Divergence & Fragmentation: Contemporary Indigenous Art in the Mapped “Global” World

Written by Hannah Deskin
Edited by Josephine Spalla

In the art world, the global contemporary moment is characterized by a polarizing duality that scholars, artists, and curators are continuously forced to grapple with. Unified through communication, travel and technology but fragmented by nationalism and the material effects of colonization, artists navigate a world that emphasizes cultural and national identity, and assigns value on the basis of their “transnational” appeal.[1] According to curator Francisco Bonami, “the concept of globalization is often used to define the world as a unified territory, which it is not. We experience fragmentation in this world.”[2] Responding to Bonami’s emphasis on international division, Geeta Kapur further points out the movement of art and artists across geo-political boundaries when she writes that, “It is still necessary to ask how art situates itself in the highly differentiated national economies/political societies that bear the name of countries; and how, from those sites it reckons with divergent forces at work within globalization.”[3] In an attempt to address Kapur and Bonami’s insistence that now, more than ever, it is important to consider how art is situated within this international framework, this paper will examine certain “divergent forces” within de-colonial conceptions of the fragmented nation state, and in doing so, will trouble existing notions of what can and should be considered “international” or “global” art. In particular, I will propose to extend the terms “international”, “global” and “nation-to-nation” to the artistic production and interactions of the over six-hundred Indigenous nations of Canada. Through a de-colonial methodology that recognizes Indigenous sovereignty and the validity of two-row wampum treaties, I will consider artworks that place First Nations within our fragmented global framework, while attempting to distinguish them from the oppressive, reductive and homogenized umbrella of “Canadian.”[4] Through contemporary artistic “survivance” (survival/resistance) movements, particularly those dealing with land and resource sovereignty, Indigenous artists and activists subvert and reclaim territorial borders, sacred geographies and cartographic expressions of power.[5] To support this assertion, I will analyze several pertinent artworks, which deal with the issues at stake by using comparable but distinct methodologies. I will first examine how Métis artist Christi Belcourt uses language, semiotics, original place names and the visual iconographies of de-colonization to paint land claims. I will then explore how mural artists in Montreal take up space in unceded territory and challenge existing notions of relationality, ownership and belonging. By deconstructing and re-imagining what is understood as “Canadian” territory, and what should be considered sovereign Indigenous lands belonging to independent nations, these artists challenge Canada’s position and composition within the mapped “global” world.

Figure 1. Christi Belcourt, A Work in Progress, 2014, acrylic and paper on canvas.

Before unpacking the specific artworks at hand, I would like to establish the parameters, contributions and limitations of this project. As a non-Indigenous woman living on unceded Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe territories, I recognize that I must grapple with various gaps and flaws in my understanding of the issues at stake. Subsequently, I approach the following project with unyielding respect for indigenous ways of knowing and being, and will continuously rely on the voices of First Nations scholars and artists to enable a balanced and collaborative approach to the task at hand. I would also like to address the use of the concept of “nation-to-nation” that will appear throughout this paper. Guided by the principals of the Kaswentha (two row wampum), nation-to-nation relationships should be understood as the embodiment of interdependence: two parties in agreement may share the same space while retaining their status as “distinct political entities”.[6] While I find the term useful as a theoretical framework, particularly in laying the foundations for what I will establish as issues of transnational and transcultural relationships of exchange, for many Indigenous scholars and activists the term has come to be associated with problematic trends in Canadian policy making. In particular, the so far undelivered promises of Justin Trudeau’s liberal government have led some activists to repeatedly ask, “Where is our nation-to-nation relationship, Mr. Trudeau?”[7] So far, the lack of realized equitable relationships espoused throughout the campaigns for the 2015 election, and continuously posited on online state platforms today, has somewhat complicated the original ambitions that the term signified[8]. Instead, it has been appropriated and emptied of its meaning by colonial state agents through false conjecture and a distinct lack of delivery on issues such as access to clean water, housing, the suicide crises, climate change and resource extraction. Nonetheless, scholars still find merit in the term’s theoretical application when it is dissociated from the Canadian Liberal Party’s appropriation of the term (if this is possible).[9] Ultimately, while using carefully and critically selected language, such as de-colonial (and rejecting the terminology of “post-colonial”, which positions colonization as an event we can and have moved on from), this project aims to call attention to the ongoing nature of the North American colonial project. At stake in considering concepts of land and sovereignty within artistic production are potentially new reflections on how indigenous artists can bridge indigenous/settler social, ecological and geographical knowledge systems through the communicative framework of the visual arts. In effect, indigenous artists ultimately demonstrate the power to deconstruct enduring notions of the “Canadian” state and the people subsumed within it.

Figure 2. Christi Belcourt, A Work in Progress, 2014, acrylic and paper on canvas (detail).

Turning to the primary artworks with which this project is concerned, it is essential to note how land figures into methods of “survivance” for the specific artists under consideration. In a keynote speech entitled “The Revolution has Begun”, given at the Maamwizing Conference in 2016, Christi Belcourt argues, “Land is the most important thing that is overlooked when we talk about things like reconciliation or nation-to-nation… Land is the foundation of everything for us now and into the future”[10]. Belcourt’s publicized belief that land is fundamental to “survivance” is echoed in the work she produces as an artist. In particular, her Land and Water series of 2014 speaks to her understanding of territory, and how it has been manipulated to serve colonial exploitation. Similarly, Belcourt later stated in the same speech of 2016,

I want Canadians to begin to […] let go of the crown lands they have claimed as their own […] It says on this map that 0.2% of all Canadian landmass they say is “Indian reserves” but when you look at the Indian Act it says that the land is owned by the Queen and her heirs forever set aside for ‘the use of the Indians’. This means actually that zero percent of our land is in our control […] Canada represents the largest land heist, the largest land theft, in the history of the world. [The treaties] are fraudulent documents that still need to be amended to include the indigenous perspective that is wholly absent from them. Doing that will shake the validity of Canada to the core of its foundations.[11]

Belcourt continuously references land theft, fraudulent treaties, and the current issues of Indigenous sovereignty on unceded territory throughout her work and public appearances. Furthermore, looking beyond the state, Belcourt calls on settler Canadians to relinquish their hold on unceded territories (also known as Crown Land), owned by the Canadian federal/provincial Crown, for which treaties have not been signed and therefore sovereignty never ceded. By implicating the settler population, Belcourt creates space for the exchange of divergent understandings of land and ownership. For Belcourt, to do so would “shake the validity of Canada to the core of its foundations”, as unceded territory makes up about 89% of Canada’s total land mass or 8,886,356 km2.[12] In service to her ambitions as an artist and activist, and this time visually communicating her message to the public, in A Work in Progress (Fig. 1) from the 2014 Land and Water series Belcourt re-imagines the Ontario region by deconstructing a Canadian state circulated and produced map. As she paints over settler-colonial locations and borders in acrylic, Belcourt depicts over four-hundred original place names for regions, settlements and geographical features such as rivers, lakes and mountains.[13] Further to this, Belcourt chooses to de-emphasize existing borders between the Canadian provinces and the United States, and therefore complicates existing ideas of (inter)national division and fragmentation. Painted in black and white, the original place names that Belcourt researched and superimposed upon the map are written in Anishinaabemowin and Mohawk languages, depending on the location (fig. 2). In recognizing a variety of Indigenous languages, Belcourt acknowledges the pluriversality of indigeneity, and insists that sovereignty and “nation-to-nation” relationships must include the perspectives of multiple Indigenous identities. Upon addressing A Work in Progress and her subversion of settler-colonial mapping processes, Belcourt explained,

When mapmakers came into this territory, they didn’t bother to find out what the original names were […] and they renamed a lot of places across North America into English and French names. And so this painting is about reclaiming these territories back for ourselves by using the original place names, acknowledging them, and putting them over top of the English and French names.[14]

Figure 3. Christi Belcourt, Goodland, 2014, mixed media on canvas.

As Belcourt suggests, map making has traditionally been used as a tool of domination, and the omission of place names is a specific semiotic strategy used by state agents to undermine and manipulate sovereignty claims. As Martin Doge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins argue, mapping has always served political and economic purposes, which often leads to people being strategically “pushed off the map”*. These acts of domination appear ubiquitously throughout colonial maps, such as the imposition of new naming systems as referents for existing locations, or the inscription of new cartographic structures like legends, keys and symbols to signify settlements, roads and natural resources. Traditionally, new territories have been scripted as if blank spaces, allowing explorers and cartographers to claim, name, subjugate and exploit without any consideration for the geographical and semiotic systems already in place. As is clearly articulated in A Work in Progress, Belcourt recognizes the power imbued within cartographic expressions of ownership, and acknowledges that naming/renaming is an essential step in the process of determining sovereignty. By superimposing Anishinaabemowin and Mohawk place names over top of the settler-colonial French and English, Belcourt reverses the process of naming/renaming, and instead positions the colonial names as the objects of erasure.

Figure 4. Christi Belcourt, Goodland, 2014, mixed media on canvas (detail).

Building on her subversive message, and further illuminating the divergent signs present within Indigenous and colonial concepts of space, Belcourt materializes different perspectives of land and humanity’s relationship with it in Goodland (fig. 3). In describing her own relationship with these sacred geographies, Belcourt explains, “The waters of our world are viewed as the lifeblood of Mother Earth, so highly regarded that certain lakes were considered off limits, except only to grandmothers who would go harvest medicines there.”[15] Later in her speech, Belcourt asserts that colonial agents and settler societies do not share the same respect for Mother Earth, which later informs her artistic interventions.[16] In dialogue with Doge, Kitchin and Perkins’ views that maps often reflect and constitute political relationships, and enable the exploitation of material and economic interests, in Goodland, Belcourt maps the effects of resource extraction and the climate change crisis. Belcourt writes onto her map that “the Haudenosaunee were robbed”, again rooting the issue in the theft of Indigenous resource sovereignty.[17] Further to this, Belcourt adds signifiers to the map (fig. 4), which can only be understood through the use of cartographic keys, which, as Doge, Kitchin and Perkins suggest, may be analysed through a semiotic process to reveal the power behind the map.[18] Belcourt includes two such semiotic keys, one pertaining to the meanings shared by Indigenous occupants of the land, and the other to the meanings shared by colonial agents and settlers. To correspond with the information provided by the keys, Belcourt places small repetitive symbols such as mountains, trees, bulldozers and pipelines. Each symbol is attached to a caustic explanation, and bares a distinct socio-political message about the use, theft, and exploitation of Indigenous territories. On the Indigenous cartographic key, mountains are “places of spirits”; trees are “the lungs of the earth”; pipelines signify criminal activity/pollution; and bulldozers represent the “loss of territory for animals” (fig. 5). On the colonial cartographic key, mountains are “useless unless for a quarry/mine; trees are simply represented by dollar signs; water is “a resource there for the taking”; and bulldozers are “necessary” (fig. 6). Similar to A Work in Progress, Goodland appropriates colonial mapping processes such as the use of cartographic signifiers and uses divergent semiotic systems to point out the material violences active colonization has enacted on North America’s sacred geography.

Figure 5. Christi Belcourt, Goodland, 2014, mixed media on canvas (detail).
Figure 6. Christi Belcourt, Goodland, 2014, mixed media on canvas (detail).

While Belcourt’s subversive maps address the violences of colonization through a discursive methodology, the work of Tiotia:ke/Montreal based street art collective, Unceded Voices, confronts issues of territory, fragmentation and belonging by physically occupying material space. As a group of primarily indigenous women from across North America, these artists continuously engage in trans-cultural and international relationships of exchange, while often rejecting concepts of difference and fragmentation based solely on imposed state borders and citizenship. In describing the objectives of the collective, the artists explain,

Unceded Voices: Anticolonial Street Artists Convergence is a biennial of primarily Indigenous-identified women/2spirit/Queer artists in […] unceded Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe territories (also known as Montreal). We recognize the importance of walls and structures as critical spaces to reclaim unceded Indigenous land and to aim Indigenous artists in their movement towards justice and healing for themselves and their culture. This work prompts a dialogue with the public about colonialism…[19]

In the 2015 edition of the collective’s occupation of Tiotia:ke/Montreal, the work of visual artist Melanie Cerventes (Xicana) from San Francisco, California, addresses the issues at stake through an exploration of iconographical, as well as mapped, methods of resistance.[20] In her wheatpaste mural (fig. 7), Cerventes depicts a map of North, South and Central America, uniformly coloured red, to represent what she subsequently labels “tierra Indigena”, or indigenous land. Repeated next to the recognizable icon of the map is a meta-image of the central Xicana woman in the foreground, and inscribed beside her are the words “Indigenous women defending land and life since the beginning of time”.

In service to the mural’s public location and overt anti-colonial message, Cerventes points to the centrality of land (and its protection) within concepts of ownership, stewardship and belonging, while also bringing attention to the enduring presence of Indigenous peoples across the Western hemisphere. Like Belcourt, Cerventes uses an immediately recognizable map to draw her viewer’s attention to the status of unceded and stolen territory. However, unlike Belcourt who chose to include specific locations and a variety of languages to specify regional ownership, Cerventes clearly depicts the territory as uniformly indigenous. Subsequently, in opposition to the fragmentary perspectives experienced thus far, the artist rejects emphasis on any form of spatial border, indigenous or colonial. This materialized denial of regional and international borders highlights divergent understandings of the land and its occupation, while proposing an alternative to the fragmented composition of modern colonial states. Instead, indigenous occupants are scripted as being entirely sovereign, across all three continents, without exception. By presenting this to the settler public in the streets of Montreal, Cerventes takes up space and pushes back against the colonization of the entire Western hemisphere.[21]

As a Xicana artist from the United States, Cerventes’ cohesive map and presence in Montreal speaks to a palpable sense of pan-indigenous land-based solidarity manifested through distinct relationships of “global” exchange. By way of these relationships, the movement of art is facilitated through the transcendence of geo-political understandings of belonging. In particular, as a defender of land and life, the artist’s voice and presence in Montreal becomes highly relevant despite being from thousands of miles away, since it speaks to a shared history of colonization and the collective pursuit of justice for indigenous peoples. This separation of community building from the conditions of citizenship aims mutually beneficial relationships towards the pursuit of collective life-projects, while refusing to exclude participants based on geographical origin. In doing so, Cerventes creates space for the voices of other indigenous artists from across the Americas to be publicly represented in territories that do not traditionally belong to their specific home nations. Through her denial of divisive territorial borders, the artist disregards relationships of exchange based on regional ownership, and instead demonstrates that shared social values, parallel histories of colonization and the pursuit of goals held in common can effectively guide nation-to-nation relationships. By presenting her perspective and the lived experiences of other Indigenous peoples across the colonized Americas in this way, Cerventes places Indigenous artists within the realm of the “global” through a refusal to adhere to enduring notions of belonging determined by state regulated citizenship and fragmentary borders.

Figure 7. Melanie Cerventes, Wheatpaste Mural, 2015, Avenue Coloniale, Montreal, Quebec.

As is demonstrated by the works of Cerventes and Belcourt, for some Indigenous scholars and activists, the material effects of painted land claims lay in their ability to incite a resurgence and reclamation of Indigenous sovereignty and sense of belonging.[22] While it is unrealistic to assume that such painted land claims can independently alter the borders and title of North America in a legal sense, the true power of these acts of “survivance” lay in their ability to discursively and materially disrupt the colonizer. In doing so, these artists work to incite reconsiderations of Canada’s position and composition as a settler colonial state within the global framework. For example, Taiaiake Alfred, an outspoken advocate for land-based resurgence and professor at the University of Victoria argues,

If colonisation were a process that could be framed simply in legal terms — the erasure of our names from the map, the denial of our laws, the control of our resources — then we could foresee a resolution of colonisation through the resurgence of our nation and the reclamation of these things.[23]

The reclamation of these things, made visible in Belcourt’s maps and Cereventes’ presence in Montreal, leads to what Belcourt positioned earlier as a discernible rupture in Canadian conceptions of identity and sovereignty. Through the repossession and dismissal of naming systems, citizenship, borders, territories, and resources, Indigenous nations and artists become distinct from the assimilatory Canadian body politic. Instead, by denying or modifying these imposed spatial boundaries and state sovereignty claims on their own terms, these Indigenous artists become concretely located within the “global”/international framework positioned earlier by Bonami and Kapur. While navigating the divergent forces at work within fragmented globalization, a direct result of aggressive colonization, these artists act as independent participants engaging in transnational and transcultural relationships of exchange.



[1] Ruth Iskin, “Introduction,” in Ruth Iskin (ed.), Re-envisioning the Contemporary Art Canon: Perspectives in a Global World. (New York: Routledge, 2017), 10.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 24.

[4] Parmenter, Jon. “The Meaning of Kaswentha and the Two Row Wampum Belt in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) History. Journal of Early Ameri (2013)3 (1): 84.

[5] Skelly, Julia. “Alternative Paths: Mapping Addiction in Contemporary Art by Landon Mackenzie, Rebecca Belmore, Manasie Akpaliapik, and Ron Noganosh”. Journal of Canadian Studies (2015)49 (2): 277.

[6] Parmenter, Jon. “The Meaning of Kaswentha”, 84.

[7] Jago, Robert. “Where is Our Nation-to-Nation Relationship Mr. Trudeau”. The Walrus Online (2017). Accessed December 12th, 2017. https://thewalrus.ca/where-is-our-nation-to-nation-relationship-mr-trudeau/

[8] “A New Nation-to-Nation Process, Platform for Real Change” Liberal Party of Canada, 2017. Canada: Government of Canada. Accessed December 12th, 2017. https://www.liberal.ca/realchange/a-new-nation-to-nation-process/

[9] Alfred, Taiaiake. “Cultural strength: Restoring the place of indigenous knowledge in practice and policy”. Australian Aboriginal Studies (2015)(1): 4.

[10] Belcourt, Christi. “The Revolution has Begun”. Keynote speech, Maamwizing Conference. Laurentian University. 2016

[11] Ibid.

[12] Neimanis, V.P.. “Crown Land.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada (2011).

[13] Belcourt, Christi. “Videos”. Accessed November 28, 2017. http://christibelcourt.com/videos-2/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Belcourt, Christi, “The Revolution has Begun”.

[16] Belcourt, Christi, “The Revolution has Begun”.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dodge, Martin, Rethinking Maps, 11.

[19] Unceded Voices. “About.” July 14, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017. https://decolonizingstreetart.com/about/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Unceded Voices. “About.” July 14, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017. https://decolonizingstreetart.com/about/

[22] Alfred, Taiaiake. “Cultural strength, 3.

[23] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *