bookcoverThe Trickster Shift

Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art

by Allan J. Ryan

Richly illustrated, The Trickster Shift presents some of the most stunningly original examples of contemporary Native art produced over the last twenty years. It also allows the artists to offer their own insights into the creative process and the nature of Native humour.

Published in Canada by UBC Press
and in the US by the University of Washington Press
Printed in Canada by Friesens
320 pages, 8″ x 11″
100 colour and 60 b/w illustrations
ISBN 0-7748-0704-0


That the trickster and the clown have become major metaphors for the artist in this century with its increasing self-consciousness of the creative process is no accident. They have been artists for a long time.
Barbara Babcock, anthropologist

Clowns are rarely asked what they’re up to, and seldom listened to when they’re asked.
Barbara Babcock

In May 1989, the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted the exhibition Beyond History, a collection of new works in mixed media by ten Canadian Native artists: Carl Beam, Bob Boyer, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Domingo Cisneros, Robert Houle, Mike MacDonald, Ron Noganosh, Jane Ash Poitras, Edward Poitras, and Pierre Sioui. In the catalogue to the show, co-curator Tom Hill wrote that “the shared cultural origins and parallel ideologies” of these ten artists “form an aesthetic.” The following May, Joane Cardinal-Schubert created a whimsical installation for a show at Galerie Articule in Montreal, Quebec, commemorating the artists in Beyond History. She called it Art Tribe.

With good reason. These individuals—and a select group of others who share the same aesthetic—have much in common. Together, they constitute a loose alliance of socially active, politically aware, and professionally trained individuals of roughly the same age, who have, over the last fifteen to twenty years, exhibited with one another, written about one another, lectured on one another, curated exhibitions for one another, and to varying degrees influenced one another. In this they might be said to resemble a “school” of art rather than a “tribe.” Not surprisingly, their work often addresses many of the social and political problems facing Aboriginal peoples today. What may be surprising, however, is the wry and ironic humour that permeates much of their art. One may well ask if this is part of the aesthetic too. If so, is it merely the shrewd deployment of a familiar critical strategy, or does it reflect a broader cultural sensibility that would probably be lost on most non-Native viewers, and possibly on some Native viewers as well? Moreover, if such a sensibility is indeed present, would it necessarily manifest itself in the finished artwork? Or might it remain an aspect of practice alone?

These pivotal questions set this study in motion and led to a series of animated and illuminating conversations across Canada from January 1990 to November 1991 with various members of the extended “Art Tribe,” as well as with Native elders, linguists, actors, performance artists, curators, and art historians. Emerging from these conversations was the conviction on my part that there was indeed a sensibility, a “spirit,” at work and at play in the practice of many of the artists, grounded in a fundamentally comic world view and embodied in the traditional Native North American trickster. In fact, several artists cited the Trickster as a direct influence on some aspect of their work. Most also agreed that a distinct comic and communal attitude does exist that can legitimately be labelled “Native humour.”

Transcending geographical boundaries and tribal distinctions, it is most often characterized by frequent teasing, outrageous punning, constant wordplay, surprising association, extreme subtlety, layered and serious reference, and considerable compassion. These qualities are amply illustrated in the words and images gathered together in this book under the headings of self-identity, representation, political control, and global presence.

A Note on the Structure of the Text

By genetic memory maybe … our minds have the ability to think laterally.
Jane Ash Poitras, Cree/Chipewyan artist

More than invocations of authority, the quotation and footnote are the means of transforming a monological performance into a dialogue, of opening one’s discourse to that of others. They are also the literate way of interrupting and commenting on one’s own text, of acknowledging that reading and writing, like any cultural performance, involve appropriating, absorbing, and transforming the texts of others.
Barbara Babcock, anthropologist

Hypertext is very different from more traditional forms of text … Reading, in hypertext, is understood as a discontinuous or non-linear process which, like thinking, is associative in nature, as opposed to the sequential process envisioned by conventional text.
John Slatin, computer researcher

This study has been conceived as a “trickster discourse,” to use the term coined by the American mixed-blood Chippewa writer, Gerald Vizenor. It is a discourse among tricksters, about tricksters, and even as trickster, in the sense that the “trickster is a comic discourse, a collection of utterances in oral tradition.” At once open-ended, unfolding, evolving, incomplete, the discourse is imagined in numerous verbal and visual narratives and a multiplicity of authoritative voices. Charged with a playful spirit and what architect Robert Venturi calls a “messy vitality,” it finds expression in multilayered communication and simultaneous conversation, in surprise connection and “narrative chance.” It defies univocal representation.

In the following pages quotations and notes are used extensively to disburse the narrative voices and reflect the intertextual nature of the discourse. Neither quotation nor note should be considered a secondary or subordinate text. At various points in the conversation, other voices intersect with the principal narrative. In “a space where texts can talk to each other” non sequitur, song, poem, prose, and personal anecdote enrich and enliven the discourse. In some instances notes take the form of extended annotation and include illustrations. In this they constitute a kind of hypertext or hypermedia, forms of non-sequential writing and visualizing that until recently were primarily associated with literary studies and computer science. More important, the text honours and participates to some degree in a non-linear process of representation shared by many of the artists interviewed.

The influence and power of the Trickster figure—often embodied as Coyote—is deeply entwined with Native cultural sensibility and expressed through wry, ironic humour. In this entertaining and innovative book, Allan J. Ryan explores the Trickster’s presence in the work of outstanding artists such as Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Bob Boyer, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Robert Houle, George Littlechild, Jim Logan, Gerald McMaster, David Neel, Shelley Niro, Ron Noganosh, Edward Poitras, Jane Ash Poitras, Bill Powless, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. The humour—and the art—is characterized by frequent teasing, outrageous punning, surprising association, extreme subtlety, layered and serious reference, and considerable compassion. Ryan juxtaposes his commentary with that of artists, elders, actors, writers, linguists, museum curators, and art historians. From the images, songs, poems, prose, and personal anecdotes emerges a witty play between text and counter-text that mirrors the Trickster practice of the artists themselves.