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How Canada Uses Indigenous Art to Market Itself to the World

The Walrus | November 17, 2019

Categories: news

How Canada Uses Indigenous Art to Market Itself to the World

When the government spotlights Indigenous creators internationally, it too often obscures the realities of colonialism at home. Why Maria Hupfield's work goes beyond all that

On a crisp September Tuesday evening in Paris, Maria Hupfield, a Wasauksing First Nation performing artist from Brooklyn, New York by way of Parry Sound, Ontario, is making her place in the atrium of the Canadian Cultural Centre. Or, at least, that’s one way of interpreting what she’s up to at the international opening of her first major travelling solo exhibition.

Hupfield is hard to read. She makes works like Snowmobile Suit for the Hudson (2013), a Ski–Doo outfit complete with Sorel boots, mitts, and a helmet that are fashioned from grey industrial felt. Then she performs with them, adding meaning and experience (and value to collectors) beyond the object’s materiality. For her globe–trotting performances, the forty–three–year–old York University–trained artist has wandered through the deciduous grasses of Santa Fe’s brittle arroyos and assembled a full–size, felt Anishinaabe hunting canoe while in Venice, Italy. Resisting the Western tendency to essentialize Indigenous art, Hupfield’s practice is dynamic and multidimensional. Her work refuses to be captured by categorization.

Hupfield herself is inviting if a little awkward. Her artistic process relies on hand stitching, which is rarely, if ever, endowed with the rock–star glamour of more historically masculine techniques, like painting and sculpting. Rising artists with their sights on fame can be difficult to approach, but not Hupfield. When I first meet her before her show in Paris, she’s chatting and posing for selfies with family, friends, and fans. Tonight, as at many of her performances, she wears an unassuming ensemble—grey leggings, an oversized black tunic, and a yellow undershirt—that makes her look like a yoga mom, and she is, among other things, a mother, which is a familial relationship central to this exhibition.

The centrepiece of Hupfield’s show is an oil painting of Georgian Bay, waves rolling and horizon bobbing, rendered by her late mother, whose Anishinaabe name, translated into English, also serves as the show’s title: The One Who Keeps on Giving. Hupfield’s is just the second exhibition ever in the recently combined Canadian embassy and cultural centre.

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