Charlene Vickers’ Accumulation of Moments Spent Under Water with the Sun and Moon is an art show with the future on its mind. The Vancouver-based Ojibway artist has crafted a show full of modern materials and traditional motifs to comment on, and challenge preconceptions about, Indigenous art and life in 21st century Canada.
The meeting between modern and ancient media is clearly a statement in and of itself. Her “Ovoid Traces” is a collection of felt and textile faces in the style of traditional Anishinaabe art, while “Not for Trade” features moccasins made from consumerist materials like cardboard beer cases.
Some of the footwear is adorned with slogans laid out in beadwork, like “The customer is always right,” or “Consumer tips.”
The statements inherent in these works are made more compelling by their complexity. Every avenue Vickers opens runs both ways. Everything is as personal as it is political. On a macro level, the tradition of making art with available, everyday materials meets with critiques about Indigenous art traditions being appropriated for commercial reasons.
But on a personal scale, Vickers engages with how ethnic identity impacts people’s relationship to the world around them. By infusing present-day objects with styles that have deep ancestral roots, she comments on how people’s identity becomes the prism through which they view the world. In the case of many marginalized peoples, it’s also the prism through which the world views them.
This feels especially potent in Winnipeg, a city where racism has been the subject of Maclean’s cover stories and has necessitated massive community organizations like the Bear Clan Patrol and Drag the Red to counteract police and government inaction on issues of Indigenous safety. Any Winnipegger who has been privy to that venomous racism will recognize the stereotype that moccasins made of beer cases is commenting on.
Calling out those stereotypes is an undercurrent throughout the show. Pieces from Vickers’ opening performance, such as cardboard megaphones and a large rectangular frame, are clear statements that there’s nothing passive about her intentions.
The show is vocal and confrontational, but it isn’t one-dimensional. The active protest inherent in the work doesn’t mean that Vickers is offering easy solutions. Identity, colonial racism, reconciliation and life in 2017 aren’t clean or simple affairs. They’re messy and morally complex.
The interplay of simplicity/complexity and tradition/modernity is also present in the formal aspects of Vickers’ work. Her paintings, displayed in multiple collections in the show, are deceptively simple watercolours and wood panel works that explore repeating patterns of shape and colour. While the patterns are rigid and geometric, within them flows the fluid imperfections of watercolour paint or wood grain patterns peeking out from behind a coat of paint.
While these paintings are a huge visual departure from her other works, they’re thematically congruous with Accumulation of Moments Spent Under Water with the Sun and Moon. Everything here is about the conversation between the organic and the manufactured, the rigid and the fluid, the simple ideal and the complex, problematic reality.