Remai Modern curator Tarah Hogue resurrects Buffalo Boy, and that’s just the beginning

Art | Gregory Beatty | May 26, 2022

Photo: Blaine Campbell

Adrian Stimson: maanipokaa’iini
Remai Modern
Until Sept. 5

At the opening for maanipokaa’iini at Remai Modern in early April, Siksika First Nation artist Adrian Stimson did a performance where he rebirthed his notoriously shaggy and flamboyantly two-spirited alter ego Buffalo Boy.

As Saskatchewan art fans may recall, Buffalo Boy met an untimely end in a 2008 performance in Calgary called The Battle of the Little Big Horny. Yes, that’s a salacious pun on the famous 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn where Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors lead by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Chief Gall defeated the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under Gen. George Custer.

And quite a rebirth it was, curator Tarah Hogue recalled in a recent phone interview, with Stimson, as a “wiser and wilder” Buffalo Boy, coming out to an audio-track of him singing Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive!”

Stimson ended the performance in style, too, dancing on a circular stage. “The stage had the colours of the four directions on the outside, and a Union Jack flag on top,” says Hogue. “There were flashing coloured lights underneath, and we ended up in this big group dance party.”

So yeah, quite the kick off. But then, maanipokaa’iini is a special exhibition.

Bison & Petroglyphs

Before being named the inaugural Curator (Indigenous Art) at Remai Modern in 2020, Hogue lived in Vancouver, and had worked previously with Stimson for a 2013 exhibition. Stimson currently lives on Siksika First Nation near Calgary, but he took his MFA at University of Saskatchewan in 2005 and lived in Saskatoon until the mid 2010s. When Hogue moved to Saskatoon she decided the time was right for a mid-career survey of his work.

“I felt that many of Adrian’s previous exhibitions had been project specific, and I was excited to take a broader view of his practice with a combination of painting, performance, installation, video and printmaking,” says Hogue. “The various areas of his practice inform one another, and as people move through the rooms, I hope they can see the connection between them.”

The exhibition is highlighted by new work that grew out of a residency Stimson did at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in September 2021. While there, says Hogue, Stimson visited four petroglyphs that had been revealed by the action of bison wallowing in the dirt. The bison were reintroduced to Wanuskewin in 2019, and late in the 2021 season, a baby bison was born.

That inspired both the exhibition’s name (maanipokaa’iini is Blackfoot for newborn bison), and Stimson’s decision to rebirth Buffalo Boy at the opening.

“Adrian had been planning to rebirth Buffalo Boy for the Sydney Biennale in spring 2020, but that wasn’t able to happen because of the pandemic,” says Hogue. “This exhibition became a good opportunity to do that.”

Stimson debuted Buffalo Boy in a 2005 performance Buffalo Boy’s Heart on: 100 Years of Wearing his Heart on his Sleeve that marked Saskatchewan’s centennial. Through it, and other works such as Battle of the Little Big Horny and Putting the WILD Back in the WEST (a 2007 collaboration with Lori Blondeau as Belle Sauvage), he parodied romanticized notions of how the West was settled.

Hollywood westerns and Buffalo Bill Cody/Wild Bill Hickok-style Wild West Shows are obvious targets. But Stimson’s critique of Western settlement myths isn’t limited to pop culture.

“There’s another work from 2005 called Gambling the Prairie Winnings that responded to a centennial exhibit by the Western Development Museum called Winning the Prairie Gamble,” says Hogue. “The exhibit had historical photos from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary which Adrian restaged, most as Buffalo Boy. They were really funny, but also biting.”

Not just funny and biting from an Indigenous perspective either, but also a two-spirited perspective. Because that’s an important part of Buffalo Boy’s identity too.

“In the works that Buffalo Boy’s done, or just his persona in general, it’s all about creating counter-narratives to the colonial history-making,” says Hogue. “The counter-narratives assert both Blackfoot or Indigenous presence, as well two-spirited presence. There’s a queering of these histories that Adrian does in his work.”

As a parallel to Buffalo Boy’s flamboyant character, there’s a nine-print series in the show called Any Dancer. Each print depicts a human skeleton with a buffalo skull head striking a different pose, as if dancing.

“Adrian was thinking about Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer when he made that work,” says Hogue.

“But the prints are also very much about the many respected roles the two-spirited played in Blackfoot culture such as medicine people, doulas and matchmakers,” she adds. “The hetero-patriarchy of colonialism, and the way it infiltrated Indigenous communities and impacted on their perception of gender and sexuality, has had really long-lasting consequences.”

Colonization & Christianity

Historically, the vast herds of bison which roamed the central and northern plains were a vital resource for the Siksika and other Plains Nations. Knowing this, colonial forces targeted the bison for extinction, shooting many millions to make way for cattle ranches.

Threatened with starvation, Plains Nations had no choice but to submit to treaties that confined them to small parcels of land.

As a Siksika, Stimson is well aware of that history. The central importance of bison to Blackfoot culture is another key theme in his work, says Hogue.

“There’s an installation called Beyond Redemption which Adrian created for a 2010 show at the Mendel,” she says. “It’s a taxidermied buffalo surrounded by a circle of figures draped in bison robes over these crucifix forms. It’s about the infiltration of Christianity into Blackfoot culture, and what drove the slaughter of the bison, and how it was a near world-ending experience for Plains Indigenous peoples.”

That wasn’t the only near world-ending experience that Indigenous people endured during that era. There was also the residential school system. For Stimson, that issue is especially personal, as the school on the Siksika First Nation was named for one of his ancestors.

“Old Sun was a chief and respected warrior and medicine man,” says Hogue. “He actually resisted the Christianization of his community, then, in this ironic turn of fate, the school was named after him.”

Old Sun Residential School was established by the Anglicans in 1886 and is generally regarded as one the worst-run residential schools in Canada with a high child mortality rate.

Stimson’s father attended the school, and later worked in the residential school system. On the Siksika reserve, the Stimson family home is the site of the school’s former garden.

“Adrian talks about, as a kid, walking by the building throughout the time it was slowly being renovated and converted into a community college,” says Hogue. “They would be taking stuff out of the building and he would be collecting these material fragments and stashing them in his parents’ garage. Eventually, they became the basis of an extremely powerful body of work.”

One installation in the show, Sick and Tired, evokes the spectre of a child dying in the school’s infirmary — as so many did during the 80 years the school operated.

“There’s another work called Old Sun which is a light fixture that Adrian collected from the school overtop of a steel-framed sweat lodge form, and the light casts the shadow of the Union Jack onto a patchwork of bison robes below,” says Hogue.

“In both works there’s a sense of suffocation or interrogation, along with an air of death. But Adrian’s also using material fragments from his own culture, like the sweat lodge, or a bison-robe figure that’s laid out on the infirmary bed. There’s the possibility of transformation or transcendence that’s rooted in the very cultural knowledge that the school tried to strip away.”

If you’ve ever seen one of Stimson’s residential school works, you’ll know they’re very moving. While opening night may have been a party, the show itself delivers a stiff reality-check to the sanitized version of our colonial history that many Canadians still cling to.

“Adrian has talked about how he doesn’t necessarily think that art, itself, is healing,” says Hogue. “He describes it more as a process of coming to terms with his own history, and perhaps being a spur for viewers to consider the way in which all of us inherit that history. That’s the message we’re hoping people might take away from the show.”