A new art exhibit in Vancouver is reaching for the hot, funny, and healthy part of native sexuality, and Tlingit artists from the Yukon and Alaska are getting in on the action.
The show, called RezErect: Native Erotica, opened on Sept. 25 in Vancouver with the gallery filled to capacity, and there is still plenty of time to go down, because it will continue until Feb. 16.
Whitehorse resident Sharon Shorty has artwork in the show, a little something she sewed together from her imagination.
“They’re culturally-appropriate, edible panties,” Shorty says, whose ancestry is Tlingit and Northern Tutchone. “They’re made from seaweed, with abalone shell buttons and leather.”
Edible panties are a staple at XXX-adult stores, but where can you get a culturally-appropriate pair?
The exhibit is a source of erotica that hits home with First Nations people, but could be a turn-on for anyone – although it’s not porn.
“I think pornography is shame-based – almost a put-down,” Shorty says. “For me, erotica in this show is about empowerment and owning our own sexuality, and reclaiming it.”
Although the show is playful, it also addresses the crippling effects that residential schools have had on the sexuality of several generations of First Nations people.
“The Truth and Reconciliation event happened the week before the show opened, and thousands of people gathered and heard people talk about their confusion about sexuality because of abuse,” Shorty says.
How does a victim of sexual abuse figure out how to have a healthy sexual relationship? Or figure out whether or not they’re gay, since their body responded to sexual abuse from a member of the same sex? There’s healing that needs to be done around sexuality, and the Native Erotica show is spreading the topic wide open.
“Stories I’ve heard from the old elders are that there didn’t use to be shame around sexuality, and when you get First Nations together we’re always giggling about something sexy,” Shorty says. “There’s always jokes and flirting and innuendos – and this show is like that.”
And Gramma Susie is like that. Shorty stepped into her Gramma Susie personae at the opening reception, along with her stage sidekick Cash Creek Charlie, a.k.a. Duane Aucoin. Together the two played with the audience of 300 people, teasing and flirting with them, and cracking jokes that would make some blush.
Shorty is well-known for her improv performances as Gramma Susie, but less known for her visual art. She is skilled at traditional sewing and weaving, although her last show was 20 years ago.
But she had never made edible panties before, and had never sewn seaweed before.
“Seaweed is part of traditional culture, because we’re originally from the coast, and that’s part of our traditional foods,” Shorty says. “And I have to say, I have the only edible piece in the show, out of 28 artists.”
The participants in the show are mid-career and internationally recognized First Nations artists from the northwest coast and central Canada. Among them are four Tingit artists: Sharon Shorty and Carcross-Teslin First Nation member Robin Lovelace-Smith; and Nicolas Galanin and Preston Singletary from Alaska.
Sculptor Robin Lovelace-Smith, who lives in Anchorage, has two pieces in the show: a cast steel mask called Predator Cannibal, and a stylized traditional hammer made of limestone, called TOOL.
TOOL looks like it’s at home in an erotica show; it is L-shaped, with the top part in the shape of vulva and the horizontal part in the shape of a penis. Lovelace-Smith’s artist statement says Predator Cannibal is “the Eater of Illness – Restorer of Justice,” and TOOL is his instrument of justice, using the energies of both sexes to “to bring about that balance.”
It’s a pretty heavy use of sexual imagery. And therein lies the power of inviting 28 artists to show erotic artworks: each one offers their own specialty, with the show fluctuating between stimulation to the body and to the mind.
The RezErect: Native Erotica show was co-curated by Gwaai Edenshaw and Kwiaahwah Jones. It runs until Feb. 16 at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver.