Interview with Barry Ace / Entrevue avec Barry Ace | Ottawa Art Gallery / Galerie d’art d’Ottawa

Interview with Barry Ace / Entrevue avec Barry Ace | Ottawa Art Gallery / Galerie d’art d’Ottawa


My name is Barry Ace
and I’m living in Ottawa. I’m of Odawa ancestry and I’m a band member of
M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. I’m a practicing visual artist
and I’ve been practicing for probably twenty-five,
thirty years I guess. I work primarily in textile right now,
and I work with reclaimed objects, it includes maps at one point in my career. I will pick up circuit boards
and remove the electronic components and replicate Great Lakes
floral motifs on cultural arts. I draw a lot from my culture. I think most artists
a lot of their work is autobiographical. You’re pretty much pulling
from your past, your history, family history, community history. In terms of the Anishinabe influence
on my work, right now I’m working with electronic components, primarily
capacitors which are round disks that I form into floral motifs
so they replicate Great Lakes beadwork. My work is really a confluence between
the historical and the contemporary. In the Great Lakes area
we used quillwork. That was the natural material that we used,
so beads aren’t even traditional. They came in as an import. Beads are a new technology,
so the electronic components that I’m using is also a new technology. So it just shows
this cultural continuity and our ability to take
contemporary ephemera around us, and still infuse it with
a distinct Anishinabe aesthetic. I guess I looked at
the map as overwriting history. It represented a settler perspective
on the dispossession and relocation of Indigenous peoples on this territory. One time I was out and I came across
a whole bin-full of old school maps that would’ve been
from the 1950s, 60s, maybe into the 70s, exactly from the era
when I was going to school. When I started opening
these maps up and looking at them, they were maps of North America and Canada
and I thought, “Well here’s an opportunity for me to re-write that history,
to provide my own perspective of mapping”. Because mapping
is not just necessarily geographic. It’s not something
that looks at just the land. Mapping is about your identity,
it’s about your culture. So I wanted to use the map
as the tableau, like a canvas, to explore that history
and explore my culture and explore issues
that were of concern to me. So what I started to do was I started
to erase and eradicate any reference to English or French names on locations. I wiped them out.
I did the reverse. I basically took away that authority
and then I started writing in Anishinabemowin on top of the maps,
giving it back its original name. In a lot of my work,
I have addressed stereotypes and I’ve done
almost a reversal in some of the work. Like my Super Phat Nish series
basically takes the vernacular of Nish, which is a street slang for Anishinabe, and
I created a persona called Super Phat Nish. But it’s a ‘PH’ phat, meaning ‘cool’. So what I did was I made
a fictitious character who could transform and address
all of these stereotypes through Pop art. I found that when I renegotiated
those spaces it allowed me to address many of the stereotypes and racism
that I’ve experienced in my own lifetime and give it some kind of perspective,
and turn it around. Using art as a strategy
for addressing those kinds of things like racism
or stereotypes is really important. Also, this whole mythic construct
of Indigenous art that, for example if it’s beadwork
it has to be almost museum quality. And if you add any elements
of modernity into that work, which I do now with
the electronic components and capacitors, it’s often considered not authentic anymore. So I think the museums over the years
have created this big mythic construct that we are an extinct people
and that we must live and our art must live within a stasis,
never changing, never altering from what has been collected
and presented in these institutions. My first initial concern was that
we would be encouraging students to replicate Indigenous art because
it was an Indigenous art in the class room. And I didn’t really want to be a part
of anything that gave authority to people from outside the culture to paint
in a Woodlands style for example, or borrow from other Indigenous cultures. I wanted it to be unique
to their own experience. So I said I would be involved in the project
if they could look at my work and saw how I negotiated those spaces,
how I negotiated the maps and drew from
my own Anishinabe history and culture, and maybe use that as the template
or the model of which they could
also explore their own tradition. Whether they were born and raised here,
perhaps maybe in a francophone family they could use
that experience and that history. Or maybe they’re recent immigrants
or refugees that come from other countries, and they can look at this map of Canada
and how could they re-draw that map, to show their sense of belonging
within this space as well. So that was the idea behind the project,
it was not to replicate Indigenous art, but perhaps use Indigenous art,
contemporary Indigenous art, as a model.

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