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Talk Indian To Me #5
Walking in Beauty

Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, 1996
An intimate view of the collaborative process of Ancient Memories

Reona Brass, Lori Blondeau, Cheryl L'Hirondelle and Debra Piapot presented the performance art work Ancient Memories at University of Regina's Open Stage Theatre on September 7, 1996. They worked with Amethyst First Rider, who advised on the collaboration process and contributed to the conceptual development of the work, and with Rebecca Belmore (a.k.a. High Tech Teepee Trauma Mama), who created the installation in which the performance took place as well as the costumes worn by the performers. Mark Schmidt did the sound production, and I was responsible for the lighting production.

The performance addressed the question, "What are ancient memories?" The program notes indicated some possible answers: "Ancient memories are the keepers of our past. Like the DNA that dictates our physical makeup, ancient memories are passed down through the generations and make up our psychological selves. Unlike DNA, ancient memories reside deep within the subconscious and surface only when we are ready to accept our future. Ancient Memories is structured in three movements representing the past, the present and the future. Conjuring their ancestors, the artists recognize their place in the struggle for survival. Ancient memories give way to the voices of the future."Ancient Memories was inspired by an earlier work with a similar title, ancient memories: gelusultineh, lintotineh, b'emgatineh, a collaborative performance by Reona Brass, Amethyst First Rider and Shirley Bear at the Walter Phillips Gallery as part of the 1995 performance art series nanâtawihitowin âcimowina – healing stories, co-curated by Debra Piapot and myself.

The nanâtawihitowin âcimowina series brought together nine First Peoples artists to develop new performance works while in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Due to the weight of history, there is often a connection to the idea of healing at the heart of many First Nations artists' work, and the performances in this series focused on that notion. The primary value of this project, however, arose from the collaborative relationships among artists, as well as between artists and the contemporary art gallery performance context. This performance series enabled the artists to extend their diverse practices into new realms, establishing new frames of reference, connections and recognition.

Ancient memories: gelusultineh, lintotineh, b'emgatineh involved hard physical work — sustaining the intense labour of learning, teaching and sharing; creating poetry, songs, stories and soundscape; and shaping the sculptural forms of the Grandmothers. The performance provided Shirley, Amethyst and Reona with an opportunity to work with individual experience and concepts and to take them across a crucial threshold into a public context. If women's history is one of being silenced, rendered invisible and sexually commodified, this performance was an opportunity to explore the values of women's daily lives and the rituals inherent in women's work and activity—to rediscover women's rituals and the process of creating personal ritual through ancient memories, dreaming, fasting, singing, dancing and talking.

Similarly, the more recent performance questioned the rituals of dominant Christian culture and male-focused ritual, and considered how the public nature of men's rituals has often left women's rituals overlooked and unheard. Drawing on the collaborative process, the work made public the concepts behind women's rituals and images as a source of empowerment, healing and tangible reconnection to the sacred. It was about the process of creating work through ritual that identified common threads between women. Through this collaboration, a sense of women's history was created that searched for an all-encompassing voice, discovering the individual voices of the artists and gaining a deeper strength by weaving them together.

In my discussion with Reona following the performance, she offered some further elaborations on this theme. As her contribution to the collaborative process, she explored the notions of innocence turning, innocence lost and the responsibility that comes when you've seen too much and know too much—the responsibility to somehow act on this seeing and knowledge. The image she created for the performance was one of fearsome sexual transgression, violence and rage in the guise of an other-worldly trickster that initially revelled in releasing an intense innate pressure that is a deep part of being human—the hungry, curious and destructive animal that rebels against responsibility. But the trickster is an old figure who is able to experience life anew, to rediscover things and not be held back by rage. Each person must find a controlled and honest form or a language to express this hideous side of human nature, because, if not, it will come out anyway in dangerous and violent ways. In the performance, Reona transformed the violence and rage by purging it, providing a proper burial for memories that were brought to the surface because they had not been properly put to rest before. It was a transformation that paid respect both to the dead and to the living who still must live with harsh and too-often unbearable memories. The mummy figure that Rebecca created for the performance originated in Reona's nightmares of bodies not being properly buried – their disquieted spirits still live in the world, constantly calling out for us to bury their memories and pay them respect.

The visual language of performance art is very conducive to speaking from the position of a trickster, one that allows Reona to step outside of her human form and to provide herself with permission to cross boundaries in a way that is otherwise impossible This form also provided for an exciting collaborative process in which artists accustomed to working in different practices threw those differences by the wayside. They each committed to working together in a flexible way, learning from each other in a search for a common voice; breaking stereotypes and having a dialogue around vital issues, then exploring the ways in which this process could be expressed as an art form, as an act of claiming territory as storytellers again.

Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw (1958 - 2006) was a Cree/Métis writer, editor, performance and spoken word artist, video and visual artist, curator and teacher. A graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design), Maskêgon-Iskwêw was a participant in the two year Equity Internship Program at the Canada Council for the Arts that included work with the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, Circle Vision Arts Corporation, and the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance. He then became Program Coordinator and Assistant Editor of the Talking Stick First Nations Arts Magazine and later developed the position of Production Manager for SOIL at Neutral Ground Digital Media Production Suite. He also worked as web editor for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. His critical writing has been published in Mix and Fuse Magazine and in the anthology The Multiple and Mutable Subject: Postmodern Subjectivity and the Internet (2002), published by the St. Norbert Arts Centre. His fictional work Cannibals was presented by the Art Gallery of Calgary as part of the Storybook Story project.

In describing rooms he created for CyberPowWow, an Aboriginally Determined Territory in Cyberspace, Âhasiw said, “They form a constellation that attempts to tell one complex story. There is a desire to say things in a more complete way, to leave a legacy.” His work has left everyone who experienced his art or read his words a rich and complex legacy of their own.

A full bio can be found on the home page.