It is Feb. 15th, Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, and Métis curator and writer Cathy Mattes is talking about two of her favourite subjects -- art and Louis Riel. She is telling a story about two very different monuments to Louis Riel that were created for the Manitoba Legislature.
"In 1971, a statue depicting Louis Riel as a naked, tormented figure was erected on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature as part of Manitoba's centennial celebrations," Mattes explains.
"This original monument was created in the late 60s. Métis people found it offensive and for many years there was a lot of debate and anger about the statue. In the early 90s it was finally removed and relocated. Some non-Aboriginal people objected to it as well, because it portrayed Riel as a Native hero."
The public reaction to the Riel monument controversy was complex. While many Métis people objected to the portrayal of Riel as tormented, when the original monument was finally removed, Jean Allard, a Métis leader and former MLA, along with the artist who created the statue, chained themselves to the monument in protest.
"The decision to replace the original Riel statue with a monument that depicts Riel as a statesman epitomizes changing attitudes towards public art," said Mattes.
An event like the conflict over the removal of the Riel monument from the legislature is the sort of art as engagement that inspires Cathy Mattes. In fact, she even wrote her Master's thesis on the subject at Concordia University in Montreal.
Mattes is an independent curator who is now based in rural southwest Manitoba. She has curated exhibitions at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Southwest Manitoba, and the Urban Shaman Gallery, a Winnipeg-based artist-run Aboriginal art centre.
Although Mattes now makes her home in Spruce Woods, Manitoba, near the Shilo Canadian Forces Base, she spent most of her childhood on the move, living on bases across Canada and at a base in Germany because her father was in the military.
Mattes loves creating exhibits that get audiences to interact with artworks. According to Mattes, "engagement with art is a conversation. The engagement continues beyond the time you are at an art exhibit."
Mattes continued her exploration of Riel as an historical and mythical figure by mounting an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2001 called Rielisms.
The show asked "just whose hero Louis Riel was" and addressed how Riel is depicted in history, myth and culture. A central feature of the exhibit was a scale model of the controversial Riel monument, and it included the work of 10 artists, who engaged the history and myths of Riel through their art.
Another example of how Mattes' curatorial practice offers audiences the chance to be engaged by art was the 2005 exhibition Super Phat Nish.
The exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, featured the work of Anishinaabe artist Barry Ace. The show presented artworks depicting Super Phat Nish, an iconic character developed by Ace.
Super Phat Nish represents the longstanding fusion of Aboriginal and African-American pop culture that emerged from inner-city neighbourhoods and Indian reservations in the 1960s and developed into vibrant urban-Aboriginal pop culture.
The show opened to a full house, with a DJ providing entertainment, allowing the audience to participate in some of the urban culture represented by the exhibit.
Mattes not only encourages audiences to think about art, she also encourages them to talk about it. Mattes often incorporates chalkboards or paper into her exhibits so audience members can write comments about the art. At Ace's show, audience members wrote comments and drew graffiti on paper she put up for that purpose.
"Because Barry Ace's show was held at a public gallery, the audience who came to see the show was really diverse, and even included people from a Hutterite community."
Besides working as a freelance contemporary art curator, Mattes also teaches African, European, Aboriginal and contemporary art history at Brandon University.
As a teacher, Mattes explores how art is affected by social and political events, while at the same time artists themselves are often agents of social change through their work.
"In my Aboriginal art history class I teach a section called ‘Art after Oka.' In the years immediately following the Oka Crisis, a lot of important art shows took place, and the Aboriginal art world really evolved."
The Oka Crisis, a 78-day armed stand-off between the Mohawk people of Kanehsatake in Quebec and the Canadian army, took place in 1990. The conflict started when the town council attempted to expand a golf course onto Mohawk burial grounds.
"To help my students understand how artists can be agents of social change, I talk about the idea of artists as warriors, because many of those behind the barricades in 1990 were artists and warriors, including Ellen Gabriel and Joe David."
In her class, Mattes talks to students about some of the important art shows that took place in the years following Oka. These include Indigena (1992, Canadian Museum of Civilization), which marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landfall in the Americas, and included artwork by Joe David.
Another important show was Solidarity: Art after Oka at the Saw Gallery in 1991. It also included Joe David's work, as well as the work of Carl Beam (the first indigenous artist to sell contemporary art to the National Gallery of Canada), Arthur Renwick and David Neel, among others.
Mattes' next project is called Frontrunners, and will explore the impact of Professional National Indian Artists Inc. on the Winnipeg art scene. This organization, which was founded in the 70s, became known as the "Indian Group of Seven," a term coined by the media, and its membership included Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig and Alex Janvier. Professional National Indian Artists Inc. helped to create the Canadian woodland art style.
"The Indian Group of Seven had a big impact on contemporary Aboriginal art practice in Winnipeg, and laid a foundation for Urban Shaman Gallery to exist," said Mattes. "They were our frontrunners here in Manitoba."
The exhibition will be a collaboration between the Urban Shaman Gallery and Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, and will recognize their contributions, with a particular emphasis on artists who produced work that is overtly political.
Jennifer Dales is a writer living in Ottawa.
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