Work In Progress

Lori Blondeau: Grace celebrates an innovative Indigenous artist

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Lori Blondeau: Grace
College Art Gallery
June 15–Aug. 31

Lori Blondeau is busy these days. Not only is the Saskatoon artist preparing for an exhibition at the University of Saskatchewan’s College Gallery, she’s part of the four-person show Echoes at Remai Modern (with Rebecca Belmore, Raymond Boisjoly and Duane Linklater). She’s also one of 50 Indigenous female artists selected by curator Lee-Ann Martin for the digital billboard project Resilience that will run in dozens of spots across Canada this summer.

Grace is the title of Blondeau’s College Gallery exhibition. “It’s a mid-career survey that looks at her current body of work, which is primarily photographs, and then spans back to some of her earlier performances,” says curator Leah Taylor.

When I spoke with Taylor, the show had yet to be installed but she expected it would have two to four video installations that document past performances — including the title work Grace, which Blondeau performed as part of The Requickening Project with Mohawk artist Shelley Niro at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Plans also called for three photo series, and several vitrines of archival material and costumes.

On opening night (June 15), Blondeau will do a new version of a 2002 performance called Are You My Mother? “Once it’s over, the remnants will be left in the space as an installation,” says Taylor.

The gallery also has an interview with Blondeau where she talks about issues she’s long critiqued in her work related to colonialism, racism, and the reality of living as an Indigenous woman in our society.

Those issues are as relevant today as when Blondeau was starting out as an artist in the late 1980s, notes Taylor.

“So really, the work hasn’t aged in that sense,” she says. “The interviewer asked Lori, ‘Does that make you feel depressed?’ She feels like, ‘No, creating that space early on made her a trailblazer in bringing these issues into the Saskatchewan art community.’”

Early Inspiration

Born in Regina of Cree, Saulteaux and Métis descent, Blondeau drew early inspiration as an artist from her grandparents, mother and older brother (well-known Saskatchewan artist Edward Poitras). She holds a MFA from the University of Saskatchewan (2003), and in 1995 she co-founded Tribe — a Saskatoon-based Indigenous artist-run centre specializing in new media and performance.

Even today, performance is a niche discipline in visual art, but Blondeau says she gravitated to it early on.

“I started out taking dance lessons at what’s now New Dance Horizons in Regina in 1982,” she says. “They had a class called Movement and Ritual. That’s what I think of as my first experience at performance art. It was made up of half Indigenous and half non-Indigenous women, and we did a performance in Saskatoon for AKA Artist-Run Centre.

“After that I studied at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre which used to be the Native Theatre School in Toronto,” says Blondeau. “But the theatre world just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t how I wanted to make performance.”

Blondeau first made her mark as an artist with COSMOSQUAW in 1996. It’s a photo styled to resemble a Cosmopolitan cover, with Blondeau in full glamour mode in a strapless red dress while wantonly/seductively cupping her breasts. “10 Easy Make-up Tips For a Killer Bingo-Face” is one article touted on the cover.

“Up to then, Cosmopolitan had never had a woman of colour on the cover,” says Blondeau. “So I did a bunch of research into the magazine and editor Helen Gurley Brown. Even today, I don’t understand how that magazine empowers women because it’s mostly giving you advice on how to date, be sexy and get a man. So it was about inserting myself into the mainstream, but in an Indigenous way.”

Blondeau followed that up with Lonely Surfer Squaw (1997) where she channeled the persona of a California surfer girl — except instead of being blonde and lightly tanned, she’s dark-haired and Indigenous. Her bikini is made of fur too, and she’s wearing mukluks while standing with her surfboard on the snowy shore of a mostly frozen lake.

Along with other personas such a Betty Daybird (who Taylor described as “a bit of a socialite”) and Belle Sauvage (a rootin’ tootin’ Indigenous woman who’s the star of a Wild West Show), Blondeau subverts various stereotypes and tropes placed on Indigenous women by dominant society.

Generally, they fall into two categories: Princess and Squaw. The former is heavily eroticized and fetishized, while the latter is demeaning and derogatory. And both do major harm, says Blondeau. “I think it desensitizes society to how Indigenous women are viewed. That’s why we have this attitude toward missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

The Next Step

When Blondeau enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan for her MFA, none of the art faculty knew much about performance. Instead of studying under them, she apprenticed with the Mexican-American performance artist James Luna (who passed away recently at age 68).

“Working with Tribe, I started to program performance art,” says Blondeau. “One artist I brought in was James Luna, and he apprenticed me from 1998 to 2001. We did four exhibitions and two performances.”

While Blondeau is best-known for her performances, she’s also produced several iconic photo series. When conceiving a work, she says, she starts with a photo shoot. “From there, I decide whether it’s going to be a performance. If I feel like I’m not able to say what I want through photography then I’ll push it further.

“I just think you can say things in performance that you can’t say in any other medium,” she adds. “It’s immediate, and the audience becomes implicated in the performance and is witness to it. You can’t do that with painting and drawing or even photography.”

Speaking through a character undoubtedly gives Blondeau a degree of creative freedom, but she’s also done powerful performances without that trick. Are You My Mother?, which she’ll perform on opening night, is an example.

Blondeau first performed the piece as part of her MFA show in 2002. But it’s drawn from conversations she had with her mother in the 1980s about the family’s residential school experience.

“She told me the story of her grandparents visiting her, and how they would have to visit through a fence because they weren’t allowed any physical contact. For my mom’s mother, I think it was just too difficult to go. Really, how do you process that, where as a mother you see your children, but you can’t touch them? That must have been so difficult, and I think that’s why she rarely visited unless it was to pick them up for summer break.”

When Blondeau was putting the piece together, she worked with her mother. “But it still affected her to the point where I had to shut down the show because she just started crying. And now I want to remount it because I think it’s pretty relevant.”

Asiniy Iskwew

Blondeau’s latest work is a portrait series called Asiniy Iskwew. “That translates into ‘Rock Woman’,” she says. “I’ve been doing research around sacred stones that we like to call ‘buffalo stones’ on the prairies.”

Mistaseni, the rock that was blown up during the Gardiner Dam’s construction in 1966, is probably the best-known. The site is underwater now, but Blondeau discovered that a piece of the rock had been saved at the Elbow Marina and took the photo there. “I guess it’s in honour because there were lots of protests when it was destroyed. Where the dam is now, it used to be a huge gathering spot for First Nations people.”

In each photo in Asiniy Iskwew, Blondeau depicts herself standing on the rock while draped in a red velvet gown. “I was looking to make a statement that during settlement — I mean, 1966 isn’t that long ago — it was like an assault on our culture and spirituality. But even though they got blown up, we’re still here, and working to bring awareness to what took place. That applies to the past, but there are always new assaults on us as First Nations people.”