Maria Hupfield at The Power Plant: The One Who Keeps On Giving

Maria Hupfield’s “The One Who Keeps On Giving” has one week left in its run at The Power Plant, and I highly recommend that you see it before it’s gone.  Hupfield, a member of the Anishinaabe Nation at Wasauksing First Nation, has been living and working in Brooklyn, New York, so being invited to exhibit in Toronto, she said, felt like a form of homecoming to Ontario.  When she was invited to create an installation for The Power Plant, Maria Hupfield says she honoured that sense of homecoming by beginning with a painting her mother had made of Georgian Bay that had hung in her home for many years.  From there, the installation grew to a collaboration with her siblings and a collection of artifacts that she had used in many of her performance art pieces over time.

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Maria Hupfield’s installation is so rich, it’s hard to be disciplined and focus, but focus I must because I want to talk about it in the context of mothers, continuity and gifts.

There are all kinds of formed and broken lines of continuity in the show.  Hupfield takes inspiration from her mother’s art, and like her mother she is an artist, but her mother paints landscape while she is a performance artist.  It’s through performance, she says, that her own objects acquire meaning.

Performance art is, by definition, ephemeral, so in order to preserve it and make it accessible to a museum audience, it has to be recorded.  So we get recorded versions of the performances she has done, some public, some private.  Spontaneity rubs against repetition; privacy rubs against display.

She has made her mother’s art public, but there is a limit to how public.  We don’t have a narrative of her mother’s sense of home or of having home taken from her.  Colonialism is very much one of the topics of the installation, but the resistance to colonialism does not originate with an autobiographical testimony.  Instead, the viewer has to confront her own response to the references to iconic symbols of Canada’s First Nations, including a giant canoe made of felt, suspended awkwardly from the ceiling.

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She references the oral tradition, dance and music, but the music to which her bother dances in the video installation can only be heard by him (he wears earphones).  The audience, and Hupfield herself, only hear the noise make by his regalia.

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She invokes the notion of home, but she keeps private what home, and the removal from it by colonialism, have meant to her family.

She invokes traditional images, but reproduces them in felt, a material she chooses to work with because, she says, it eliminates the hierarchy of artistic media.

She also uses felt to recreate gifts that have been given to her by other artists, so she breaks the continuity between the giver of the gift and the recipient by reshaping those gifts in a different material.  Cassette tapes and the canoe and a conch shell and moccasins all appear on the same plane, and all of the different kinds of symbolic and cultural weight they might carry are suspended momentarily.

When you learn that the title of the exhibit is also an English translation of her mother’s Anishnaabe name, “The One Who Keeps On Giving” also takes on multiple meanings.  Motherhood can be a source of inexhaustible generosity, her mother is the inspiration for the exhibit, her name is its name, and so can be said to be the source of its everything, but the painting is signed Peggy Miller, her mother’s anglicized name.  The mother can be seen as the giver of the artist’s own career, but by preserving her privacy and by creating all of these disruptions of continuity, Hupfield is also saying that there is a limit to this giving.  The abundance is not for all to share.

Maria Hupfield describers herself in her artist’s statement as an advocate of Indigenous Feminisms and Activism, and in her statement for Crossroads: Art + Native Feminisms, she says  

Native women across the continent have a long-established tradition of pushing against dominant patriarchal structures through the visual arts, whether in the countless untitled works acquired by historical museums in service of colonial nation-states or Rebecca Belmore representing Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Facing systematic erasure via colonization and historically situated outside of mainstream feminism, native women offer wide-ranging perspectives conceptually better located at the center of the movement, exploring such enduring themes as land recovery, self-determination, gender and social relations based on respect for all living beings.

And here she is introducing the show:

I came away from the exhibit with a deep admiration for the artist and her work.  There is a wonderful interview with Carolin Koechling, the curator of the exhibit, about her work on a tv screen in an alcove at the entrance to the exhibit, and it’s well worth the time to sit and watch it. And you can listen to an interview with her here.

By far the greatest gift I got from my time spent with this artist and her work was a portion of her sense of the absolute centrality of art to activism.  She has complete confidence in the value of art and of herself as an artist.  It is so refreshing to see a person who is so passionate about her vocation assert with such confidence that art matters.  She’s articulate, careful, measured and assured.  I loved spending an hour in her company and in the company of her work.

A trip to The Power Plant to see this exhibition would make an excellent Mother’s Day outing, but you will have to hurry.  The exhibition ends on May 14.

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