Maria Hupfield: The One Who Keeps On Giving

The artist addresses the current reality of Canada's Indigenous people through objects activated by performances

By Bill Clarke

Maria Hupfield, The One Who Keeps On Giving, 2017 (installation view). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Power Plant, Toronto

The Power Plant, Toronto, 28 January – 14 May 2017

Founded in the 1880s by Christian churches and the Federal government, Canada’s ‘residential school’ system was meant to assimilate the country’s Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian culture and encourage economic self-sufficiency. Instead, for over 100 years, Indigenous children were taken from their families and put into isolating and abusive environments where their culture was stripped from them. The last residential school closed in 1996, and while subsequent governments have issued apologies and negotiated reconciliation agreements, the sad fact remains that, as Canada marks its sesqui-centennial and positions itself internationally as a country that values multiculturalism, thousands of Indigenous people live in underresourced communities where high rates of poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are the norm.

Brooklyn-based Maria Hupfield is one of several Indigenous artists from Canada, including Kent Monkman, Rebecca Belmore and Krista Belle Stewart, whose work addresses this legacy of the residential schools and the current lived realities of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. But where these other artists confront, Hupfield lulls, and leaves her work more open to interpretation.

A display of charming objects – a cassette tape, a full-size canoe, sunglasses and a camera, all recreated by the artist out of felt – opens the exhibition. Hupfield employs these items during performances. The canoe appears in the video Jiimann (Canoe) (2015), filmed in a courtyard of Campo dei Gesuiti in Venice. Hupfield enters, dragging the cumbersome sculpture behind her. She removes her sneakers, rubs her bare feet and dons a pair of silky opera-length gloves before mooring the canoe to the courtyard’s fountain. She then has a drink before exiting, leaving her canoe, wine glass, gloves and shoes behind. The performance thus presents a kind of claim to this 860-year-old Catholic church by sailing into it (and leaving a mess), like the Europeans did the Americas.

In It Is Never Just About Sustenance or Pleasure, produced for 2016’s Site Santa Fe, Hupfield hikes across a landscape of parched plants and small streams, carrying a backpack and wearing large felt boots and gloves. At the video’s end, Hupfield removes her protective gear and resumes her trek barefoot. Why she continues her journey with feet and hands unclad is left for viewers to ponder. Perhaps the artist is shedding the ‘civilising’ accoutrements that impede her from directly connecting with the natural world.

A new performance, commissioned by the Power Plant, gives the exhibition its title, which is also an English translation of Hupfield’s mother’s Anishinaabe name. The performance stems from a painting of the shores of Parry Sound in eastern Ontario, which was made by Hupfield’s mother in 1974. It is signed ‘Peggy Miller’, the anglicised version of Hupfield’s mother’s name. This raises the question: why didn’t she use her given name? The painting hangs alongside projections of two performances, the more affecting one occurring on a stage before an audience. Hupfield sits on the stage looking at the painting while her sister beats a handheld frame drum and sings a ‘women’s water song’ in her ‘mother tongue’. Her brother and a cousin, dressed in spangle-covered costumes, circle around them like birds. In Anishinaabe culture, birds – particularly the mythical Thunderbirds – were companions of Mother Earth, providing her with water when she was thirsty. The undulating cadence of this version of the song suggests the sound of rushing water. Though the performance could easily be taken as a call for the responsible management of natural resources, Hupfield, by surrounding herself with relatives, suggests that, while contemporary Indigenous art exhibitions in major institutions may raise awareness of traumatic histories, recovery from those traumas will remain a private, family affair. 

First published in the April 2017 issue of ArtReview