On the Power Plant art gallery in Toronto, Peruvian artist Olinda Silvano is singing as her hands flutter over the ziggurat and cruciform patterns of a vibrant mural, revealing the sacred meaning of its dense geometry through song.
Silvano is Indigenous, from the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Amazon, although she now lives in Lima where she’s a community activist. She has travelled to Toronto with colleagues Wilma Maynas and Ronin Koshi to create three large murals with the assistance of local art students, works that mix a forest of black-and-white pathways with bursts of hot colors and passages of ochre. The patterns are larger versions of ones on Silvano’s beaded headband, necklace and skirt, and within the ochre body paint on her bare legs. The song describes the patterns, which of their origins also emerged from song.
There’s not much leadership on the Power Plant nowadays – after the departure of long-time director Gaetane Verna in September and the resignation of the board in a dispute with Harbourfront Centre – but there sure is a number of art.
The Peruvian artists are participating in an exhibition entitled Arctic/Amazon, a gaggle show of labor by 11 Indigenous artists from the circumpolar regions of Canada, america, Finland and Norway and from the Amazonian regions in Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. Led by the Indigenous curator Gerald McMaster of the Ontario College of Art and Design University (where the scholars helped paint those murals), the exhibition began with a 2019 symposium discussing similarities between Indigenous issues in North and South America despite their very different climates. Then organizers began planning a show addressing those issues, but the outcomes were delayed due to pandemic.
The exhibition, which finally opened last week and was also organized by Noor Alé of the Power Plant and the Brazilian curator Nina Vincent, identifies 4 subject areas: contact zones, land relations, traditional knowledge and Indigenous world views. Its themes are what you may expect: No one here thinks colonialism, territorial expropriation or the destruction of natural habitat are good things.
Yet if art has some power to sway that speeches don’t it’s with its emphatic physicality on the one hand and its subtle evocations on the opposite. One of the pronounced artistic themes here’s a play with scale, a making of little things big and large things little, which has obvious political implications as these artists assert the Indigenous presence.
Just because the Shipibo-Konibo muralists turn their decorative patterns into wall hangings large enough to fill an urban art gallery, Couzyn van Heuvelen makes large mobiles inspired by vibrant fishing lures that might be in regards to the size of your thumb. He’s an Inuk artist based in Southern Ontario, excited by traditional hunting practices and the history of Inuit art. One in all his fishing lures – that are molded from plastic or glass – features the familiar sunburst created by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak.
When government agents within the Nineteen Sixties encouraged the Inuit to make soap sculptures weighty enough to fill corporate lobbies or delightful enough to take a seat on coffee tables, the artists were working from a sculptural tradition dating back to ancient amulets that could possibly be slipped right into a parka pocket. Van Heuvelen explores these relationships with an enormous soapstone sculpture representing a qamutiik – the wood, rope-bound sled used for hunting – thus returning what has often been recreated as a tourist trinket to life size while preserving the artistic material.
There’s one other show-stopping example of enlargement created by the Norwegian artist Maret Anne Sara and the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuna. It’s a series of massive knotted cords hanging from the ceiling like bedsheet ropes and made out of ripped clothing: each the blue and red felt jackets of Sami reindeer herders and vivid Chilean fashions. The effect is large however the reference is small, to knotted cords called quipos, which were used as some type of recording or counting device in ancient Andean culture.
Alternatively, Sonya Kelliher-Combs is an Athabascan and Inupiaq artist based in Alaska who makes her statements pint-sized, putting traditional needlecrafts to evocative use. Her Red, White, and Blue, Small Secrets contains a horizontal series of fabric pockets, every one in regards to the size of a finger and daintily sewn in an ironic alternative of stars-and-stripes colors, as if enumerating the little individual lives lost to the concept of a mighty colonial nation.
She can be represented by Idiot Strings – Credible, mittens made from fabric maps of Alaska, one pair for every Inupiaq village where there’s a reputable accusation of sexual assault against Catholic clergy. There may be a certain sly shaming in her work, deliberate but delicate: As Arctic/Amazon was opening last week, she was still busy working her needles to cover one wall with threads in all the several skin colors of the world for a chunk entitled Shedding Skin.
As these descriptions suggest, the Western division of art from craft collapses here, each naturally because the Shipibo-Konibo extend their visual traditions into an art gallery or through the type of subversion that Kelliher-Combs and van Heuvelen are enacting. He also contributes a series of mylar balloons in the form of an avataq, a float made out of an inflated seal skin, which was used to trace a harpooned catch. The artist had been making these odd-looking silvery inflatables by hand, but for giant outdoor displays on the recent Nuit Blanche, he turned to a balloon factory and talked them right down to a minimum order of two,000. Perhaps it’s only a more artistic version of the snowmobile replacing the dog sled, but Inuit know-how meeting mass production in mylar is the type of purposeful incongruity that could make Arctic/Amazon so engaging.
There’s an in-your-face example in a video by the Indigenous Brazilian drag artist Uyra by which they wander around Manaus, a city built over the Amazon jungle, their naked chest and limbs covered in body paint and their face obscured by an enormous headdress while they read from an enormous book made from leaves. Passersby gape at this visitation from the jungle. Additionally they contribute a series of forest photographs by which they pose in arresting costumes, disguised as tree spirits which can be transgender or trans-species. In certainly one of the show’s clearest statements about environmentalism, they place their body within the jaws of a bulldozer.
If Uyra is flashy, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, a Yanomami artist from Venezuela, creates an art of pointed restraint. One in all the treasures on this show is his series of abstracted drawings of leaves, insects and trees on paper handmade from mulberries, cotton and sugar cane. The works, on display on the Power Plant’s second floor, are essential loans from the private collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and from the ABRA gallery in Caracas. One drawing shows a symmetrical line of trees. The farthest on the fitting leans outward: An animal has brushed by and disturbed it, sending small and silent thematic ripples through a giant show of monumental achievements.
Arctic/Amazon continues on the Power Plant in Toronto to Dec. 31.