Embrace of the Indian Brand

Horror and wonder have a close kinship, and the relational blood between them is the potential for transformation.

Joseph Tisiga grew up bouncing between a divorced father and mother and self-describes as a nomadic person who became used to movement in his youth, having doubled home bases in Northern Alberta and the Yukon.

The Whitehorse artist embraces the line between trauma and transformation in his current exhibition at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City.

The paintings, collages and watercolour drawings appear under the title “Indian Brand Corporation: Summoning the White Shaman, Conjuring the Red Chief”.

As a group, they communicate magic, delusion, excitement and transformation.

“I didn’t feel like giving them a title would be the right idea because then it makes it about the individual piece instead of what they’re doing together,” he says.

“I see them all as artifacts of the thought process going on, what I was exploring within the characters and between the characters. Actually I almost see them as episodic.”

The 26-year-old Kaska Dene artist has worked in creative writing. He was a co-writer of the play The River play that Nakai Theatre recently mounted in Whitehorse.

But visual language is his strongest medium right now.

His artistic output was publicly recognized this spring when he was long-listed for the prestigious Sobey Award (a $50,000 prize for Canadian artists under 40), and last weekend when he won the Canadian Aboriginal Arts Challenge that Historica-Dominion awards annually.

Tisiga did not grow up painting, but came to visual art in his late teens when living with a fellow artistic skateboarder in Winnipeg.

After years of toying with drawing, he spent 14 months in France, doing odd jobs, living on a razor-thin budget and commuting between Paris and an artist community near Valence.

He was spending time with filmmakers, painters, sculptors and a whole group of circus performers, he recalls.

“I still didn’t really know anything about art … but I learned there that you do whatever – you just do, you just make, and you build up creative tools.”

In Paris, Tisiga started making installation art on the streets.

“I’d organize these tea parties downtown,” he says. “I’d gather everything I could find from the streets and dumpster diving – rugs and chairs and all kinds of stuff – bundle it all up and take it downtown and have a tea party and serve cookies.”

Back in Whitehorse, he ran into the 204 collective and was encouraged by Mario Villeneuve, Scott Price and other names still known in the Yukon art scene today.

He started focusing on indigenous iconography in 2009, when he created the fictional Indian Brand Corporation (IBC).

At first, the IBC was a strongly political comment on the conflicts between indigenous and corporate relationships to culture, ecosystems and ancestors.

The common themes Tisiga names as “globally indigenous” are respect for the world, respect for ancestors, for traditional stories and myths and symbols.

“And the non-indigenous is anyone or anything that will exploit the land for gain – for isolated gain,” he adds.

“So the irony of the IBC is the indigenous and non-indigenous together. The Indian Brand Corporation seems to come right out of Brave New World because it plays on our expectations of what indigenous and corporate should be.”

As the work evolved, though, Tisiga felt that making solely political work “doesn’t give you enough room to roam around.” He began thinking of the corporation as human, and the characters of the White Shaman and the Red Chief gradually appeared.

This makes sense in light of the structured economic reality that a corporation is considered a person, in a limited way, in a legal sense.

Red Chief and the White Shaman are characters who embody parts of the IBC that Tisiga is still developing.

“In particular I’m interested in the difference between what something looks like and what it is. It looks like it’s something aggressive and maybe violent, but maybe it’s not that.”

Making the show, Tisiga says he thought a lot about the idea of magic – stage magic.

“That led me to explore the idea of the Red Chief and the White Shaman in a bit of a different way. I began thinking about stage magic rather than spiritual magic; illusion versus material phenomenon.”

Another interesting idea with the “magic show” context was the classification in stage illusion of transformation and regeneration – the idea that you could change an apple into a pigeon (transformation) or saw a woman in half and then put her together again (regeneration).

“With that whole art of illusion you can create such strong metaphors in such a fluffy entertainment medium,” he muses.

Looking at Tisiga’s series of paintings and drawings, there are blends and mash-ups between West Coast First Nation designs, Kaska masks, South American indigenous sculptures from centuries ago, and ancient Greek symbols, to name a few.

Tisiga transforms indigenous symbols and metaphors deliberately. Surrealists and other painters in the early 20th century looked to “primitive cultures” for magic and transformation (Tisiga cites Giorgio de Chirico, whose architectural paintings many Surrealists embraced, as a direct influence for this show).

Now this indigenous artist of Yukon and Northern Alberta is looking back at Surrealism, taking his own measure of the transformative possibilities the relationship can present.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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