Rebecca Belmore's 4½-minute video called The Blanket shows a dark-haired woman wrapping and unwrapping herself in a red and black Hudson's Bay point blanket while she moves about a snow-covered Manitoba landscape. The video is not without a sense of anger (the blanket has a poisonous history in relations between white and native Canadians), but The Blanket is also lyric, elegant and sensuous, qualities it shares with the best work in Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, an international exhibition of contemporary indigenous art organized by Winnipeg's Plug In ICA that opened in January in five main venues and several satellite sites across the city.
Larger than either Indigena at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., and Land, Spirit, Power at the National Gallery in Ottawa, both mounted in 1992, Close Encounters is the culmination of Winnipeg's year as the 2010 Cultural Capital of Canada. It includes 33 aboriginal artists from six countries (Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Finland and Brazil), chosen by four of this country's best aboriginal curators: Lee-Ann Martin, Candice Hopkins, Steve Loft and Jenny Western.
Close Encounters is an historic exhibition. We have come to accept history as the story the victors tell about the vanquished. In Winnipeg, stretching across three days of openings, panels and artist's talks, there seemed only to be winners.
The most consistent work was shown at the new Plug In building, where Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and Wally Dion from Canada shared a gallery with Lisa Reihana and Brett Graham, two Maori artists from New Zealand. Graham's Te Hokioi, which means magnificent bird, is a one-third scale wooden Stealth bomber, the entire surface of which is carved in Maori patterns. Dion's Thunderbird is a mesmerizing constructed painting made from computer circuit boards. Both birds are symbolic emblems of nature's ability to overcome technology. The future of Yuxweluptun's animal kingdom is less certain; in his magnificent painting an oil-coated killer whale leaps above the surface of a chemical-slick ocean. It is appropriate that the first two works you see in this gallery are a splendid drawing called Bush Capsule Study and Little Habitat II, a compact sculpture by Brian Jungen, the West Coast artist whose ability to fabricate a world of visual delight out of the excesses of consumer culture is unparalleled in contemporary Canadian art.
There are, as well, excellent works in the main exhibition venue, a converted Costume Museum of Canada. Michael Belmore's Smoulder, a seductive fire whose imaginary heat comes from a floor sculpture made of carved stones and copper leaf, and a tower of small, cast-bronze blankets by Marie Watt from Portland, Ore., are both brilliant. This venue is also filled with large installation pieces, which invite a sense of speculation and prophecy. In Skawennati's Time Traveller, the trickster's "What if" question gets projected into the future, where a second-life powwow spectacle, emceed by an avatared-and-feathered Billy Merasty look-alike, takes place in the Winnipeg Olympic Stadium in 2121. In Mother, Teacher, Destroyer, a sound and video installation by Postcommodity, a native artists' collective from Oklahoma, women are the keepers of the culture's songs. On a four-sided, suspended structure, a quartet of aboriginal women play a traditional peyote song on instruments that combine noise band and taxidermied aesthetics. It is a richly layered fantasy romp that seems archaic and futuristic at the same time.
The stories being told in this landmark exhibition are less narratives of resistance and imposed accommodation than stories of adaptation and self-directed transformation. The aboriginal artists in Close Encounters are fully aware of the need to renegotiate the terms of engagement as they head full-bodied into the next 500 years.
Postcommodity has a clear sense of where that process begins. The collective has installed a large, multicoloured balloon high above the atrium entrance of the new Manitoba Hydro Place. It represents the eye of a predatory bird. The collective sees the eye as a surrogate for aboriginal people in general; it is commanding, buoyant and unblinking. As one of the members said at the opening, "We're just keeping an eye on what's going on. We're here and this is our place. We're happy to share it with you, but remember, this is our place." The message was less a threat than a genial affirmation of continued presence. It underlined that in Winnipeg, at least for the next four months, the woven history of our close encounters will become an even closer knit of our evolving identity.