Have you ever thought about the details of moccasins? What does it mean to wear feather earrings? Is bannock still bannock when it’s cut in a triangle and served with tea and called a scone? These are questions being raised by the local art collective the Ephemerals.
Consisting of artists Jaimie Isaac, Niki Little and Jenny Western, these three have taken up the task of creating Trending, a cross-media experience that delves into what it means to be aboriginal in today’s globalized world. The women are using their creativity to ask questions of appropriation, culture, history and stereotyping.
The question of representation as contemporary aboriginal women has been pertinent.
“How does this indigenous fashion trend affect the public?” asks Jenny Western, one third of the Ephemerals.
“We want people to become aware of cultural appropriation,” she says, noting that the Ephemerals do not have the answers.
Part of the Trending project involves the Ephemerals interacting with people on and around the University of Winnipeg campus. Using the Anthropology department’s collection of traditional aboriginal clothing, they contrast it with contemporary indigenous appropriations.
“There is a kind of ‘hipster tribalism’ going on,” Western says, explaining why Ray Ban knock-offs adorn the mannequin in the Trending display. “We’re trying to be engaging to what people wear and why.”
She notes that the collection of moccasins likely came out of commoditized circumstances, that they were made for exchange. “These items fill an ethnographical identity. We’re asking (by juxtaposing displays) who or what were these made for?”
Dissemination of cultures happens everywhere.
Part of the Ephemerals’ approach to the Trending project is “performative embedment.” Not unlike foreign journalists who live in hostile or difficult environments, the artists have delved into the campus to begin their quest for understanding.
Trending has had a few different performative elements, including an hour on CKUW 95.9 FM radio, a flash mob playing powwow drumming on a portable iPod dock and a bake sale.
Some of these events may have passed unnoticed by students. The events were done in a playful manner, and often with subtlety. For an art event that relies on responses, it can be a tall order.
The bake sale looked at food appropriation and the variety of bread products that all have the same ingredients as bannock. Yet some people still insisted on having scones over bannock.
“We can all agree on baked goods,” Western says. “Yet people have given different kinds of responses to the same foods.”
In the coming months, other projects are planned to build on what Trending has begun.
The display case on the fourth floor will change, there will be round table discussions, a film night in October will look at traditional Cowichan Sweaters (or Mary Maxims, for those rural Canadians) and how such things permeate or become appropriated by the mainstream.
“As university students are trained to think critically, it’s important not to passively respond to trends (of appropriation),” Maxim says. “We’re not trying to damn, but to bring dialogue.”
Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg presents an artists’ roundtable discussion with The Ephemerals on Friday, Sept. 30 at 12:30 p.m. in room 2M71 at the U of W. Trending is on display until Saturday, Dec. 3 in the U of W’s Anthropology Museum. Visit http://theephemerals.wordpress.com.
Published in Volume 66, Number 5 of The Uniter (September 29, 2011)