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by Cathy Mattes.


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KC Adams

KC Adams image
ABOVE: KC Adams, Cyborg Hybrid Mitts,mixed media, 2006. Photo credit: William Eakin. (Shown at Gallery One One One.)

KC ADAMS

KC Adams's art would be hard to imagine not so long ago, given how dominant Woodland School1 art has been in Winnipeg. The Woodland School begins with the art of Norval Morrisseau. Since the 1960s this creative and triumphant invention of a tradition has been closely associated in Northern Ontario and the Prairies with artists such as Josh and Goyce Kakegamic (Morrisseau's in-laws), Roy Thomas, Saul Williams, Blake Debassige, Carl Ray and Daphne Odjig.

The recent maturing of Manitoba's younger generation of aboriginal artists, who are urban and theoretically sophisticated, is best summarized in a few names: Steve Loft, the director of Winnipeg's Urban Shaman Gallery, is hotting things up in that gallery's new digs; curator Catherine Mattes is turning things around in tiny Brandon (see below - she is the curator of Adams's current Brandon show); and young artists such as Reuben Boulette and Roger Crait are making a splash. This new generation, trained at contemporary art schools, acknowledge their elders even as they strike out in new directions.

There is a new strut to Winnipeg aboriginal art, and KC Adams is at the head of the parade. An education at Concordia in Montreal helped give this young Selkirk Manitoban a perspective on her local roots, and an abiding interest in computers and new media technology helped, as did her employment at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, to give her an exposure to the most rarefied of international art milieux.

KC Adams uses herself and her aboriginal friends as subjects. Ever the fashionista, she creates glamorous and sexy photographs that give her subjects darker complexions, just as Vogue and W magazines do, but with the intention of imparting to them a more "aboriginal" look. She also creates accessories, several of which are included in the Gallery One One One show, including t-shirts, an iPod holder, a USB beaded bracelet, a cellphone carrier, a LED choker and LED flip flop shoes - what she calls 'cyborg hybrid artefacts'." Adams's Gallery One One One show complements her (as mentioned) concurrent solo show, Transcendence - cyborg hybrida genitalis humanitas,2 August 31 - October 14, 2006, at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. in Brandon, curated by Catherine Mattes.

This is how KC Adams encapsulates her work:

The main focus… has been the investigation of the relationship between nature (the living) and technology (progress)….The Cyborg Hybrids are digital prints of Euro-Aboriginal artists who are forward thinkers and plugged in with technology. They follow the doctrine of Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto," which states that a cyborg is a creature in a technological, post-gender world free of traditional western stereotypes towards race and gender. I photographed artists who fit the Cyborg Hybrid criteria and had them wear white t-shirts with beaded text such as “AUTHORITY ON ALL ABORIGINAL ISSUES”, “INDIAN GIVER” and other slogans that would illustrate common Aboriginal stereotypical text. I also created white chokers for them to wear while I photographed them in stoic poses, mimicking photographs of Aboriginal people from the 19th and early 20th century. I then digitally alter the photos to look like they could fit within a glamorous magazine. Their defiant poses challenge the viewer to try and classify their identity.3
Importantly, I think, KC Adams uses the uncommon term "Euro-Aboriginal" to refer to herself and not "Métis," a word she thinks is wrong for her for two reasons: 1) it incorrectly describes her aboriginal/Scottish heritage, and 2) at the same time it undermines the general understanding of the word "Métis," to mean a person of French Canadian/aboriginal heritage.

"Euro-Aboriginal" appears nowhere in Daniel Francis' 1992 book The Imaginary Indian: the image of the Indian in Canadian culture4 either because of its recent coinage or because it would indeed complicate Francis's discussion, since his aim is to examine the culture's imagery of "Indians" in contradistinction to images of "real" "Native Canadian" or "First Nations" people. Francis begins his book by condemning Benjamin West's 1770 Death of Wolfe5 on the basis of its historical inaccuracy -- oddly, since West had no more interest in empirical depiction than your average Hollywood movie producer. Francis's research is welcome in its delivery of the Canadian history of the imagery, but as an iconoclast he is satisfied by no imagery - especially imagery by artists: one is reminded of some radical strains of Islamic, feminist and Puritan thinking.

What exactly would Francis have contemporary aboriginal artists do? It is unlikely that the art of KC Adams would meet with his approval, and neither would, I suspect, the art of other Euro-aboriginal artists, such as James Luna, Kent Monkman, or Lori Blondeau, who also satirize and extend the imagery of contemporary aboriginal art with great humour and panache.

As biologists will tell you, there is more variation within any so-called ethnic group or “race” than there is between ethnic peoples. In Nova Scotia, where I am from, Scottishness tends to trump all others as the official ethnic identity within a mongrel culture, at least as the one to which many people publicly aspire. What a shock to some Nova Scotians, however, when about fifteen years ago a rising young “New Scotland” aboriginal artist named Teresa MacPhee changed her name to Teresa Marshall, “Marshall” being, at least locally, more associated with aboriginal culture than “MacPhee.” Manitoba's Guy Maddin, to bring things closer to (Winnipeg, my new) home, is a filmmaker also of Scottish ancestry, but he affiliates his work with his matrilineal Icelandic line, making it clear that Icelandic identity “trumps” (his word) a Scottish -- or any other -- ethnic identity, at least for him. And why not?

KC Adams, to make matters a little complicated, is as proud of her Scottish6 heritage as her aboriginal roots, and, again, why not? Adams seems particularly happy to celebrate her hybridity, and I suspect that her art is itself an elaborate celebration of the genetic salad bar we call humanity. Adams's attitude looks forward to a “panaboriginal” future in which people will tend to identify more and more with first peoples. Grey Owl, 7 the Englishman who “went native,” posing as an aboriginal in Canada in the 1930s long before his masquerade could have been called art, was a prophet of such panaboriginal attitudes.

KC Adams is articulating the possibilities of the panaboriginal attitude in what I'll call “aBORGriginal art” by reference to cyborgs, brownness, whiteness and sex. Since the beginnings of her career, Adams has made what she calls “cyborgs,” mixed media sculptures whose smallish seed-like structures suggest embryonic science fiction pods or interplanetary spores (some are on show in Brandon as I write). In past shows Adams has shown them on the floor under wall projections of websites (as mentioned, Adams is if anything a high-tech artist) as if they were somehow the alien brains behind the Internet or Star Trek “tribbles,” those irritating little self-replicating fuzz balls that continue to survive as pop culture memes.

She also applies the word "cyborg" positively to her human subjects and herself. Adams's recent installations expand her cyborg concept away from her little sculptural meditations toward a social idea of the cyborg, a grown-up version that relates to the previously cited feminist theorist and ex-biologist Donna Haraway's crucial 1985 essay "Cyborg Manifesto.” 8 Haraway, one of few feminist theorists who have a Ph.D. in biology, has inspired not only Adams but also a generation of artists. (For a text reprint of the “Manifesto” and Jeanne Randolph's delightful commentary on Haraway please see the Vancouver Art Gallery's The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture,9 edited by Bruce Grenville).

Adams's expanded concept of cyborgs implicates her aboriginal friends in an installation that is infused with glamour and sexuality. In several recent exhibitions, including Winnipeg's Annex Gallery and Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, gallery-goers had an opportunity to play with each other and surveillance cameras while lying on a large white, vibrating bed in a room decorated with stunning photographs. “The people in the photographs are all artists and are 'half-breeds,'“ says Adams. “The white colouring and the glamorous Photoshop represent their 'white' side and the dark complexion, the beaded shirts and the chokers represent their 'Aboriginal' side.”

The photographs supplement Adams' little cyborg/pod sculptures as if they were pod parents on the star ship Enterprise. The look is early David Bowie and glam rock. If Donna Haraway finds our machines to be “disturbingly lively” even as we feel ourselves “inert,” Adams' young generation of artists reply enthusiastically “bring on the cyborgs, the cyberfems, the fembots, the sheborgs...” Trumpeting Haraway's call to affinity over identity, Adams makes ready the next phase of urban space travel that will have white society cross the street to hang with their futuristic aboriginal friends. Within the register of Haraway's satire, Adams is indeed creating a new aBORGriginal art.

Cliff Eyland
(Cliff Eyland curated Gallery One One One's KC Adams exhibition.)

NOTES:

Thanks to Pam Perkins and Robert Epp for reading and making suggestions about this essay.

1. Please see Gallery One One One's Kakegamic exhibition and especially Elizabeth McLuhan and Tom Hill's Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers, [Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1984] ISBN: 0-458-97390-4.
2. The concurrent KC Adams exhibition is at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, curated by Catherine Mattes. Gallery One One One is grateful to adjunct curator Catherine Mattes, Jenny Western and Director Jennifer Woodbury for their help with Gallery One One One's show. We also thank KC Adams for her patience and assistance with this project.
3. This quotation is from KC Adams's 2006 artist statement.
4. Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: the image of the Indian in Canadian culture [Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992]
5. Please click the web site link above for a detailed discussion of this painting by Colonel C. P. Stacey, who would agree with Francis: "It would be...difficult, I think, to deny that as a representation of an historical event it is among the worst ever produced."
6. At least two famous Romantic-era Scottish writers, James Boswell in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and Walter Scott in his introduction to Rob Roy explicitly compare Scottish Highlanders to North American Native people. Certainly further research should be encouraged into this identification of Scottishness with aboriginality. Could that identification have led Scotsmen and Orkneymen to take up new lives in Manitoba, for instance? (My thanks to Dr. Pam Perkins for these references.)
7. Daniel Francis gives a brief and negative account of Grey Owl in his book.
8. Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" is available at: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html (See also direct link above.)
9. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, ed. Bruce Grenville [Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery/Arsenal Pulp Press, 1991]


The KC ADAMS CD-ROM includes the texts and images about KC Adams that are on this web site. Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp eppr@ms.umanitoba.ca