Treasure Island of a Different Kind

Asinabka Festival celebrates indigenous arts
By Maureen Korp, Epoch Times Contributor
July 23, 2013 Last Updated: July 26, 2013

Asinabka means “shining rock” in the ancient language of the Algonquin people of Canada. It is the traditional name of a lovely island in the midst of the Ottawa River, an island within sight of Parliament as well as the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

From time immemorial the First Nations of Canada have known Asinabka as a meeting place, a safe respite for peoples who travelled long distances to cross the river from here to there. The island, like all the rest of the land upon which the City of Ottawa sits, has never been ceded to the Crown. Asinabka remains Algonquin territory. However, on most maps, Asinabka is called “Victoria Island.”

Asinabka is also the name of a five-day film and media arts festival July 24-28 in downtown Ottawa. The festival, now in its second year, was founded by Howard Adler and Chris Wong, who met as students at Carleton University.

In 2011, Wong and Adler began to talk about the possibility of a festival celebrating contemporary film as an indigenous medium — a medium of storytelling and narrative imagery arising from within indigenous cultures. A few months later, in 2012, they saw the realization of their early discussions.

The first international Asinabka came into being: a film and media arts festival “celebrating Indigenous arts in Algonquin Territory.”

This year’s Asinabka festival program features contemporary work from artists the world over, including work from indigenous artists based in Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and the United States. Common program story lines and themes include: the importance of the land, the role of women in indigenous cultures, matters of sovereignty, and coming of age stories.

In Ottawa, these issues were particularly brought to the forefront by last winter’s Idle No More protest and Chief Theresa Spence’s fast, which took place on Victoria Island. Wong notes similar stories are being told the world over.

“We live in a world culture,” he says. “The world’s indigenous cultures never died; the world is waking up today to the stories indigenous peoples have to tell.”

As a medium, film and photography began to be used everywhere in the world at about the same time—nearly 100 years ago. One outcome, indeed, is a commonality of direction in the work of many international filmmakers.

The Asinabka festival also includes other visual and performing arts. In two downtown galleries, the moving image gives way to performance and visual art. Exhibitions of work by artists of First Nations heritage can be seen at Gallery 101 and Fall Down Gallery.

“In-Digital: an exhibition of new artwork by Jason Baerg and Christian Chapman,” curated by Adler and Wong, opened June 28 at Gallery 101. Its title, “In-Digital” is a nice play on words indicating both the artists’ medium—their use of digital photography and computer programming—as well as their own heritage and point of view. Christian Chapman is a Fort William First Nations artist and Jason Baerg is a registered member of the Metis Nations of Saskatchewan.

Walking into Gallery 101, the visitor hears first a heartbeat, an insistent, soft heartbeat. It emanates from a pow-wow drum, large enough so four drummers might sit around it and drum together. They are not there today. The sound the visitor hears is a recording affixed somewhere underneath the drum.

As many will know, drumming arises from ancient perceptions of nature’s heartbeat. But for those who do not know, whose eardrums are so bombarded by headphones, Chapman has painted the image of a human heart in the centre of the drum. The heartbeat we hear is the artist’s own, recorded so others might hear it, too. The sculpture is titled “Heartbeats.”

The drum, the flute, and the bullroarer are the oldest instruments—besides our voices—known in human history. Evidence of their use by ancient peoples is found the world over.

Above Chapman’s sound sculpture is a triptych titled “The Past, Present, and Future of the Anishnabe People.” He has arranged pixilated portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, in three panels. The left panel uses a portrait of Elizabeth as a young woman, the centre shows us the Queen today, and the right is a profile image of Kate.

The baby Kate bears may one day ascend the throne. From this point of view, the triptych’s three portraits do, indeed, show the Crown’s “past, present, and future.”

However, the story being told here is that of the Anishnabe peoples of the Eastern Woodlands. Each woman’s portrait is enveloped in the dynamic imagery of Woodlands tradition and vision, imagery made visible by such artists as Jackson Beardy and Norval Morrisseau. At any moment Kate or Elizabeth might complete her transformation into… well, we do not know. But both Kate and Elizabeth are women, and tradition tells us that women listen well to the heartbeat of nature.

Another work by Baerg, “Relations,” hangs on two large walls of the gallery. In this setting, the installation is comprised of four large digital prints on canvas and a digital video projection of imagery derived from Facebook profile pictures. The video projection documents and reveals the artist’s source data for his austere, disciplined, dynamic compositions of colour and line patterning the four digital prints.

The video projection is constantly in flux. The movement of its imagery aligns well with the rhythm of the drum’s heartbeat across the room. Whether by happenstance or design, the patter of Chapman’s sound sculpture with Baerg’s computer projection is a sensible and felicitous conjunction.

Wong and Adler hope their work organizing Asinabka will enable Ottawa audiences to see the world’s global culture more clearly. They have planned well toward this end.

Asinabka will screen 31 films in all, including 26 short films, plus an unknown number of others to be created during the festival’s four-day video workshop. Film programs are shown in cooperation with the National Gallery of Canada, July 25; and at Club Saw, July 27, 28.

The Festival opens July 24 on Victoria Island with a free public screening of “The Lesser Blessed,” directed by Anita Doron and written by Richard Van Camp.

“In-Digital: an exhibition of new artwork by Jason Baerg and Christian Chapman” will remain on view until August 10 at Gallery 101.

Maureen Korp, PhD is an independent scholar, curator, and writer who lives in Ottawa. Author of many publications, she has lectured in Asia, Europe, and North America on the histories of art and religions. E-mail: miki.korp@gmail.com