reflective tape, aboriginal, metal, road signs, land claims

Frequent Stoppng II, installation view at Toronto Power Plant, Toronto, Canada

 



The New Gallery

#212, Art Central, 100 7th Ave SW, Calgary, AB, T2P 0W4

 

Rolande Souliere was originally born in Toronto, Ontario, and is Michopicoten First Nation.  Growing up she attended after-school workshops that taught her traditional regalia but it was not until she migrated to Australia in 1999 that she started practicing as a professional artist.  In Australia Souliere recognised and identified with many indigenous issues in common with Canada and her move there was pivotal in enabling her to look at her background from new perspectives, which now inform her work.  Early in her formal training at Sydney College of the Arts, one of Australia’s leading art schools, Souliere started to combine different artforms and cross-cultural influences in installation works.  As her work developed, this approach enabled Souliere to reflect on contemporary indigeneity and articulate her unique cultural perspective through her practice.

 

A common thread through much of Souliere’s work, including this exhibition, is the repetition of elements peripheral to driving.  In earlier works, Souliere tended to engage with car features that in ordinary usage are used for communication between drivers and to illuminate the road: in one series there are installation assemblages of tail-lights; in another jossling headlamps.  In more recent works the artist’s focus seems to be on more codified road communications: directions/directives for drivers, ranging from GPS to roadside barriers and signs.  What all these share is that they are indicators, or more specifically: signs and warnings to drivers on their journey.  All of these works draw broadly on metaphors of the road, the experience of driving, the relationship between drivers and authority, and what the automobile itself has come to represent.  From the road trip to the advertising conventions of the car pictured on the open road or driving into the wilderness, the car is epitomised by the imagined autonomy it will enable.  Souliere’s works instead highlight how regulated and controlled the road—the space that defines and prescribes where we can go in a car—in fact is.  This is in stark contrast to the enduring myth of the car as a symbol of individual freedom and choice.  The myth persists to the point that obtaining a driving licence has become a right of passage—a key step in gaining independence—and the car is widely considered as the most defining of status symbols.  However, in other ways the car has permeated almost every aspect of our lives in terms of its massive socio-economic reach, from foreign policy over access to oil to the dominance of the road within the landscape.  In North America, the rapid rise of the automobile was concomitant with intensive development of infrastructure, (mass) production, and (mass) consumption.  If the railways drove the expansion of European colonisation, settlement, and industrialisation deeper into the North American continent in the 19th century, then the automobile accelerated this transformation in the 20th. 

 

Whilst Souliere’s work revolves around one of the most powerful tropes of Western cultural hegemony, many of the artwork titles refer to aspects of indigenous North American thought and need to be considered in the light of this context.  These references underpin Souliere’s practice, but are always in dialogue with—and perhaps questions the logic of—dominant (Western) thought.  In so doing they resist overly romanticised or simplistic readings of traditional First Nations culture.  So it is essential to look at Souliere’s recent exhibition at The New Gallery [TNG] and the artist’s wider body of work not just in terms of the role of the car or driving within Western culture, but also in terms of the references the artist makes to the notion of The Good Red Road or “the one who is walking the road of a balanced life.”  This is common to many Native American communities, not just the Michopicoten, and is both an ethical code and a cosmology.  In this context, Souliere’s work is asking profound questions about the journey we all make in life, the footprint or marks we make that we leave behind, the resources we use, and the sustainability of the way we live.  To follow the railroad or auto-road reveals productivist economic expansion, technological ‘progress’, and the exercise of colonial power overlaid on pathways where sustainable management and trade of resources had previously followed animal migration routes for generations before.

 

In Souliere’s recent works, such as Point of Origin (2008) and many of the works in the exhibition at TNG, she replaces mass-produced laser-cut graphics on road signs with hand-cut patterns based on traditional motifs.  In these the reflective vinyl retains the grammar of the familiar graphics it replaces but to an uninitiated audience the patterns resist reading in a reversal of the usual direction of the superimposition of one language and/or culture over another.  Reasserting the culturally specific in place of the generic sign subverts the notion that such signs are not subject to interpretation: no graphic, representation, or sign can be universally or unambiguously understood.  Learner drivers have to learn not only how to read the road but how to read—and by implication, obey—the signs regulating road use.  Here, Souliere’s interest in the exercise of authority is highlighted in the works that take the shape of signs that would ordinarily carry directives, for example a “stop” sign or speed limit, and the underlying subtext is fundamentally about whose law is being asserted through such signs? What is the legitimacy of that law? And over whom does it have authority?  In other related works, the artist’s focus has shifted from signs that ordinarily assert directives to those that give directions.  In these works to most viewers the sign no longer gives directions, but the legends and mythology referenced in the motifs—recognisable to a specific audience—speak of other types of directions or guidance for the journey of life, knowledge passed down from generation to generation.  In one installation of these signs, they were accompanied by the kind of tape that is usually put up around a crash site, investigation area, or hazard.  Instead of acting as a barrier to the visitor’s body, it was adhered to the floor, zig-zagging across the entire floor-space of the gallery, demarcating or claiming the ground as a kind of “no-go zone” but which was overlooked and trodden over by most visitors.  This exhibition GPS: The Good Red Road (at Peloton, Sydney, in 2009) commemorated a road trip the artist, her mother, and sister made between Vancouver and Seattle and the numerous signs they saw acknowledging First Nation reservations along the way.  In her TNG exhibition the hazard tape not only crosses the ground but extends across most walls of the gallery, even wrapping around architectural details and fittings.  As a wall drawing it registers far more prominence within the overall installation than the artist’s previous use of hazard tape, making it far more difficult for a visitor to miss that they have just been walking over part of the work once they are within the space.  Here a visitor’s unwitting transgression of a basic gallery taboo is a subtle but powerful metaphor for historical disregard of indigenous land-rights.  The way in which the visibility of the lines drawn by the tape changes according to whether you are inside or entering the space emphasises how the perception of boundaries shifts according to perspective.  In fixing the tape to the walls and the floor, rather than it being temporarily suspended between different points as in its ordinary usage, the artist territorialises the gallery space in a gesture that speaks of reclamation: demarcating lines that cannot be successively drawn and redrawn.

 

Central within the space of the main areas of the TNG exhibition sit sand bags, as if refusing to “perform” their expected function (to weigh down the base of a temporary sign or barrier).  Without the standing sign to signal their presence, the sand bags are like “sleeping policemen” or speed-humps in the gallery: obstacles lying in wait to trip an unsuspecting or unobservant visitor, in spite of the conspicuous detailing with high-visibility reflective fabrics on their covers.  This work perhaps more than any other in the exhibition provides an insight into the artist’s unique sense of humour and subversiveness.  Here, not only has the sign itself been completely removed but its authority has been reduced by the artist to “dead weight”.  Amongst other installations where the artist has deployed obstacles within the gallery space, the artist has made a series of works with road barriers.  With these, in a similar approach to the works using road signs, Souliere has replaced the common graphics with her own emblems and installed the barriers with the main horizontal bar only supported at one end and the other end resting on the ground: as if in the process of being dismantled.  This is another example of her “upsetting the order” with which the objects that she appropriates and embellishes are usually encountered.  It points not only to the ad hoc appropriation of barriers in street protests but to a more subtle defiance of the standard stance of a barrier, in what the artist has described before as “a gesture that indicates First Nations people are not subject to a conforming structure, like the ‘Indian Act’.”  In this sense, Souliere’s use of readymades in her hybrid forms is very particular: she often combines mass-produced objects with the trace of her hand in gestures that reassert traditional practices over appropriated industrially-made materials.  This is demonstrated, for example, in Connections / Disconnections, 2007, where a standard hazard lamp is transformed into a totem decorated with a “headdress” of reflectors and telecommunications wire.  This is one of the works that refers most pointedly to how much indigenous culture and language has been lost with European contact, colonisation, and subsequent government interventions.  Souliere identifies many parallels between indigenous issues in Canada and Australia, with the legacy of Canada’s residential schools program and Australia’s Stolen Generation being the most damaging in terms of disenfranchising aboriginal people from their heritage.  The works Souliere made around the time of Connections / Disconnections were a direct response to the Australian government’s announcement and implementation of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response in 2007.  Widely criticised as a throwback to discriminatory, paternalistic policy this involved measures such as: the suspension the permit system, which had previously enabled indigenous community councils to control entry to their lands; compulsory acquisition of townships held under the title provisions of the Native Title Act (1993); quarantining of welfare benefits in designated communities; the deployment of additional police and the army; and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

 

Lights and reflectors recur throughout other works, notably the Thunderbirds series made from headlamps and the Young Binessiwags series made from taillights (both from 2006).  These draw on the almost ubiquitous urban experience of driving in slow-moving, heavy traffic and watching lines of these lights weaving through each other.  They are also heavily influenced, as referenced in the titles, by the Thunderbirds or Binessiwags legend in Anishinabek mythology: the flashing of the Thunderbird’s brightly lit eyes creating lightning in a storm.  Customarily, shiny or reflective objects would be hidden during a storm, to avoid attracting the Thunderbird.  In the repetition of facing reflective surfaces in the sign and barrier installations, and the use of assemblages of multiple lamps containing both lights and reflectors, there is a logic of accumulation.  Within this narrative, as latent storm attractors and creators they hold the potential of a self-perpetuating, self-accumulating storm cycle.  In the context of The Good Red Road, the two Thunderbird-related series refer to how the balance in life’s journey is changed by travelling with others and on paths already mapped out.  In other words, following others in this logic of accumulation is a way of life that is out of balance.  At the heart of Souliere’s work there is an exploration of the incommensurability of The Good Red Road—a way of living and acting that is sustainable—with a mainstream North American and Western lifestyle that is intrinsically bound to the socio-economic cycle of mass-production and consumption.  Exhibiting in Calgary, a city dominated by the oil industry, the broader and more pervasive contexts of the road and car-related references layered through Souliere’s work are heightened.  Essentially, this work poses the question of where these roads are leading us and asks why we are not heeding any of the warning signs.

  Claire Taylor, 2010