Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reona Brass: Glossolalia

I read once that barbed wire changed the history of North America. The lives of the First Nations were changed dramatically by fences containing sharp metal barbs that were meant to wound anyone or anything that dared to cross them. A mark of the lines drawn by the executors of the Dominion. A mark of the end of the nomadic way of life. Keeping cattle in, keeping the "noble savages" out.

"...surrendered lands" means a reserve or part of a reserve or any interest therein, the legal title to which remains vested in Her Majesty, that has been released or surrendered by the band for whose use and benefit it was set apart..."

"...surrendered lands" means a reserve or part of a reserve or any interest therein, the legal title to which remains vested in Her Majesty, that has been released or surrendered by the band for whose use and benefit it was set apart..."

As someone who grew up of the prairie, I am familiar with the gesture of searching for the loosest part of a fence, pulling apart the wires and stepping gingerly onto the other side. I wasn't worried about getting caught by the farmer, but I was worried about getting snagged by the wire. It would be painful and there was danger of being infected by the rusty barbs. (One of my friends had a nasty snowmobile accident when he collided with a barbed wire fence.) So when Reona Brass started to unroll a spool of silver barbed wire, I was relieved she was wearing thick leather work gloves. Standing at a music stand in a tailored brown business suit and matching shoes, she named the piece Glossolalia, Speaking in Tongues. Then she began to read selections from the Indian Act.

..."intoxicant" includes alcohol, alcoholic, spirituous, vinous, fermented malt or other intoxicating liquor or combination of liquors and mixed liquor a part of which is spirituous, vinous, fermented or otherwise intoxicating and all drinks, drinkable liquids, preparations or mixtures capable of human consumption that are intoxicating...

The words made me feel ashamed to be Canadian. They are injurious, repulsive, bathed in an acid bath of legal jargon. I was compelled to the Government of Canada website check if the artist had made the text up. She did not. The connection between the text and the image of the barbed wire was shocking.

"...mentally incompetent Indian" means an Indian who, pursuant to the laws of the province in which he resides, has been found to be mentally defective or incompetent for the purposes of any laws of that province providing for the administration of estates of mentally defective or incompetent persons..."

As she read the text her unwrapping action became more intense, she was wrangling physically with the wire and it began to snag on her business suit. She fought with the wire, taking its resistance on as a challenge and becoming more determined and frenzied in her struggle. Finally she stopped and took the time to catch her breath before she lowered herself into the wire, entangling herself in it and crawling through it towards the stage right podium. She stood up and read the words of the Navojo poet, Sherwin Bitsui:

What land have you cast from the blotted out region of your face?

What nation stung by watermarks was filmed out of extinction and brought forth
resembling frost?

Finally, Brass unhooked herself from the wire by shedding her suit to reveal the jeans and a blouse she wore underneath and she stepped free of the wire.

The artist doesn't speak her native Soto language, and performance allows her to escape the vicious traps laid by the words of the Indian Act and other words written in the same spirit. "Performance art is my language," Brass states. It allows her to be hopeful. She is also inspired by the words of her collaborator Navaho poet Sherwin Bitsui. "He thinks in Navajo," she says. It is wonderful to see a performance grounded in experience and intention. Brass has been working with barbed wire for four and a half years, she likes physical nature of it, but has grown wary of its ability to injure. For the past few years she has been teaching on her reservation, and she loves to see young people create pieces of performance art so that they can share in her power to create their own language.

1 comment:

  1. He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.