First Nation tales get a speculative fiction treatment

Art | by Charles Atlas Sheppard

When Raven Became Spider
Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Until March 31

A long time ago on a reservation far, far away, Indigenous kids huddled under blankets with flashlights reading their comic books into the wee hours of the morning until their eyes fell heavy with sleep, much like other kids all over the world.

Some of these wee little kids would grow up to become artists and writers.

While mainstream pop culture — most notably hip hop — has permeated the First Nation psyche, how much of that influence can be seen in the visual arts? The current group exhibition at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, When Raven Became Spider, helps answer that question.

When Raven Became Spider brings together six Indigenous artists who unashamedly display superhero and fantasy influences in their work. Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Superman and the Millennium Falcon — all are here, all interpreted by Indigenous artists.

Curator Leena Minifie assembled her own team of art avengers: Joi T. Arcand, Sonny Assu, Julianne Beaudin-Herney, Shaun Beyale, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Jeffrey Veregge. Like any great superhero team, these artists use their own unique abilities to get the job done. The show is a curious blend of Indigenous culture and western iconography and is, at times, contradictory. But each work is empowering and inspirational, playful yet provocative.

You don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy the exhibition, so get your puny human butt to the gallery.

Superpowers And Storytelling

These artists regard the superhero narrative no differently than their own storytelling traditions. And why should they? Transformations, shape-shifting, the hero’s journey and good vs. evil are all the stuff of Trickster stories. It’s a nice change given that most Indigenous characters that have appeared in mainstream media since the beginning of post-modernism have been extreme stereotypes — the noble savage or Indians on the warpath.

As for comics, some of the earliest graphic novel adaptations of Indigenous folk were seen in the Belgian comic books Tintin and Lucky Luke. Let’s face it, those depictions were out-and-out racist. ‘Nuff said.

On this side of the pond, Turok was the only Indigenous superhero in the golden age of comics (1930s to early ’50s). And he fought dinosaurs! Turok would later, and less ironically, hit the mainstream as an N64 game character.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Marvel Comics introduced “American Indians” into their universe with Red Wolf. He was even given his own (brief) series. DC comics introduced us to Super Chief in the Super Friends cartoons. Indie publications created Indigenous characters, but these were only accessible to folks who lived in big urban centres. Small town reservation stores only stocked DC and Marvel comics.

Sonny Assu has long made a practice of melding his own cultural iconography with western pop culture. The title of this exhibition is taken from his piece “When Raven Became Spider”, which riffs on Spider-Man imagery — a red gabardine shawl and Spidey-style hand drums. Assu’s work is firmly rooted in the Marvel universe. Perhaps he relates to the angst-ridden outsider status of Peter Parker? Assu imagines the Trickster Raven turning into Spider-Man. You won’t see that in Avengers: Infinity War.

Power Of Women

The long shadow of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women hovers in the background of Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ and Joi T. Arcand’s work — they both see the ability to overcome violence, poverty and hardship as a superpower. In the video short “A Red Girl’s Reasoning”, Tailfeathers wants her female audience to walk away from the experience feeling empowered.

Arcand sees the superhero in the women she admires as they struggle against the hardships in their daily lives. The women are larger than life in her imposing fabric print, “The Beautiful NDN Supermaidens™”. Accompanying trading cards contain the stats, superpowers and power names of each maiden.

I’ve never met Shaun Beyale but you can tell he grew up reading comics. His black and white drawings are of Indigenous folk in typical, exaggerated superhero poses. The titles are over the top as well: “Defending The People”, “The Power Within” and “Battle Ready”, to name a few. I imagine his elevator pitch with Stan Lee will be cloud-bubbled in comic sans. The blurb under his work reads, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” A nerdy comic book mantra if ever there was one.

Jeffery Veregge also grew up immersed in pop culture. His clean, straightforward illustrations reference Star Wars and comics, depicting Superman, Princess Leia, Iron Man, Black Widow and other characters. Veregge indigenizes the heroes with Salish designs from his Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal background, and presents them as comic book cover art.

In the comic book world, a collective of superheroes are tagged with power names like The Uncanny X-men or Justice League of America; and their arch-enemies, The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and Legion Of Doom.

The group show When Raven Became Spider doesn’t have a collective power name. May I suggest the Indigenous Inksters?

Conventional Appeal

Did you know that there’s an Indigenous Comic Con? Neither did I. But for two years running Albuquerque, New Mexico has been the aspiring Indiginerd’s place to be. The last one was held in November, so keep an eye out for a three-peat in 2018.