Entry from Acts of Transfer:
Duration: 39 min 48 sec
Original Format: ¾” Umatic
In the 1994 work, Sa, artist Dana Claxton builds an autobiographical performance through the process of assemblage. Here, the notion of “self” exists in the tensions between the personal and the constructed. This is conveyed in the artist’s use of performative elements such as song, dance, and narration, as well as a variety of historical documents and media, such as archival film footage from educational programmes and interviews, vinyl recordings, images of monuments, photographic portraits of First Nations peoples, and excerpts from the Indian Act. Together these components build a story that is not singular, but multiple, and which speaks to ongoing colonial and racist systems of power and domination.
The performance begins with a pulsing red light on-screen, while an audio clip of a woman speaking in both Lakȟótiyapi (Lakota) and English says: “The heart is the very thing that is. This is the Black Hills.” Her voice repeats and layers over an instrumental dub bass melody, upbeat and entrancingly rhythmic. The scene fades and Claxton appears centre stage with a flashlight. She moves the light from her mouth downwards and outwards away from her body, creating exaggerated shadows and shifting features. Her face falls away into the darkness and returns, in profile, silhouetted on the wall. A man concealed in shadow enters playing a flute. A 16mm film clip plays on-screen, depicting the detailed construction of a tīpī in slow motion. Despite the plentiful assembly of dwellings, no people appear in the film. The scene shifts and the camera turns skywards, from the centre of the tīpī toward the fulcrum of the structure, where the supporting posts are gathered. Gradually, more posts are added to the structure. When the film ends, Claxton appears back on-stage, washed in a slow blinking red light. Looking upward, the artist recounts the story of colonial violence that led to her great grandmother Mestichina’s displacement from her sacred homeland after the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890. With anger and frustration in her voice, she demands accountability and justice: “My memories hold your memories…I felt the bullet…I grind my teeth.” Later, Claxton recites from Section 140 (3) of the Indian Act in place until 1951, and calls attention to the legal ramifications of her performance. Under the eye of the “Canadian democratic law,” participants in this event could be legally penalized as audience members, program curators, and venue operators, she says. Had her mother or grandmother performed Claxton’s piece, they would have been fined and possibly thrown in jail.
Colonial injustices and the ongoing impacts of oppression experienced by First Nations peoples have been at the forefront of Claxton’s practice as an artist, curator, and educator. Presently located in Vancouver and hailing from the Lakota First Nations Wood Mountain reserve, Claxton’s practice explores the representation, misrepresentation and appropriation of indigeneity, and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples through the relation of her experiences as an Indigenous woman of mixed ancestry. Claxton’s Sa, made in the decade before Canada’s most public efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous communities, resonates as a powerful call to action, asking the viewer to question entrenched beliefs, and to dismantle the practices that serve to perpetuate colonial and racist systems of dominance.
Credits Flute and Voice: Anthony McNab
Guitar: Rory Daniels
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Original Archive Entry:
A multi-media performance evening with black and white video footage and Claxton working with her body and a flashlight in an otherwise unlit space. Featuring Anthony McNab (flute & singing) and Rory Daniels (guitar).
Full version of digitized video available through Western Front Archives upon research request.