Meryl McMaster, Aphoristic Currents, 2013, digital C-Print, courtesy of the artist and Katzman Contemporary
The Fifth World
Mendel Art Gallery
April 3–June 7, 2015
Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery
January 22–March 20, 2016
Curator: Wanda Nanibush
According to Indigenous scholars Jarrett Martineau and Eric Ritskes, Indigenous art defies colonial erasure and “marks the space of a returned and enduring presence, weaving past and future Indigenous worlds into new currents of present struggle.” Amid today’s political chaos and rising environmental degeneration, it is clear that our relationships and responsibilities to each other, the earth, and the future need to be re-considered. The concept of the Fifth World builds on this sense of urgency by framing our present moment as the decisive threshold between building a positive future and realizing a dystopia. An important part of several Indigenous creation stories, including those of the Aztec, Navajo, and Hopi, the Firth World is said to follow four other cycles of creation and destruction and is the final possible world. It is thus extremely precious.
In organizing the exhibition The Fifth World, curator and self-proclaimed “Anishinaabe-kwe image-and-word warrior” Wanda Nanabush was inspired by Almanac of the Dead (1991), a novel written by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko, which describes the powerful liminality of the Fifth World. The exhibition thus centres an Indigenous worldview in which we are naturally connected to each other through the earth, which is considered a shared and finite resource. Its framework builds on this belief—which recalls the Lakota adage “all our relations”—and positions “every assertion of Indigenous sovereignty on the land [as an act of] dreaming”—an opportunity to create a different future for our children, and our children’s children.
The work presented in The Fifth World reminds us that Indigenous ways of life have always involved a profound respect for, and deep commitment to, past, present, and future forms of life. Presented at two galleries—first at the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, and later at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Kitchener—the exhibition marked the twentieth anniversary of Tribe Inc., the Saskatoon-based artist-run centre dedicated to the presentation of contemporary Indigenous art and its engagement with social and political issues. While Francophone and Northern perspectives often go overlooked in mainstream curating, The Firth World featured the work of eleven Indigenous artists from Alaska, British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, Nunavut, and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as on and off-reserve communities. Here, Nanibush’s thoughtful curatorial selection directly reflects her expertise in the field, which she acquired working as a curator, educator, artist, and organizer for more than twenty years.
Turtles (2012), an installation by Vancouver-based artist Charlene Vickers, uses the ancient reptile referred to in its title—an important creature within many Indigenous creation stories—as a means of engaging with questions of past, present, and future life. It features a clan of stylized, yet still easily recognizable turtles grouped together on the gallery floor as if they were slowly moving. Vickers’ use of the turtle clan evokes Indigenous memory, while the turtles’ implied journey suggests a re-tracing, re-claiming, and return to pre-contact or non-colonial ways of life. The turtles also evoke a number of other relevant issues: our location on Turtle Island, whose name comes from an Indigenous creation story in which the earth emerges on a turtle’s back; the longstanding evidence of turtle habitation in North America and around the world; the species’ demonstrated communal and intergenerational relationships; as well as the vulnerability of living beings on Mother Earth, where many turtles are now endangered. As such, the turtle’s future, like our own, demands greater consideration and respect in order to ensure the sustainability of future generations.
Another potent symbol of interconnection—the round dance—is visible in the sculptural installation L’nuwelti’k (We Are Indian) (ongoing since 2012), by Halifax-based artist Ursula Johnson. This work reminds us of the unique interrelationships forged between bodies as they gather in public spaces such as galleries, or participate in grassroots movements like Idle No More (of which Nanibush was an active member). Using traditional Mi’kmaq techniques learned from her great-grandmother, the late basketry artist Caroline Gould, Johnson fashioned sixteen, hand-made black ash baskets for the installation, positioning each one upright so that it resembled a bust. Each “bust” was made to the dimensions of volunteers, who responded to an open call based on their “Indian status.” As such, they stand in for the sitter’s body, as well as their “status story,” and thus function as both unique portraits and embodied repositories of Indigenous oral histories. The circular installation of baskets featured in The Fifth World presents a diverse image of the Indigenous community, one that includes Nanibush herself, as she modeled for one of Johnson’s baskets. Reflecting on the process, Nanibush makes significant connections to other life forms, and describes thinking repeatedly of birds while she was modelling for Johnson. In her words, “I could hear the birds as [Johnson] covered my face. Later when she was by a body of water finishing my bust she said the sky filled with birds.”
Birds are also significant in Ottawa-based artist Meryl McMaster’s photographic triptych, Murmur (2013), in which we see life-size images of the artist encircled by a constellation of birds in flight. Interested in the starling’s unique pattern of migration, also known as a murmuration, McMaster hand-crafted hundreds of starlings and then fashioned them into a huge spiral shape reminiscent of the birds’ collective flight in which each individual is as important to the other as it is to the whole. McMaster’s origami-like birds, which were made from the pages of vintage North-American history textbooks, evoke the ways in which “our identities are strongly influenced by our stories and language(s).” Other works by McMaster included in the exhibition also feature self-portraits with photographic and theatrical props made from recycled paper and processes of re-construction. For example, Aphoristic Currents (2013), from the series In-Between Worlds, depicts a scene in which McMaster dons an extravagant, oversized ruff made of newsprint, her head poking out of the centre as if from the middle of a windstorm. In it, the artist gazes outward, her face painted white with black spots—a theatrical strategy meant to call attention to McMaster’s mixed Indigenous-European background, as well as the ways in which “whiteness has been imposed on Indigenous bodies and their cultures,” including her own Algonquian ancestors. Using photography to capture this sense of in-betweeness, McMaster represents “our relationship with the past and how such pasts are defined by the present,” thus leaving room for viewers to negotiate and envision new ways of being in the Fifth World.
Although it was made five years ago, Sitka-based artist Nicholas Galanin’s installation The American Dream is Alive and Well (2012) offers pertinent commentary on the political chaos currently unfolding in America. For this work, Galanin reconfigured a traditional bearskin rug, like those often found in “all-American” cabins and homes, replacing its pelt with a star-spangled American flag and the animal’s teeth and claws with .50 caliber bullets. Here, direct references to the Confederacy and the right to bear arms underscore American nationalism’s roots in the oppression of others through settler property rights and the displacement and attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, as well as entrenched systems of white power and militarism. Galanin’s artwork also calls to mind historical colonial massacres, such as Wounded Knee, as well as the ongoing, genocidal violence carried out by police, military, and white supremacists (aka “white nationalists”) against Indigenous and other marginalized peoples. By emphasizing what is a stake in the “American dream”—symbolized by the nation’s flag—Galanin’s artwork asks viewers to re-consider the complexities of nation-building in light of past and present atrocities, but also to contemplate how our understandings of history can help us to imagine more just ways of living together on contested territories.
Other Indigenous artists featured in the exhibition include Sonny Assu (Liǥwildaʼxw territory), Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory (Iqaluit), Scott Benesiinaabandan (Montreal), Jordan Bennett (Stephenville Crossing), Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Anchorage), Skeena Reece (Vancouver Island) and Travis Shilling (Rama First Nation). Together their work reflects the ways in which “Indigenous peoples have been protecting homelands; maintaining and revitalizing languages, traditions, and cultures; and attempting to engage Canadians in a fair and just manner for hundreds of years.” Despite these efforts, our current situation reflects an urgent need to rethink our relationship with the land, its gifts, and each other. We are at an important crossroads akin to the Fifth World, where the very life sources in which we all share—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—continue to be degraded, exploited, contaminated, and capitalized upon. The works in The Fifth World remind us that Indigenous peoples have always demonstrated thoughtful and sustainable ways of living, and that non-Indigenous peoples need to reconsider their relationship with the earth. Recalling the Hopi prophecy of “an impending choice between destruction and conflict”—or, ostensibly, between life and death--The Fifth World shows us that Indigenous peoples made a choice long ago to respect the earth and that we should follow them.
Ellyn Walker is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.
 Jarrett Martineau and Eric Ritskes, “Fugitive Indigeneity: Reclaiming the Terrain of Decolonial Struggle Through Indigenous Art,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 16, 3 (2014): 1-12.
 Laura Shackelford, “Counter-Networks in a Network Society: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead,” Postmodern Culture Journal 16, 3 (May 2006) http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/issue.506/16.3shackelford.html.
 Wanda Nanibush, curatorial statement, The Fifth World (Kitchener-Waterloo, ON: Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, 2016).
 Wanda Nanibush, “20 Years of Tribe: Milestones and Future Horizons,” interview by Bryne McLaughlin, Canadian Art, May 28, 2015, https://canadianart.ca/features/20-years-of-tribe-milestones-and-future-horizons.
 Meryl McMaster, artist statement, Murmur, 2014, http://merylmcmaster.com.
 Ellyn Walker, “Representing the Self through Ancestry: Meryl McMaster’s Ancestral Portraits,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 15, 1 (2015): 2.
 McMaster, artist statement.
 The Kino-nda-niimi Collective, ed., The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement (Winnipeg: Arp Books, 2014), 21.
 Nanibush, curatorial statement.