Aboriginal Artists Engage with Urban Youth Culture in the Urgent and Timely “Beat Nation”

Aboriginal Artists Engage with Urban Youth Culture in the Urgent and Timely “Beat Nation”

Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture,” which opened at the Power Plant this week after a successful run at the Vancouver Art Gallery last spring, represents a dynamic and sustained engagement between contemporary Aboriginal artists and urban youth culture. However there is a politic of this engagement that suggests other meanings, and these could not be more relevant to Canada's very real and troubled politics with its Aboriginal and First Nations peoples, this week.

The marginalization of urban youth, compounded by economic, social and educational inequality, mirrors many First Nation communities throughout Canada and the United States. And like the urban ghettos of our friends to the south, Attawapiskat is forcibly becoming the ghetto of Ontario’s north. In Tupac’s first album “2Pacolypse Now,” from 1991, we hear, “You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion / Happiness, living on tha streets is a delusion.” 

An important and timely foreground to this exhibition’s second iteration is the deplorable infrastructure and living conditions of the Mushkegowuk people of Attawapiskat and other First Nation communities across this country, and the Canadian government’s persistent ignorance of their plight. At present, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has entered the second week of her hunger strike in an impassioned effort to bring attention to their situation. Stephen Harper remains silent.

The evolving disenfranchisement of urban youth has produced a unique and perhaps incomparable number of aesthetic and sonic expressions. In effect, the shared commonalities between Aboriginal culture and urban youth culture, including political tensions and economic disparities, have allowed Aboriginal artists to adopt and transform hip hop for their own aesthetic devices and political strategies. “Beat Nation” is its manifestation and, consequently, a celebration.

Hip hop is communicated as both utterance and lifestyle, in this exhibition curated by the VAG's Kathleen Ritter and Tania Willard, a Secwepemc artist (after Willard successfully formed an online community that provided the basis for this exhibition). An avant-garde exercise with a breadth of perspectives, urban culture is presented to take the everyday as its point of reference and the past as a pedagogy, an ache that will never go away. Corey Bulpitt Gurl 23’s graffiti mural “Raven Finn Whale” speaks historical trauma through a KRS-One quote inscribed on the wall below the enormous rendering the highly-stylized whale in red, black, and white: “There can never really be justice on stolen land.”

Kent Monkman’s single-channel video “Dance to Miss Chief” mimics the lavish aesthetic of contemporary pop music videos to scrutinize German intrigue of North American “Indians.” Using vintage footage from film adaptations of Karl May’s German Westerns, Monkman’s alter ego “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle,” dressed in a glamorous red necklace and long skirt, swoons May’s protagonist Winnetou. It’s another remarkable example of appropriating hip hop’s aesthetic sensibilities for political purposes: Monkman responds to racial and sexual stereotypes in order to usurp them, elegantly subverting both in clear high heels and red evening gloves.

Other works are as rousing in their politic: fascinating pieces by Duane Linklater, Dylan Miner, and Jackson 2bears, while others are much more subtle, poetic, and outright beautiful. Jordan Bennett’s “Turning Tables” re-appropriaties a conventional DJ turntable, yet this one is made of walnut, oak, and spruce. The record spinning is also made of wood and the rings of years past provide much of the static noise. In another re-appropriative strategy, instead of hip hop thudding from speakers, a recording of Bennett can be heard as he learns his native Mi’kmaq language. A sly riff on the custom of sampling in hip hop, here Bennett samples his ancestry.

Nicholas Galanin has a similar approach in his grey-scaled, two-channel video work, “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan.” One channel features a nimble breakdancer popping and locking to traditional Tlingit drums and vocals; the second, a Tlingit dancer in full regalia moving to Crystal Castles-esque electronic music in front of a carved and painted Tlingit screen. It’s an exceptional pairing and an icon of the exhibition’s agenda.

So too is Maria Hupfield’s “Survival and Other Acts of Defiance,” a durational performance and relational aesthetic which uses endurance as a metaphor for Aboriginal existence. Here the artist jumps up and down in a pair of self-constructed “jingle boots,” similar to the ones used in powwows, to create a rhythmic, drumming beat. A large “X” placed on the floor directly in front of the projected image invites viewers to jump in tandem with Hupfield. When I asked a German woman to stand on the “X” and participate, she couldn’t keep time.

What we get with “Beat Nation” is a veritable collision of hip hop and Aboriginal cultures — the art, music, dance and dress that helps to define the shifting identities of First Nation peoples —and a willingness to expand in new directions.

“Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture” continues at The Power Plant through May 5th.