Before you can see it, you can hear it: the video projection by Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin in the opening gallery of Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, a compendium of new work by indigenous North American artists opening this weekend at Toronto's Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. The work, titled Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan, translates as "We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care," and it has two parts. First, you hear the pounding electronic music composed by Galanin, which inspires the performance of traditional Tlingit dancer Dan Littlefield. Masked, dressed in full regalia, and carrying a raven rattle, Littlefield moves to the new beat in the old ways. Next, you hear the drumming and chanting of traditional Tlingit vocals and drums – this could be an archival soundtrack from a hundred years ago – but here a dancer (the electrifying David "Elsewhere" Burnal) is seen in an empty dance studio, dressed in slouchy hip-hop attire, and breakdancing to the old songs in new ways.
Old is new, new is old, African-American breakdancing meets Northwest Coast antiquity, but what stays the same is the power of the beat, that fundamental element found across all cultures and all times, the beat of the mother's heart, of our own heart beating, that universal sign of life. The pulse of aboriginal art goes on, and survival comes in marvellous new forms.
"This is a really important idea to us," says Vancouver Art Gallery associate curator Kathleen Ritter, who organized the show with guest curator Tania Willard, "to show that there is not this break between the past and the present. Change and adaptation have always been at the heart of aboriginal practice. You can think about Charles Edenshaw [a celebrated historical Northwest Coast carver] and see that he was adapting – using argillite, for example, which was a new material in the 19th century." Dylan Miner's revamped low-rider bikes (made in collaboration with young First Nations artists on the rise) and KC Adams's white beaded iPod Holder, also in Beat Nation, likewise herald adaptation.
Galanin's piece has more great company here, such as the video installation by Anishnaabe artist Maria Hupfield. Titled Survival and Other Acts of Defiance (2012), the looped video projection features the artist jumping up and down in place in a pair of her homemade powwow jingle boots. It's a work about endurance, but it's also about joy. Nearby, Hupfield displays the boots against a billowing backdrop of silver emergency blankets, those high-tech thermal wrappings used for survival by athletes and mountaineers in conditions of extreme cold – a fitting metaphor, I'm thinking, for the native person braving the elements of contemporary life.
There's an insistent beat, too, that comes from Jordan Bennett's Turning Tables (2010). A record player carved from various woods, it has a needle that moves across the ringed surface of a circular, rotating slab of pine, and we hear the rhythmic thumping and bumping that arises from the needle's contact with that knotted and cracked surface. Bennett's rough-hewn machine literally plays out the memory of arboreal growth, telling tales that lie outside the realm of language. Turning Tables also includes a recording of Bennett attempting the words and phrases of his native Mi'kmaq language, as he repeats the sounds in the process of learning. Technology reboots traditional knowledge, keeping the beat for generations to come.
Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture runs at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery until May 5, 2013.