PROJECT SPACE / 24 June to 14 July 2011
RMIT SITUATE is commencing an annual Indigenous residency exchange between Canada and Australia. The University of Lethbridge in Canada has selected Tanya Harnett, First Nation artist and Co-chair of Native American Studies, to undertake the inaugural exchange. Tanya has a substantial profile in North America as both an artist and Indigenous rights spokesperson. The School of Art SITUATE Program is proud to host this initiative on behalf of the University.
New Work by Tanya Harnett
The continuing presence of ancestors in our lives and our own ongoing existence in the lives of our descendants is a deep mystery at the heart of all world systems of thought and belief. In many, certain material phenomena are held to breach the barriers presented by mundane time and space. The transformational power of fire is primary among these, and in many spiritual systems it constitutes both a technology for offering and sacrifice and a compelling image of spiritual power. Fire, the analogue of the sun, is the source of heat, light, generative force and life itself. It consumes and transforms as it burns, changing the organic and the earthbound into smoke and incense that are borne on the air into the cosmic realms where ultimate powers reside.
The Assiniboine artist Tanya Harnett uses the image of smoke to reflect on these transformational mysteries. In her recent works she reaches through multiple layers of identity to discover continuities of existence across time and space. Smoke and its analogues—fog, vapour, mist, incense—move through communal historical memory to the personal identity contained in the name that has been bestowed upon her, Satoya Mani Win, "Smoke from Sweet Grass." In Harnett's community, the Carry the Kettle First Nation of Saskatchewan, as in Aboriginal communities throughout eastern and central Canada, sweet grass is the primary agent of ritual purification. To burn a braid of this pungent, sweet smelling swamp grass at the start of a ceremony, an important meeting, or a new project, to draw its smoke over one's heart, head and limbs, is to cleanse and clear the mind so that one's being can focus effectively on the matter at hand.
To be given the name Satoya Mani Win by an Elder whose penetrating wisdom reveals one's unique qualities of spirit and body is also to be given unique responsibilities. Harnett's current drawings participate in a project of spiritual exploration and visualization. They are realized with black charcoal, a medium that is itself a product of the transformative power of fire, and we read them by following the direction of the rising smoke. At the bottom of each image intense passages of white bring us close to the earthbound fire. As the smoke rises it greys and thins and dances on the currents of air; it is a residue of earthbound specificity and history that dissipates and becomes one with the unseen and the unknown.
In a parallel manner, the drawings carry the meditation on history, materiality and immateriality that Harnett began in her 2007 photographic installation "Skull Mountainettes" to a new level of abstraction. That work, commissioned for an exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, responded to a late nineteenth-century drawing in the museum's collection. Made by the Assiniboine ledger book artist Hongeyeesa, the image had previously been interpreted as a depiction of one of the first steamboats to appear in Assiniboine territory (1). Harnett drew on her grandfather's memoirs to add a further historical reference to the devastating impact of the smallpox epidemic that decimated her community during the same years. The hills where the skulls of those lost were placed—and where Hongeyeesa had lived—appear in two large photographs, half shrouded by an eerie fog that hangs in front of them. Between these images she positioned a pedestal case whose glass top was filled with mist produced by the same kind of machine she had used to create the vapour in the photographs. This device both played on the materiality of fog and the impossibility of trapping immaterial ancestral presence and revealed the artist's role as artificer. In the new drawings, she provides a different answer to the question of how our search for knowledge of ancestors and to understand the legacy of the past. In these images, the vaporous essence no longer hangs in the air as a static miasma of death and disease. Rather, the smoke of sweet grass rises as an image of ephemeral human life itself and its resistance to disappearance. They are images that suggest the strengthening of spiritual power that comes with the renewal of ceremony and the affirmation of memory.
Ruth Phillips, May 31, 2011
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
1. Tracing History: Presenting the Unpresentable. Harnett was one of four artists invited to make art that responded to historic works in the Glenbow's collections. It marked the twentieth anniversary of The Glenbow's showing of The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples, a supershow that created an historic controversy and led to new collaborative models of work between Canadian museums and Indigenous peoples.
The SITUATE exchange program between the University of Lethbridge and RMIT presents a unique opportunity for Indigenous artists to engage with another Indigenous community to expand their worldview and to inform their practice.
The First Peoples of Canada and Australia share a similar colonialist history. Colonialization has had a profoundly negative effect on Aboriginal society. This trauma has left a severe and extreme loss of culture, language and traditional ways of knowing. In addition, Australia and Canada share a similar history of government policy-run mission and residential schools. The result is an extensive list of ongoing problems in the Aboriginal communities in both of our countries. Some of these shared experiences have brought us to consider and develop a unique Indigenous global perspective.
The relative isolation of Australia has meant Indigenous peoples, until recent times, had have little opportunity to travel overseas and acquaint themselves with other Indigenous communities. As the oldest living culture in the world, it is important that Australian Indigenous artists share the richness of their culture and cultural practices. In turn, our Aboriginal artists will be influenced by the art and culture of other Indigenous communities. When visiting Australia, Canadian First Nations artists will be imbued with our culture—uniting us and laying a foundation for our collective understanding of the issues we face in our Indigenous communities.
The SITUATE exchange is a wonderful occasion to celebrate the commonalities of our two ancient cultures and their survival against all odds. It is for this reason I commend the exchange of Indigenous artists between both the University of Lethbridge and RMIT. I am looking forward to further developing our friendships and the possibility of expanding our interaction.
Associate Lecturer, Indigenous Specialisation, RMIT University
Tanya Harnett is a guest of RMIT University through the School of Art international Artist in Residence Program — SITUATE. The School acknowledges and welcomes Tanya as a professional artist within the School community.
SITUATE is global in attitude, action and presence—connecting people through art and generating opportunities for creative experimentation, cross-cultural dialogue and international mobility. SITUATE gratefully acknowledges and recognizes the support of the Vice-Chancellor and President of RMIT, Professor Margaret Gardner AO; the Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President, Professor Colin Fudge; and the Head of the School of Art, Professor Elizabeth Grierson.