeting mass production in mylar is the kind of purposeful incongruity that can make Arctic/Amazon so engaging.

Open this photo in gallery:
Couzyn van Heuvelen, Bait, 2021. Installation view: Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Owens Art Gallery, Sackville. Photo: Roger Smith.
Arctic/Amazon advance images Power Plant

Couzyn van Heuvelen makes large mobiles inspired by colourful fishing lures that would be about the size of your thumb. Bait (2021) is one such installation.Roger Smith/Courtesy the artist and Owens Art Gallery

There’s an in-your-face example in a video by the Indigenous Brazilian drag artist Uyra in which they wander around Manaus, a city built over the Amazon jungle, their naked chest and limbs covered in body paint and their face obscured by a giant headdress while they read from a huge book made of leaves. Passersby gape at this visitation from the jungle. They also contribute a series of forest photographs in which they pose in arresting costumes, disguised as tree spirits that are transgender or trans-species. In one of the show’s clearest statements about environmentalism, they place their body in the jaws of a bulldozer.

If Uyra is flashy, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, a Yanomami artist from Venezuela, creates an art of pointed restraint. One of the treasures in this show is his series of abstracted drawings of leaves, insects and trees on paper handmade from mulberries, cotton and sugar cane. The works, on display on the Power Plant’s second floor, are important loans from the private collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and from the ABRA gallery in Caracas. One drawing shows a symmetrical line of trees. The farthest on the right leans outward: An animal has brushed by and disturbed it, sending small and silent thematic ripples through a big show of monumental achievements.

Arctic/Amazon continues at the Power Plant in Toronto to Dec. 31.

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