American Indian Art Magazine
Volume 27, Number 4, Autumn 2002
—review by Margaret Dubin
In every sense, Allan J. Ryan’s The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art is an exceptional book. Originally his dissertation in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, the text is brilliantly written, copiously researched and thoughtfully structured. Lavish color reproductions illustrate each chapter and complement the press’s modern and generous design. This is no stodgy history or ethnographic monograph, but a book about art so grandly conceived and executed as to constitute a work of art in itself.
Ryan takes as his topic the modern phenomenon of tribal artists employing humor or irony to communicate a message to their audience. The concept of native humor inside and outside the art world is widely known. Ethnographers who spend any length of time in tribal communities cannot miss the uniquely humorous nature of verbal and nonverbal communications (Basso 1979). Art critics and native commentators recognize humor as an important strategy in contemporary native art (Bates 1995), even if they do not quite know how to interpret or contextualize it. There is the obvious connection to trickster figures (Coyote and Raven, among others) in native oral narratives. But this begs the question, what—or who—is Trickster, this character that is larger, more complex and less predictable than any Western notion of good or evil? By tackling this question in the context of contemporary artworks, Ryan exposes the modern nature of trickster spirit and brings us closer to an understanding of native ideas about life, death, power and justice.
Throughout the book, Ryan reminds us that our subjects are modern people creating art with a modern sensibility. Lengthy quotes from and interviews with artists interrupt the text in every chapter, and old notions of Coyote (who is not just old, but immortal) are reformulated in the language of postmodern theory (Coyote is not naughty, but subversive).
After briefly surveying the ethnographic and critical literature on trickster figures in Chapter 1, “The Trickster Shift,” Ryan moves into the first of four chapters that investigate different functions and uses of the Trickster in contemporary native art. In Chapter 2, “The Re/Creation of Identity,” Ryan explores how tribal artists dismantle a received Indian identity and creatively reinvent themselves with the aid of the trickster spirit. Sometimes this involves a reappropriation of stereotypical or demeaning images; at other times it is an internal imaginative process. In each case, museum Indians and stoic savages are transformed into lively, winking models of multiculturalism. Many artworks engage in a dialogue with the Western art world, with each other or both. Carl Beam’s (Ojibway) Self-Portrait in My Christian Dior Bathing-Suit (1980) individualizes and commercializes the mythic image of the naked savage. “Clad only in chic designer trunks,” Ryan writes, “in a mocking gesture that calls attention to mainstream society’s preoccupation with celebrity, Beam adopts a defiant warrior’s stance” (p. 50). The statement was so engaging that two other native artists created works in response to Beam’s painting. Ron Noganosh (Ojibway) titled his painting I Couldn’t Afford a Christian Dior Bathing Suit. A piece by Viviane Gray (Micmac) is called Carl, I Can’t Fit into My Christian Dehors Bathing Suit!
In Chapter 3, “Subverting the Systems of Representation,” Ryan examines the spoken and written words of artists for evidence of the strategies they use to undermine the white-dominated systems of the art world. Despite the often tragic nature of their subject matter, visual artists frequently use comedy, especially irony, to combat the pain of being forced to operate in a system generated by and rooted in the same culture that destroyed their ancestors. Irony is also used to educate the system about its shortcomings. Sometimes this is education by shock, as in the series of paintings that Jane Ash Poitras (Cree/Chipewyan) provided to a museum curator who requested “pretty little prints of life in Fort Chip today to…sell…in the museum shop” (p. 95). Poitras painted pictures of life “with a critical edge,” Ryan writes, by “giving the paintings ironic titles satirizing White society’s custom of institutionalizing leisure activities” (p. 96). Viewers could not help but sense the discomfort of economic and social disparity when reading such titles as Fort Chip Sewing Club and Fort Chip Dog Show. Sometimes the lesson is subtler, as in an etching by Lyle Wilson (Haisla), in which the artist’s tribal identification card is juxtaposed with the cover of a book on Northwest Coast art written by a nonnative scholar.
Chapter 4, “Subverting the Symbols of Power and Control,” searches the works of many of the same artists for statements contesting the political systems and policies in which native people exist. Once again, it is through humor — sometimes dark or deeply satiric — that native artists hope to reach their audiences. As actor and comedian Gary Farmer is quoted as saying, “I love to make people laugh so that I can turn around and make them think” (p. 169). In many ways, this statement summarizes the strategy of visual artists to deconstruct oppressive ideas and inspire change. One of the most moving artworks illustrated in this chapter is Bob Boyer’s (métis) A Minor Sport in Canada (1985) in which a Union Jack flag is painted in oil over a cotton blanket splattered with blood-red acrylic paint.
In Chapter 5, “Double Play on the World Stage,” the author again demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary Native American artists and their work by sharing a few final pieces that exemplify an international perspective. Other continents and cultures claim their own indigenous peoples and issues, to which some artists extend their trickster visions and commentary. Native empathy goes out to war veterans and victims, to revolutionaries and freedom fighters (as in Beam’s Nelson Mandela shadowbox, 1990). According to an installation by Edward Poitras (métis), Coyote was even present at the fall of Leninist Russia.
This is not a book to read in one sitting. Adhering to the conventions of neither ethnography nor art criticism, it reads more like an extended conversation between the author and the artists and, occasionally, other commentators, all of whom use artworks as starting points to discuss the larger issues of power, justice and cultural difference. The common use of humor in all of its forms ties the works together and reminds the commentators that survival and participation in modern life is a joyous thing, a thing to celebrate, in the face of bleak history.
My only criticism concerns Ryan’s unconventional use of footnotes. In keeping with his desire to foreground native voices and provide the richest possible historical and cultural contexts in which to read these voices, the author has segregated a significant amount of information from the primary text in the form of footnotes. In places, the notes are so long that they dominate the page, making it difficult to determine which text to read, or to read first. But this is one of Ryan’s premeditated parallelisms. The author is Coyote playing a trick on us: the text as a whole is not whole, but rather a series of interrelated ideas, none of which is the final authoritative word.
Basso, Keith, Portraits of “the Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Bates, Sara (editor), Indian Humor. San Francisco, California: American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1995.
Studies in American Humor
New Series 3, No. 7, 2000
—review by James E. Caron, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
On a bookshelf at home, I have little clay representations of Pueblo sacred clowns, a Zuni koyemshi (also known as “mudheads”) as well as two Tewa koshare portrayed holding slices of watermelon. According to my friend who is part Pueblo Indian and who purchased the clay figures for me, the watermelons were a recent variation of the koshare. During sacred ceremonies they would throw slices of watermelons at individuals in the community who have been behaving incorrectly, or they would possibly target outsiders who exhibit on their long faces a lack of proper spirit for the spectacle before them. In such a sticky-wet, apparently rude and wild-man fashion does the Tewa sacred clown perform the shock therapy of the trickster, a slapstick attack on routine and/or venal behaviors that is meant to open the mind and soul to other possible ways to act.
Although owning those figures marks me as complicit in the long western habit of commodifying Native American cultures, knowing that the practices of such ritual clowns exemplify the business of tricksters gave me an initial mental purchase for this challenging collection of materials documenting some North American expressions of a world-wide phenomenon, the trickster.
The volume at hand is a stunning, complicated gathering of artwork executed in the last ten years by Native American artists, most of them living inside the borders of Canada, with high-quality paper that insures that the artwork is vividly rendered. The book represents paintings, sketches, cartoons, mixed media pieces, photos, sculptures, poems, and songs by men and women from more than a dozen tribal groups. Ryan also includes excerpts from several interviews with some of the artists, which supplement his own interpretations of the artwork.
The frame for his interpretations is a tradition of comic shamanism in Native cultures, what he calls “the trickster shift,” which consists of “representing cultural stereotypes in humorous and ironic fashion to reveal not only their ideological underpinnings but also the way in which historical misconceptions have hindered cross-cultural understanding and interaction … [coupled with] merely portraying the ironies of everyday life and revelling in pure play”(14). Or not. Ryan and the artists themselves give several formulations of what the trickster shift entails and how it manifests in contemporary Native art. Moreover, Ryan quotes scholars such as Barbara Babcock and Paul Radin to explain what the trickster means in Native cultures. Finally, Ryan’s strategy for capturing in words the kaleidoscopic energy of tricksters also includes a liberal use of footnotes to elaborate on, even digress from, the main point about the artwork at hand. The result is a multi-modal, thick description of a specific art scene from the last decade, one that mimics the intertextual discourse by and about tricksters.
Four chapters are meant to demonstrate Ryan’s central contention that the practice of contemporary Native artists is informed by traditions of sacred clowning, especially by mythic figures such as Coyote: “Re/Creation of Identity,” “Subverting the Systems of Representation,” “Subverting the Symbols of Power and control,” and “Double Play on the World Stage.” These chapters are concerned with four crucial issues: self-identity, representation, political power, global presence.
Ryan’s interpretations are especially helpful during moments when knowledge of specific events and/or political contexts is necessary to grasp meanings. I suggest a less linear approach than reading his comments as one looks at the artwork, however. After reading the introduction and sampling verbal text in each chapter, I opted for a less mediated stroll through the exhibition, looking at leisure and noting my reactions. Ironies and playful juxtapositions of cultural pop icons, such as Shelley Niro’s photographs of herself as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, tickled my cultural sensibilities; parodies and reconfigurations of Western artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Manet, El Greco, and Dali twisted them. A particular favorite of mine in this latter category is Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s Daliesque, surreal landscapes that feature Native designs taken from totem poles and rendered in bright colors.
With many of the pieces, puzzlement and unease as much as surprise and delight followed the viewing. The chapter on political power is especially good at using humor and irony to rearrange conceptual categories with perceptual play. Inevitably comes the shock of recognition that arranges itself into disorder, when I discovered watermelon all over my psychic face. Like those koshare sacred clowns, the cleverness of these trickster artists more than once caught me by surprise. Once you buy The Trickster Shift and you have removed the watermelon from your face, leave the book on a coffee table for your friends to pick up.
The Trickster Shift is a study that embraces much more than a conventional commentary on Native art. Allan Ryan cites curators who consider the art postmodernist, which indeed could be argued. Yet, more significantly in my view, this study illustrates the cutting edge of more recently recognized epistemological investigations, namely, transformative learning and arts-informed research. The reasons reside in what is trickster discourse. The study unpacks the intentionality for, process in doing, and content of, the art.
The format mirrors Ryan’s appreciation of the trickster at work. He explains the Native comic world-view as “characterized by frequent teasing, outrageous punning, constant wordplay, surprising association, extreme subtlety, layered and serious reference, and considerable compassion.” The book’s 159 images, mostly full colour, are beautiful. Indeed, you immediately become seduced or alternatively, shocked, which is the trickster already luring you into a journey that will take you to unexpected places. The presentation of material evokes the trickster discourse in its non-linear, layered knowledge evident in visual images; fifteen Canadian artists’ interviews; citations from and references to more than sixty North American Native visual artists, authors, and performers; and the author as witness and trickster himself. Even the footnotes are more than footnotes, instead presented as another layer of text. Indeed, everything written and depicted shows, more than talks about, multiple layers of meaning implicit in trickster humour. The book’s content, its approach interdisciplinary, spans four subject areas: self-identity, representation, political control, and global presence.
What is exciting is how the academy is catching up to the timeless wisdom of the trickster in interdisciplinary programs that understand processes of learning as shifts in consciousness. Transformative learning, for example, is non-linear and experiential, not preaching, not eliciting guilt, not dictating what to think, but instead enabling learners to make meaning for themselves. In arts-informed research, the purpose is intellectual and moral, the methodology is heuristic, the form is aesthetic, the impact is holistic, and the research is infused with the transformative possibility of multiple interpretations in accordance with the learner’s openness to deepen and expand his/her consciousness.
The academy thus is moving beyond the limitations of linear intellectual analysis. Thereby a door opens to recognize more fully what Native knowledge always embodied and communicated in the ceremonial way of life. Historically, there was no word for “art” in Native languages because the creative forms of expression were understood to be tools for teaching and healing.
That is why the work presented in The Trickster Shift is on the cutting edge of the wider spectrum of ways of knowing acknowledged in recent years by the academy, yet, even so, only in some discourses. Ryan points out, however, quoting Lakota author Vine Deloria, Jr: “Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group’s collective psyche and values than do years of [conventional] research.” The distinguishing ingredient foregrounded in this book, of course, is this humour.
Through a trickster discourse, the narratives and art in this study deconstruct stereotypes and misrepresentations recycled through the past five centuries. Indeed, art through the ages, including the Western canon, has been socially constructed. In the academy these productions of knowledge now are being examined and interrogated to challenge meta-narratives, and to understand why and how respective cultures made meaning of reality through time and circumstance. Western depictions of Native people today are “being reclaimed, redeemed and reinvested with new meaning,” writes Ryan, to replace “demeaning clichés and romantic idealizations.” Native artists are manifesting their own cultural legacy and correcting the misperception, as Saulteaux artist/curator Robert Houle names it, of “being regarded as living museum pieces.”
This review cannot do justice to the range of numerous images or diverse voices in The Trickster Shift. They all merit attention. These “texts” provoke us to think in new ways, more deeply, more expansively. For Ryan, the essence of his study is to “mark this juncture in history with a mixture of humour and irony, anger and hope, signal a turning point in relations between Natives and non-Natives and imagine another way of being human.”
Allan Ryan addresses the cultural importance of humor and irony in Native American communities as demonstrated in their contemporary art. As he illustrates, humor is serious: it represents strategies for ensuring cultural survival, overcoming adversity, and making sense of an alien world. Ryan agrees with Gerald Vizenor’s assertion that one needs a community to act in a comic way and acknowledges that one cannot write about trickster or contemporary Native American art in isolation, but rather one must include the Native voice, Native cultural practices, and the trickster spirit. Ryan effectively accomplishes this presentation of trickster practice among the contemporary Native artists of Canada in the late-twentieth century. This study is not a self-reflexive musing about the impact of the cultural critique presented by these artists. Rather, it is a thoughtful and inclusive presentation of a late-twentieth century Native American perspective on self-identity, representation, political power, and global presence—the four principal themes presented by Ryan in his examination of The Trickster Shift. A Native voice resonates throughout this work through numerous artists’ statements and interviews, and color reproductions of their art. This compilation of images alone makes the work a valuable resource.
Ryan focuses his study on what Carl Beam refers to as the “Trickster shift”—the irony, humor, punning, and cutting, biting, and often black humor that infuses, emanates from, and characterizes the works of many contemporary Native artists—in an effort to “reject as antiquated a paradigm that sees Native art as mystical and legend bound in favour of recognizing the active spirit of the traditional Native trickster [with the artists] affirm[ing] a critical link between subversive practice, aesthetic production, spiritual truth and cultural wisdom” (p. 3). Native humor is not lost on Ryan as he weaves a bit of his own trickster wisdom throughout this work. At times, he subverts the traditional academic discourse with the same critical distance and repetition that his subjects employ. Demonstrated in the dialogue created by the notes, images, text, and countertext, Ryan uses subtle subversive trickster strategies in addressing traditional scholarship. Instead of dismissing or purely critiquing it, he recontextualizes the work, offers indigenous responses, and presents ways that this research can be useful while expanding and redirecting the scholarship and discourse on the subject, and in turn, effecting his own “Trickster Shift.”
Ryan focuses primarily on Canadian indigenous artists for the historical and political framing is Canadian, but this study applies across both political and academic borders. Ultimately, Ryan offers an important contribution to the discourse on contemporary Native art, trickster practice, and the role of the artist in Native American communities.
One of the more endearing human qualities is our ability to laugh at ourselves. As Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Laughter is our relief valve—and never more so than the moments when, to our dismay, we find ourselves unexpectedly suppressing giggles in the midst of solemn or tragic events. In fact, entire genres of humour have been spawned by and about communities of people in distress. Perhaps laughter is hard-wired into our genes; a pre-coded survival strategy to release endorphins and make us feel better about our anxieties.
Poking ourselves in the ribs and allowing others to chuckle at our discomfort implies a certain level of confidence; not the “look at me, I’m being funny” demand of attention, but the kind of laconic assertiveness that says here I am, take it or leave it.
The emergence of confident First Nations leadership in the political arena during the past several decades has an equivalency in the initiative of aboriginal artists to give vision and voice perhaps not to laughter but to riposte. Many of the works of art produced in recent years by Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Bob Boyer, Jane Ash Poitras, Ed Poitras, Gerald McMaster, Carl Beam, and other native Canadian artists are notable for their ironic illumination of life’s paradoxes.
Aboriginal artists are not different from their counterparts in the contemporary art world in employing irony in their imagery. Cynicism, parody, and satire are part of the post-modernist stance. Given the facts of Canada’s racist policies, First Nations artists may have more reason than most to use irony as an artistic strategy, but they also have an abundant cultural history to draw from. Irreverent humour is embedded in aboriginal culture. It’s used in storytelling, dramatic entertainments, and in conversational punning jokes, as well as being an effective means of morality and behavioural training, and for putting people in their place.
The trickster—a quintessential figure of irony and irreverence—is found in oral cultures all over the world. In North America, he is often portrayed in the physical form of Raven, a malicious transformer, or Coyote, a cunning, over-sexed figure who plays tricks on people or is the butt of other people’s amusement. The many symbolic and metaphoric roles of the trickster are explored by author Allan J. Ryan in The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art, a serious and witty study that juxtaposes Ryan’s 12 years of research with commentary from elders, actors, writers, linguists, museum curators, art historians—and more than a dozen contemporary native Canadian artists whose paintings and drawings demonstrate the trickster a work.
Chatty quotes from other authors, unedited artist interviews, and lengthy footnotes overwhelm each page of Ryan’s text, yet the book’s pastiche format—and the 160 bitingly humourous illustrations—appropriately mirror the point and counterpoint dynamics of the trickster’s riddling behaviour. The fluidity of the trickster as a creative genii is outlined in a quote from Michael M. J. Fischer cited by Ryan: “Recent Amerindian autobiographies and autobiographical fiction and poetry are among the most sophisticated exemplars of the use of ironic humor as a survival skill, a tool for acknowledging complexity, a means of exposing or subverting oppressive hegemonic ideologies, and an art for affirming life in the face of objective troubles. The techniques of transference, talkstories, multiple voices or perspectives, and alternative selves are all given depth or expanding resonances through ironic twists.”
Like the trickster himself, The Trickster Shift is a complex layering of associative discourses, art criticism, and cultural philosophy in which nothing is quite what it seems, which makes it a difficult book to synoptically review, but a pleasure to read and read again. Recommended.
(English translation below)
Der Trickster – oft in der Gestalt von Coyote – ist eine machtvolle Symbolfigur indianischer Mystik. Er ist der Schöpfer und Zerstörer, der humorvolle Schalk, der Clown, und der zynische, böse Schwindler und Hochstapler. Er steht für die Phantasie und den Reichtum indianischer Tradition, für die Melancholie und die ironie indianischer Weltsicht. Angesichts dieser Vielschichtigkeit nimmt es nicht Wunder, daß die Trickstergestalt bevorzugtes Objekt zeitgenössischer indianischer Kunst ist; hier lassen sich alle ihre Facetten in vielfältiger Manier einfangen.
Der kanadische Kunsthistoriker und Anthropologe Allan J. Ryan hat sich intensiv mit den Werken indianischer Künstler auseinandergesetzt und entdeckt die Trickster-Darstellung in Bildern, Skulpturen, Gedichten und Texten bedeutender Repräsentanten der Native Art und Literatur, wie Carl Beam, Bob Boyer, Rebecca Belmore, Shelley Niro und Bill Powless.
Bissige satirische Comics, in denen indianische Traditionen in Alltagssituationen – ganz ohne ,,political correctness‘‘ – aufgespießt werden (von Bill Powless und Gerald McMaster), nicht weniger ironische Coyote-Gesänge (von Curtis Jonnie) über ,,Indian Time‘‘ oder die Träume eines Indianers, Cowboy zu werden, um endlich einmal auf der Seite der Sieger zu sein – doch trotz enormer Mengen Weißrot und dem hektoliterweisen Genuß von Milch kommt die Erkenntnis: ,,Es änderte nicht die Farbe meiner Haut.‘‘, verbunden mit dem Hinweis, daß die Weißben sich stundenlang in die Sonne legen, um zu bräunen, den ,,naturbraunen Menschen‘‘ aber nicht mögen.
Die indianishcen Künstler und Poeten benutzen unterschiedliche Formen, Stile und Techniken, aber sie alle lassen spüren, wo sie herkommen, wo ihre spirituellen Wurzeln sind. Doch nicht einer verbreitet missionarischen Ernst. Sie alle zeigen eine selbstironische, witzige Perspektive, zeigen eine Form von Humor, die dem weißen Betrachter, der die gedankliche Konstruktion durchschaut, das Lachen nicht selten im Halse stecken bleiben läßt: Er schaut in einen Spiegel, er sieht sich selbst und seine Schwächen. Und das ist es, was der Trickster, was Coyote tut: Er hält den Menschen den Spiegel vor.
Das sehr aufwendig produzierte Buch ist für Liebhaber zeitgenössischer Kunst eine Augenweide. Es ist eine anspruchsvolle Studie über eines der maßgeblichen Elemente indianischer Ausdrucksformen. Kein geringerer als Gerald Vizenor hat über diese Arbeit geschrieben: ,,Eine außerordentliche Arbeit über den Trickster im Bewußtsein indianischer Künstler und ihrer bildnerischen Darstellungen.‘‘ Der Trickster hat indianisch Geschichtenerzähler und Künstler inspiriert, lange bevor der weiße Mann seinen Fuß auf den Boden der Neuen Welt setzte. Das macht dieses Buch so einzigartig und unterscheidet es von anderen Studien über zeitgenössische Kunst: Mögen die handwerklichen Hilfsmittel und Techniken der europäisch-amerikanischen Zivilisation die Arbeit der Künstler auch beeinflußt haben – der Geist in ihren Werken ist von weitaus älterer Art.
* * * * *
Translated from the German
The Trickster, appearing often in the form of Coyote, is a powerful symbolic figure in Native Indian mythology. He is the creator and destroyer, the humorous rogue, the clown, as well as the cynical, malicious swindler and impostor. He is emblematic of the creativity and richness of Indian tradition, and stands for the melancholy and ironic sense of their world view. Considering the multi-faceted nature of this character, it is little wonder that the Trickster is the preferred subject of contemporary Native Indian art. In his depiction nowadays, generally all aspects of the Trickster’s many-sided nature are encapsulated by artists.
The Canadian art historian and anthropologist Allan J. Ryan has studied the work of Indian artists intensively and has discovered the figure of the Trickster in pictures, sculptures, poems, and texts of many of the key representatives of Native art and literature. These include such people as Carl Beam, Bob Boyer, Rebecca Belmore, Shelley Niro, and Bill Powless.
The recognition that “the colour of one’s skin cannot be changed” comes in spite of the fact that huge amounts of white bread and gallon upon gallon of milk are drunk by natives. This understanding is further portrayed in biting satirical comics, in which Indian traditions are portrayed in everyday situations without political correctness (as in Bill Powless and Gerald McMaster), in ironic Coyote songs about “Indian Times” (by Curtis Jonnie), as well as by the dream of an Indian to become a cowboy and once and for all be on the side of the “winner”. There is a hint certainly in the fact that even though the white man tans for hours in the sun, nonetheless he never becomes a “redskin”.
Native artists and poets utilize a variety of forms, styles, and techniques, but nonetheless the origin and especially the spiritual roots of these works are immediately perceptible. Still, this is accomplished without any sense of there being a wide-spread type of missionary zeal. They all demonstrate a self-ironic, mocking perspective, a sort of humour for the typical white observer that starts down deep, but then cannot escape the throat. The viewer sees right through the thought processes of the artist, and finds himself looking in a mirror, and it is he and his weakness that are apparent. And indeed, this is precisely what the Trickster figure of Coyote does: it holds a mirror up to humanity and has us look at ourselves.
For any connoisseur of the contemporary arts this lavishly-produced book is a veritable feast for the eyes. It is a weighty study of one of the most influential figures of Native Indian artistic expression. None other than Gerald Vizenor has called this book “an outstanding study of the Trickster in the consciousness of Native artists and their visual art.” Long before the white man set foot in the New World, the Trickster figure inspired Indian story-tellers and artists. This then is what distinguishes the book from other studies of contemporary art: although the means of construction and techniques of the European-North American civilization have influenced this modern form of art, the spirit in such work belongs to that of a far older time.
The evolution of academic presses from conservative scholarly publishers to innovative and risk-taking houses is clearly evident in this thoroughly entertaining, formal, book-length study. In The Trickster Shift Canadian anthropologist Allan J. Ryan astutely mixes interviews, stories, detailed scholarship and vivid plates—paintings, drawings, photography, assemblages, installations, stoneware, mixed-media, metals, and numerous other artforms and materials—into a standard-setting work in the field of First Nations art.
This is an important book on the trickster in contemporary Native visual arts—filled with plates of art that are explosively ironic, hilarious in their in-your-eye laughter and smart wit. The UBC/University of Washington Press has bravely and confidently produced a book that vaults beyond superficiality and poses hard questions, demonstrated by the example of artist Tom Hill, who in talking about his 1992 exhibition Fluffs and Feathers: An Exhibition on the Symbols of Indianness admits: “I’ve always been fascinated with kitsch in cultural tourism,” and who continues on to investigate “the notion of Indianness.”
The Trickster Shift is handsomely presented, with most of its 160 inspired illustrations full-page and exactingly colored. Works by Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Bill Powless, Jim Logan, Carl Beam, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Gera1d McMaster and others significantly expand the visual geography of First Nations visual art. The hand-colored photographs of Shelley Niro create a hilarious record (“…almost like Indian clowns”), with works like Mohawks in Beehives and Portrait of the Artist Sitting with a Killer Surrounded by French Curves uncompromising in their self-clowning inquiries and exploration of identity. Jane Ash Poitras’s mixed-media collages are subtle integrations of language, found objects and magazine imagery, mischievous and transformative in their imagery. Ryan’s text is one of detailed and subtle scholarly investigation, generous in explanation, meticulously documented.
The Trickster Shift is a book with broad market appeal, grandly visual and culturally significant.
Ryan’s stellar, superbly written study of “First Nations”/”Native” arts in Canada examines developments over the past two decades as they relate directly to a popular mythological theme: Coyote, the “trickster” figure, and his utilization of the powers of humor and irony (comedy and criticism) in social satire to effectively bring about necessary changes: “the trickster shift.” Ryan’s educational background (anthropology, art history, and Native studies) endows him with the first-rate scholarship he brings to this study. He examines this popular “trickster” theme in the works of prominent Native artists from across Canada: painters, sculptors, cartoonists, photographers, performance artists, and film producers, whose use of social satire seeks to end environmental abuse, solve problems of Indian identity due to broken treaties and unsettled land claims, and support their current struggle for self-determination of government. Discussions are enriched by including interviews with 19 outstanding Canadian Indian artists, who share their insights, philosophies, and the various influences on their creative endeavors, using humor and irony to convey serious messages. Ryan’s observations also include talks with Canadian tribal elders, actors, writers, linguists, museum curators, and art historians. Descriptions and commentaries are richly documented by 160 illustrations and extensive footnotes. References; suggested readings; background information on artists interviewed. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals.
Trickster Treatise Traces Humour in Native Art
I wish I could say a raven is calling from the trees outside my window while I interview Allan Ryan on the subject of the Trickster, but no, there isn’t a raven for miles. Knocking sounds are coming from hammers wielded by some unseen handyfolk down the lane, with additional chirping and chittering from a nearby chorus of city birds–sparrows, finches, and starlings. As Tricksters go, starlings don’t quite cut it. But as Trickster theorists go, Ryan is cutting it big time.
Ryan is the author of The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art, recently published by UBC Press in Vancouver and the University of Washington Press in Seattle. Large and glossy, it superficially resembles a coffee-table book but is packed with interviews, scholarly text, and extensive footnotes. It’s been almost 12 years since its inception, 12 years of reading, writing, and researching widely; of looking at hundreds of images; conducting and transcribing uncounted hours of interviews with Native artists, actors, writers, elders, curators, and teachers; developing a nonlinear structure for the images and text; tracking down all the necessary permissions for reproductions and quotes; and then finding the funding, through public agencies and private foundations, to bring this wealth of material to publication. Engagingly written, handsomely designed, and richly illustrated, The Trickster Shift focuses on humour as a significant element of the Native art practice of our day. It also locates this humour in the Native tradition of the Trickster.
Sly humour, antic humour, black humour, biting humour, subversive humour, irony, satire, wordplay, and absurd juxtapositions are all strategies of the Trickster kind. For Carl Beam, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Gerald McMaster, Shelley Niro, Edward Poitras, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, six of the many artists whose work is examined in this book, such humour is a means of drawing attention to a range of serious issues, from the construction of identity and the perpetuation of stereotypes to land claims, residential schools, benighted government policy, and environmental destruction.
“Trickster is a character in Native American mythology, widespread, found across the continent,” Ryan explains. Trickster stories “were used to teach cultural truths among the aboriginal communities.” Such stories work indirectly, nondidactically, amusing their listeners with Trickster’s outrageous behaviour.
Identified as Raven on the Northwest Coast, Bluebird in Washington state, and Coyote in many other parts of North America, Trickster exhibits a range of contradictory characteristics: good and evil, male and female, human and animal, creative and destructive, sacred and profane. Trickster’s behaviour is often governed by greed, cunning, and prodigious sexual appetite. Trickster, of course, plays tricks on others—but is also the victim of others’ tricks. Dualistic by nature, Trickster is a key character in a number of Native creation myths. Ryan quotes Cree playwright Tomson Highway as saying that Trickster is located at the “very centre” of the Native spiritual universe.
It stands to reason that a character of such cultural significance would find expression in contemporary Native art, but Ryan seems to be the first academic to illustrate that point for a non-Native audience, and to observe that many Native artists assume the role of Trickster within their own practice. But then Ryan, who came to anthropology late from a background in graphic art, folk music, and political satire, is not your conventional academic.
After graduating from a commercial art program at the Ontario College of Art in the late 1960s, Ryan wrote and performed songs of political satire for Canadian television and kicked around as a singer-songwriter. He recorded a couple of albums, but his music career never really took off and he eventually gave it up to pursue Native studies at Brandon University in Manitoba. What tipped him in that direction was a chance encounter with a book of Native American history. “A friend of mine gave me a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” he recalls, “and that book virtually changed the direction of my life.”
Ryan immersed himself in Native culture, particularly Native visual art traditions. He excelled at university and won a scholarship to earn a master’s degree in Tucson, Arizona, eventually returning to teach Native art courses in northern Manitoba communities through a Brandon University outreach program. In 1988, he enrolled in the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, determined to explore the use of humour in contemporary Native art. “I wanted to focus specifically on the humour, and in a sense that hadn’t been done before,” Ryan recalls. “I had to keep convincing people that it was really the humour I wanted to look at, and I didn’t want to use it as a tool to get at something else.”
Although The Trickster Shift began life as Ryan’s doctoral dissertation, it bears little resemblance to any stereotype of stuffy scholarship you might care to conjure up. The structure of the text is postmodernly nonlinear, creating three parallel discourses at any one time. Ryan wanted, he said, to “break down this authoritative voice, this primary narrative, where you have a non-Native talking about what he thinks is going on in Native art.” Working with designer George Vaitkunas, Ryan set out a number of different styles and bodies of text on each page, using extensive excerpts from his interviews with artists along with chatty footnotes and the thread of his own voice, which sews the various parts into a coherent whole.
Ryan’s intention was to establish dialogues and draw connections between the themes and images of Native artists and also to draw attention to similar themes and images in other disciplines and cultures, including popular culture. “I saw the book as being a conversation, a discourse about Tricksters, among Tricksters,” he says. “I wanted to capture—in the structure of the book and the way I wrote it—something of that playfulness and emotional range.”
He defied the demands of one academic critic that he incorporate the views of European cultural theorists Jean Baudrillard and Mikhail Bakhtin into his study, and that he paraphrase what Native artists had told him, rather than reproducing extensive excerpts from interviews. “The reason I am using these long quotations is that there have been enough academics and non-Natives paraphrasing Native people before,” Ryan explains. “I want them to be able to tell their own stories and take as long as they want to.” He adds that, for his subject, it makes far more sense to quote from Native writers and theorists such as Highway, Thomas King, and Gerald Vizenor than from Baudrillard and Bakhtin. “I want the theory as well as the work and the stories to be grounded in Native American experience as much as possible.”
Ryan speaks with wonder and gratitude of the generosity of the Native artists he interviewed, most of whom welcomed him into their lives and their art. He was also struck by their candour. Transcribing the lengthy interviews, he says, he felt a tremendous responsibility to them, to the power of their stories told in their own voices. Ojibwa artist Carl Beam, who lives on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, initially seemed unfriendly toward the idea of an interview, Ryan remembers. However, when Ryan arrived at Beam’s home, expecting an hour of the artist’s time, he was regaled with more than 12 hours of reflections. It’s from Beam that Ryan borrowed the phrase “Trickster shift.” It describes the artist’s ability to “shift public perception of what Native art and Native culture are about,” Ryan says. “But also there’s that sort of shifty manoeuvre around expectations, so there’s that subversive aspect, that sense of mischief that the artists bring to their work.”
Beam was adamant that Ryan be aware that humour wasn’t the whole story, that his work had a very serious aspect to it, of which humour was a strategy. Ryan acknowledges this as true of most of the contemporary Native art he’s looked at—as it is of Trickster stories. Again, he repeats, the humour is a way of drawing attention to issues important to Native people—and of opening non-Native minds. “I really see the work as a catalyst for initiating dialogue and discourse. Then you get some sense of cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity beginning.”
In a book generously illustrated with scores of reproductions in full color, Allan Ryan introduces readers to an unusual body of art that has not been widely known among Western audiences, although clearly Western art is known among the contemporary Native artists whose work is the subject of this book. Their parodies of European art traditions are strong and clever.
Jim Logan’s A Rethinking on the Western Front parodies Michelangelo’s image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of God empowering Adam. In Logan’s version, the Supreme Spirit is passing the gift of humor to the first man of the First Nations. Logan’s Three Environmentalists, a spoof of Raphael’s The Three Graces, shows three naked Native women frolicking on a giant tree stump with the devastation of clear-cutting depicted in the background.
Ryan, an anthropologist and art historian, explores the influence of the trickster figure in the work of such artists as Carl Bean, Rebecca Belmore, Bob Boyer, and Shelley Niro. He points to the classic Western paintings that are being parodied (occasionally reproducing them beside the Native versions) and explicates the details of the witty parodies. His text includes many of his artists’ statements about individual works, as well as their theories about the creative process and the nature of Native humor. The latter involves teasing, punning, shocking associations and–surprisingly?–compassion. Ryan’s text also contains excerpts from Native elders, actors, linguists, museum curators, and art historians. Often these borrowed texts illustrate the trickster influence as wittily as do the images.
The Trickster Shift is an innovative and significant contribution to the fields of Western art and Native studies.
Trick and Treat
When my family goes through hardship, we laugh a lot. My mother often says during trying times that all you can do is laugh. If you don’t, you’ll cry. These are wise words indeed, as there is strength in being able to laugh in the face of adversity. Allan J. Ryan’s book The Trickster Shift celebrates this soothing touch of laughter. The book is conceived as a “trickster discourse,” facilitating discussion among tricksters, about tricksters, and as tricksters. It examines how First Nations artists employ humour in their art to convey important messages, to reach out to other Aboriginal people, and to laugh in trying times.
Among many First Nations, the Trickster, often disguised as coyote, is used in oral stories and art to teach people good judgement. The stories involving him are usually humorous, making people see the ridiculous side of certain actions. It is no wonder, then, that artists call on the Trickster to show how First Peoples have been marginalized historically and in contemporary times. It is through their art that the absurdity of colonial dominance is made evident.
Although some of the artworks examined in this book do portray the Trickster as a sly coyote, the majority do not. This is because tricksters don’t always leave tracks; nonetheless, the works represented in the text are the product of trickster practice. Irony, too, plays a crucial role in comprehending how the Trickster operates.
Allan Ryan, a lecturer on anthropology, art history and Native studies (he also has worked as a television satirist), argues that there is a distinct Native sense of humour characterized by teasing, outrageous puns, wordplay, extreme subtlety, and considerable compassion. These qualities are illustrated under the headings of self-identity, representation, political control, and global presence. Ryan begins by providing examples of artists who reclaim and rework the notions of the “Indian.” The sign “Indian” is a construction of a non-Native imagination and he examines the ways in which Hollywood, anthropology, and advertising have portrayed Aboriginal peoples as exotic, romantic, or wild and savage. Artists such as Bill Powless play on the perception of first Peoples as being living museum pieces. In Beach Blanket Brave (1984) he turns this around and shows how they also participate in contemporary consumer society. This fact is often ignored, with concentration being placed on traditional customs rather than on contemporary reality. The Brave in the piece is wearing a tight Speedo bathing suit, cloaked in a beach blanket, with newspaper and tire tube in hand. In a humorous way, the fabricated Indian is reclaimed and reused, creating an empowering work of art.
He looks, too, at the ways in which Native artists use irony and trickster tactics to undermine artistic institutional practice and expectations. Within public institutions, Aboriginal artists have not only been misrepresented, but under-represented. Artists like Jane Ash Poitras use art and satire to question institutional notions. Several years ago Poitras was asked to create paintings about the community where she was born. In response, however, she created vibrant works that challenged the curator’s stereotypic ideals, satiric works with titles like Fort Chipewyan Breakfast Club. By doing so, she rebelled against the expectations the curator had that her work ought to be thoughtful, serene and ideal.
The text is perhaps weighted to the works that expose the government tactics used to silence and oppress First Peoples. Take, for example, Gerald McMaster’s Trick or Treaty (1990). He depicts Sir John A. MacDonald as a dishevelled joker with a greasepaint smile. He does not in any way look like the honourable statesman—his usual portrayal in the realm of Canadian history. The caption of this garish painting, “Trick or Treaty—Have I Got an Act for You,” is a wry comment about the history of negotiations between Aboriginals and Whites.
Another artwork that challenges government’s actions is Ron Noganosh’s The Same Old Shit (1990). This humorous sculptural piece portrays Mulroney holding one hand behind his back; in the other he holds a piece of feces. The work is a graphic portrayal of government’s paternalism and withholding of funds from Native bands. Using a cynical sense of humour, coupled with political and cultural awareness, these works reveal the welcome evidence of the Trickster. They also provide comic relief from some real and oppressive experiences.
In writing The Trickster Shift Ryan avoided standard academic style. Although he himself is an academic, the book is accessible and approachable for those less versed in cultural theories. As well, throughout the principal narrative, other voices intervene in the form of poems, prose and personal anecdotes. These interruptions are important, as they give the featured artists a voice to express their own opinions about their work in whatever way they want, and in great detail. Ryan also depends extensively upon footnotes in order to disburse the narrative voices. The long footnotes, often longer than the text itself, are a mild disturbance. But the fact that they are interruptions is important to Ryan’s perception of how a book about Native cultures should be written.
Just as he always has, in Aboriginal cultures, the sly Trickster runs rampant throughout the text, teaching readers important lessons. Much of what’s included would be familiar to many First Peoples, but for non-Natives, the humour and irony make the complex cultural and political issues more approachable. The artists presented in this text are role models in that they have the ability to combat ignorance and have their voices heard loud and clear as Aboriginal people living on this land. As role models they are empowering, because they use Native humour to combat the adversity they face. This strength in laughter is what The Trickster Shift so thoroughly celebrates.
Tricksters Rush In
Analogous to some degree to the Western tradition of the jester—exemplified by Shakespeare’s Falstaff or the “wise fool” of the Grimm’s fairy tales—the Trickster occupies a position of much greater importance in the stories of North America’s indigenous peoples.
“In the same sense that Jesus Christ stands at the very, very centre of Christian mythology,” says Cree playwright Tomson HIghway, “we have a character in our mythological universe, in our dream-life as a people, who stands at the very centre of our universe, and that character is the Trickster.”
In The Trickster Shift (UBC Press $65), Allan J. Ryan explores the presence of the Trickster in the work of more than a dozen contemporary Native visual artists.
Ryan shows how the principal attributes of the Trickster—irony, punning, teasing, surprising associations and compassion—continue to permeate Native cultures today, nourishing, empowering, and protecting those who are able to appreciate the Trickster’s often subtle teachings.
Often incorporating self-ridicule, the Trickster imparts his “lessons” in a variety of guises and forms, usually without didacticism, during his often outrageously humourous adventures.
Looking beyond simplified portrayals of the trickster as “Coyote” or “Raven,” Ryan reveals the pervasive scope and influence of the Trickster in creations by Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Bob Boyer, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, George Littlechild, Jim Logan, Gerald McMaster, Shelley Niro, Ron Noganosh, Jane Ash Poitras, Edward Poitras, Bill Powless and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
As well, Ryan includes commentary from the artists, elders, writers, linguists, curators and art historians. “You can always go head-on at something, and try to wrestle it to the ground and choke it to death,” says Yuxweluptun, “as opposed to setting a trap for it, and opening it up and catching it off-guard.” The Trickster teaches and triumphs with the second method.
Abundantly illustrated with approximately 160 illustrations (half of these in colour), The Trickster Shift is not a formal, purely academic study. Its author sees it as “a discourse among tricksters, about tricksters, and even as trickster…” Whenever possible, he has allowed for the voice of the Trickster to assert itself.
The Trickster Shift is a lavishly illustrated book, its title a reference to the indelible presence of humour in Native culture. Anyone who has ever listened to The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour on CBC radio can attest to this. And so, in this volume Allan J. Ryan explores this theme within the works of 15 contemporary visual artists of Native background.
The Trickster often appears as Coyote, but just as often this affinity for humour shows itself in teasing, punning, associations and references, extreme subtleness and compassion. In the hands of such gifted artists as Carl Beam, Shelley Niro and Jane Ash Poitras, many issues of the day jump right off the canvas, paper, etc. Yet it is the humour in a good deal of it that makes it so compelling. Rather than getting clubbed on the head with the very legitimate grievances of a people so thoroughly trampled by White culture, we are instead treated to works which are not only visually stunning, but ones in which the absorption and regurgitation of our own culture is held up to us as a mirror, albeit one in a funhouse at the circus. The richness of the puns and references carries right on through to the titles of the works, only one of which is named “Untitled.” (How refreshing!)
It is fascinating to trace the evolution of this sort of work, created with the tools of western culture. Several years back, a museum catalogue of Ledger drawings was published in conjunction with an exhibit of works by the Plains Indians from the mid 1800s. These drawings were stunning for their clarity and lack of hesitancy in the pencil lines. Depicting the uneasy coexistence between Whites and Indians, humour had not yet made it’s way into the visual arts, at least not under the watchful eye of the White men at the time.
Of course, occasionally the work in The Trickster Shift is very poignant, and one can not escape the sad reality behind much of it. Yet it is equally clear that between the covers of this book lies the balm this particular culture uses to heal itself. For decades, the White man has appropriated and interpreted Indian culture in movies and fiction in a most one dimensional and exploitive way. To see this turned around but with such humour is both insightful and remarkable.
It is best exemplified in the quote on the book flap by artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, who says: “You can always go head on at something, and try to wrestle it to the ground and choke it to death as opposed to setting a trap for it, and opening it up and catching it off-guard.” The art in this book highlights the profound differences between our two cultures, but builds some bridges between them too.
I promised myself when I got here I wouldn’t try to pull any of this elder stuff on you—like [expounding on] the cosmic wisdom of Native people. I said, I’ll leave that to the elders, and just tell people that I’m a practising artist… In this context, probably, nobody would recognize a shaman if they’d seen one right now. They’re looking for an old paradigm. The Trickster Shift, they can’t recognize that thing. Well, I’ve been practicing that kind of stuff for quite a while—in my own estimation of course—I’m quite an accomplished magician, a real magician.
—Carl Beam, Ojibway artist
Artist Carl Beam states he will not discuss the “cosmic wisdom” of Native peoples, then with an ironic twist, he does just that, in typical trickster fashion. “By directing viewers to reject as antiquated a paradigm that sees Native art as mystical and legend bound in favour of recognizing the active spirit of the traditional Native trickster, Beam affirms a critical link between subversive practice, aesthetic production, spiritual truth, and cultural wisdom,” according to Allan J. Ryan. Beam’s quote is the source for the title of Ryan’s first book, The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. Adapted from Ryan’s dissertation work at the University of British Columbia, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology, this study is a pivotal inaugural analysis of humor in Native art.
Ryan focuses on, but is not limited to, fourteen visual artists (Carl Beam [Ojibway], Rebecca Belmore [Ojibway], Bob Boyer [Metis], Joane Cardinal-Schubert [Blood], Vivian Gray [Mi’gmag], George Littlechild [Plains Cree], Jim Logan [Metis—Cree/Sioux/Scottish], Gerald McMaster [Plains Cree], Shelley Niro [Mohawk], Ron Noganosh [Ojibway], Edward Poitras [Metis], Jane Ash Poitras [Cree/Chipewyan], Bill Powless [Mohawk] and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun [Salish/Okanagan]). He interviewed and extensively researched the work of each to compile not only an in depth critical analysis, but also a rich visual experience that is easily accessible. Anyone can open this book and flip through it like an exhibition catalogue (100 color plates plus 60 b/w illustrations) and its message is undeniable: Native artists use humor, or more aptly, satire, to inspect, deflect and reflect contemporary issues. A tactful facilitator, Ryan lets their words and visions speak for themselves.
But first, in order to understand how Native artists operate as tricksters, one has to know just exactly who trickster is. He has many names across North American First Nations: Napi, Raven, Nanabojoh, Glooskap, Weesakejak, Hare and Coyote. “Half hero, half fool,” trickster is a creator figure who is destined to wander the earth getting into trouble, playing tricks and having tricks played upon him. He has no concept of good or evil really, no concept of moral or social values, he just follows his passions and appetites. Always both sides of the coin, his dichotomous nature easily supports a humorous outlook, a double-take on the norm. Jokes, anecdotes, puns, and gentle ribbing allow people to approach situations, which without humor, would seem too painful or frightening. Gary Farmer, Mohawk actor, says, “I love to make people laugh so that I can turn around and make them think.” Many indigenous people feel a comic spirit is the center of Native cultural identity and traditions. Gerald Vizenor, an Anishinaabe writer of contemporary trickster narratives, states that humor is “a positive, compassionate act of survival, it’s getting along.”
The book’s cover illustration is Gerald McMaster’s Counting Coup from 1990. With highly coloristic, Fritz Scholderlike imagery, McMaster portrays a warbonneted Plains warrior holding a pistol aimed at a blue and gold uniformed colonial military man. The gun has just fired, leaving a “BANG” banner hanging from the barrel. Running along the bottom of the painting are the words, “All Plains Indian tribes shared certain types of coup, yet each held its own views as to special ones.” To count coup, in traditional Great Plains warfare, is the ultimate humiliation of one’s enemy demonstrating that one has gotten close enough to touch their enemy, and therefore kill him, but did not, as if he is not worth it; “tribal teasing on a grand scale,” puts Ryan. When one also considers the concept of coup d’état the humor bites a little harder. Trickster is like that—he leads you deeper and deeper into his ironic stratagem, leaving you open to his wiles.
In The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art, Allan J. Ryan deftly constructs a tight, straightforward, yet circuitous, open-ended, multi-level, multivocal dialogue; an endeavour which would make trickster proud. Interwoven with oral histories, songs, poems, artist’s statements, quotes, and laden with footnotes, Ryan has certainly dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s in this meticulously researched and documented text. While this may make The Trickster Shift difficult reading at times because of its multidimensionality, ultimately, it reaps a greater, more lasting reward. Included is an extensive bibliography, suggested readings, and artists’ biographies, all of which constitute an indelible resource.
Contemporary Native artists, modern tricksters, employ humor (trickster’s greatest asset) to create art which critically investigates the postcolonial hegemony and their own cultural situations within and outside of that hegemonic structure. Subverting the dominant paradigm through irony and satire, Native artists reaffirm themselves and their peoples both in history and modernity by establishing a personal, as well as cultural, identity through their respective cultural outlets. The Trickster Shift opens the door so that we will not only recognize “that thing,” the trickster but appreciate his power.
Native humour. We all know it, we’ve all experienced it. We would be hard-pressed however to explain exactly what it it and why it exists. This is precisely what Allan Ryan sets out to do in this book. The Trickster Shift is a visually stunning combination of cultural philosophy, social commentary and art criticism. Nowhere else is the subject of Native humour in art explored in such depth by the very people who employ it. Tomson Highway, Shelley Niro, Jane Ash Poitras, Bill Powless, Carl Beam, and Ron Noganosh are but a few of the artists who have contributed to this intriguing book.
In the same sense that Jesus Christ stands at the very, very centre of Christian mythology, we have a character in our mythological universe, in our dreamlife as a people, who stands at the very centre of that universe, and that character is the Trickster. That little guy, man or woman—it doesn’t matter because the Cree language doesn’t have any gender—who essentially straddles the consciousness of Man and God, translates reality from the Supreme Being, the Great Spirit, to the people, and back and forth. Without the spiritual health of that figure, I think Indian people are completely screwed.
In a lot of my work I try not to stress the down side of Native life. I know a lot of non-Native people stress the poverty and suicides and all the down things, [but] in a lot of my work I try to show that we’re not always like that. There is a strong sense of fun. There’s something else going on…besides dragging your knuckles on the ground.
Jane Ash Poitras:
I have fun with being a trickster in my work… The Trickster is somebody who is always playing tricks. He’s always doing things. He’s always fooling people, right? So I’m a trickster. I take this old piece of map, right? I transform it into a work of art, right? … I kind of like the idea of taking stuff, like taking garbage…and making art out of it—transforming it—being a transformer. And in a way, that’s what tricksters are. They take things, and they transform them.
I promised myself when I got here, I wouldn’t try to pull any of this elder stuff on you like [expounding on] the cosmic wisdom of Native people. I said, leave that to the elders, and just tell people that I’m a practising artist… In this context, probably nobody would recognize a shaman if they’d seem one right now. They’re looking for an old paradigm. The Trickster shift, they can’t recognize that thing. Well, I’ve been practicing that kind of stuff for quite a while—in my own estimation of course—I’m quite an accomplished magician, a real magician.
If they stop and laugh, I got their attention, and then maybe, they’ll take the time to look around at it a little bit more and see what’s going on.
Taking the stereotypes and reworking them is what I do a lot. It’s so funny. It’s really quite funny. And, to see the humour in the stereotyping of Native people, and to invite people to laugh so that a few can all say, “Yes, that’s funny.” “It’s stupid.” … A lot of my humour comes from a negative thing.
Jest in Time
There is a powerful evolutionary force known to indigenous cultures worldwide. In Europe this figure appears as the androgynous jokers and fools of folk tradition—the raven Loki or fox-faced Reynard/Reynardine. Here in North America, the Trickster manifests as Raven or Coyote (among other forms), and is currently starring in the works of many contemporary Native artists. As ever, the Trickster’s revolutionary reforms break down regressive resistance and integrate future realities.
In The Trickster Shift, designer and UBC lecturer Allan J. Ryan comprehensively documents the work of some of these artists, and their reintegration of the persistently humorous archetype. While used as a history in art text at UVic, there’s nothing dry about this book except its wit. The title subtly alludes both to the artist’s role as shape-shifting shaman, and to Trickster’s current tenure as an instrument for cultural critique. It’s a reference as well to the gentle but profound shifting of realities that results from the transformative power of humour on cultural perspectives.
Ryan shows how Trickster, in the works of contemporary Native artists, has shape-shifted into an animus for political and ideological change, emerging as a potent disabuser of bigotry and cultural supremacism through 160 images and copious quotes from First Nations artists, such as Shelley Niro, Jane Ash Poitras, Ron Noganosh and George Littlechild.
Take, for example, this hilariously incisive perspective by painter, Jim Logan on an ideological image we’re probably all familiar with: “When I went to school they always had these diagrams in our social studies books that showed Homo Erectus as being dark, very dark… Black, if you didn’t know any better. Peking Man would be slanted eyed for some reason…the next one in the evolutionary chain. Then they would have Neanderthal, which you could probably say had some Jewish features… Coming after him would be Cro-Magnon Man…this fellow looked like our people! He could be a Sioux or a Cree, a Plains Indian. All these people would be naked, hairy, but when it came to representing Homo Sapiens, modern man, it would be a short-haired White man strutting along!”
In A Rethinking on the Western Front (acrylic on canvas, 1992), Logan incorporates this image above a red-skinned Adam receiving the enlivening touch of a First Nations mother goddess. Unlike Michaelangelo’s hirsute godhead, she’s surrounded by family instead of buffed male angels and putti. In such a manner, canonized European cultural icons fall subject to Trickster’s function of “counting coup”—the teasing one-upmanship of traditional, non-violent, pre-contact, inter-tribal war games. Since the courts of power have ceased to (intentionally) employ professional fools to keep them in check, artists now must perform this vital function.
Or as Cree playwright Tomson Highway notes in The Trickster Shift: [W]ithout the revival…of that essential character, the Trickster—Weesageechak in Cree, Nanabush in Ojibway—I think we’ve had it. We’re up shit creek.”
Coyote Captured on Canvas: An Anthology of Anarchy and Irony in Native American Art
The Trickster figure often portrayed as Coyote, is a powerful and ubiquitous symbol throughout Native American myth and storytelling. A clown, a knave, sometimes sinister, sometimes playful, the trickster brings wit, irony and a sense of the ridiculous to any situation. He is the creator and the destroyer, he can be the catalyst for change, he is without morality, neither good nor evil and yet he is responsible for both. He is the synthesis for chaos but within the world in which he roams he brings reason and order. The Trickster’s countless adventures and comic exploits have served to educate and entertain generations of Native Americans. He forces one to question the obvious, to explore the complexities of life with an open mind; he brings important ideas alive.
Traditionally artists have challenged established concepts and make people think with their work. From time immemorial, throughout the world, artists have sought revolution, social change, and solutions to injustice with their imagery. The trickster is anarchy and revolution personified, thus it is not surprising we can see his sly and devious sense of irony in the work of many Native American artists. Some introduce the figure of the Trickster into their paintings. Other artists utilize his sense of comic irony in their work.
The Trickster Shift by Allan J. Ryan is a glorious celebration of Native American humour. The author explores the Trickster’s presence in contemporary art wherein the humour is characterized by frequent teasing, outrageous punning, surprising association, subtlety, layers of serious reference and considerable compassion. The artists are given an opportunity to offer their insights into the creative process, and their take on the nature of humour. As well as Ryan’s commentary, and that of the artists, elders, actors, writers, linguists, anthropologists and art historians make their contributions with poems, prose, lyrics, and personal anecdotes. The mystery of the Trickster will never be unraveled, but The Trickster Shift allows the reader a deeper comprehension of his influence on all our lives, as well as his deep significance to Native Americans.
Mohawk artist Bill Powless’ painting Indians’ Summer (acrylic on canvas, 1984) inverts the stereotypical heroic Indian and creates a contemporary reality which destroys romantic fantasy. The picture of an ageing, obese warrior sporting an absurd umbrella beanie instead of a headdress contains pathos, it is an observation on the status of the contemporary Indian using what might be seen as cruel humour. However, the artist manages to retain a sense of dignity and compassion. Powless says that his paintings are not really political, merely they poke fun at things to produce a reaction. In Home of the Brave (acrylic on masonite, 1986) he has surrounded his individual with the detritus of modern consumer culture, expressing Native participation in that culture. He may also be illustrating their bewilderment on the one hand, and their right to enjoy kitsch on the other.
Ojibway performance artist Rebecca Belmore, is another artist who reworks stereotypes, as demonstrated in her drawing Coyote Woman (graphite on paper, 1991). She says: “A lot of the time the work I’m doing has a serious message somewhere… but there’s a lot of humour. I think… to laugh at ourselves has been a source of strength… It’s a healing thing, the humour.” Mohawk artist John Kahionhes Fadden’s Wouldn’t It Be Funny? (acrylic on canvas, 1983) reveals alien beings visiting from the other side of the universe who bear a remarkable resemblance to human beings alienated from their homes on this side of the galaxy.
Jim Logan (Métis) employs a positive-negative strategy to question the exclusive nature of the Western canon. With a brush dripping with irony he paints a Native presence in myriad familiar but unexpected places. He parodies the so called “masterpieces” of Western art, often those with Biblical themes, examining the originals’ status and relevance to his own experience. In his delightfully satirical work The Diners Club (No Reservation Required) , (acrylic on canvas, 1992), he replays Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, mischievously reversing the gender, race and dress of the figures. In It’s a Kodak Moment, (acrylic on canvas, 1991), Logan cleverly brings to the fore the camera’s complicity in the process of visualizing “otherness,” and as a weapon of intrusiveness used against Native Americans.
Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree) draws comparisons between Native America and Eastern Europe in his satirical painting Glasnost (acrylic and oil pastel on matt board, 1990). “Glasnost” means the spirit of friendship and goodwill. McMaster uses it to call for a new commitment to friendship and cooperation between governments and Native people.
There is an enormous diversity in styles illustrated in The Trickster Shift, however the common threads of humour and irony link all the artists’ work. The commentaries allow one a deeper understanding of the artistic psyche and help interpret sometimes complex ideas.
… Also recommended, and dealing with art from a little closer to “home,” is The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art (UBC Press/University of Washington Press) by Allan J. Ryan. This volume explores the influence of the trickster figure—often embodied as Coyote—in contemporary Native (primarily Canadian) art. The artists represented transcend geographical boundaries and tribal affiliations and create works that are characterized by punning, wordplay, unexpected juxtapositions and assemblages and layered multi-level references—many of the same aesthetic strategies that are employed by contemporary artists throughout the world. Rather than being the traditional collection of works of “tribal art,” the book collects the works of an “art tribe,” a group of individual artists that share a common stance and aesthetic that is grounded in a fundamentally comic cosmic world view that has its origins in the trickster tradition. And more often than not, these expressions both reflect and comment upon, rather than deny, the realities of living in the contemporary world. Bill Powless’ “Beach Blanket Brave” is at the seashore with New York Times, inner tube and pink flamingos; Shelley Niro’s photographs of Mohawks in beehives or her recasting of herself as Marilyn with a “500 year itch”; Ron Noganosh’s beer can filled shield; Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s appropriation and recontextualization of Salvador Dali’s “limp” symbology; Peter B. Jones’ “Bingo Dauber Fetish;” Harry Fonseca’s coyotes; and Jim Logan’s “Diners’ Club” (a recasting of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe”) are but a few of the thought provoking stops along the way in this insightful collection. The book is also enhanced with a non-linear structure which effectively blends a multiplicity of voices—artist comments, text and notes—into a vital, messy and open-ended assaying of an important and evolving aesthetic school of thought.
In the scholarly literature on Native artists in the United States and Canada, the subject of contemporary art is not well represented. Canadian anthropologist Allan Ryan makes a valuable contribution to this field with The Trickster Shift. In the Introduction he tells us that the book was written as a response to questions and discussions raised by two exhibitions, “Beyond History” in Vancouver (1989) and “Art Tribe” in Montreal (1990). Through 160 illustrations and interviews with 19 artists along with additional excerpts, Ryan extensively examines contemporary artists’ use of humor and irony informed by adaptations of the Trickster tradition. Ryan proposes that these artists use the humor of a “trickster discourse” in both provocative and subtle imagery as a strategy to critically address difficult topics and situations. Ryan argues that this approach is a strategy to expose oppressive power relationships and cultural distortion. He points out the utility and possible necessity of using a subtle strategy when, as is the case for Native peoples, the work of artists is legitimized or rejected based on their cultural representations.
Along with his own insights, Ryan incorporates the perspectives of Native artists and others involved in the arts such as elders, writers, actors, museum curators and art historians. He presents this information in a format that incorporates multiple voices on each page using different styles and texts (e.g., prose, poetry, long footnotes, personal anecdotes). This format may seem initially awkward but the approach is effective. The different voices allow for alternative viewpoints and a greater potential to reach multiple audiences through accessible content.
After introducing the reader to various notions of the Trickster, Ryan spends the next four chapters presenting perspectives, developing specific and larger meanings and critically analyzing Native artwork. For example, we learn that Ojibway artist Ron Noganosh combines traditional symbolism and humor to address Native problems with alcohol abuse in Shield for a Modern Warrior, or Concessions to Beads and Feathers in Indian Art. Noganosh informs us that he is confronting the stereotypes of Indians as noble warriors and as drunks while addressing Native issues behind alcohol abuse. Ryan points out that, at the same time, Noganosh is criticizing Western cultural and commercial imperialism. Ryan introduces us to Joane Cardinal-Schubert, a curator and Blood artist, who addresses the issue of Native cultural property rights in Contemporary Artifact – Medicine Bundles: The Spirits Are Forever Within. By using plaster, Cardinal-Schubert tells us that she created medicine bundles that are protected from intrusion and that draw attention to the offensive pilfering of past museum practices. In Let Us Compare Miracles , Ryan informs us that Metis artist Jim Logan criticizes the impact of Christianity and European culture on Native Americans. But, beyond the strong image of suffering and allusions to a history of violence and cultural oppression, the artist tells us that the title also refers to Native survival. With an effigy of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney holding coins behind his back and offering excrement in the other hand in The Same Old Shit, Noganosh speaks loudly and mockingly, we learn, of his opinion toward government withholding of funds from tribes. The irony of the image also provokes thought on the past and present conflicts between Native and non-Native cultures.
In The Trickster Shift, Ryan shows us that contemporary Native artists use revitalized forms, re-appropriated traditional and stereotypical imagery and a range of contemporary and traditional media to convey individualistic expressions of not only their heritage but also their political and social criticisms. We learn that Native artists, using comic and ironic strategies, convey alternative perspectives, provoke questions and challenge audience preconceptions, managing to communicate messages without alienating audiences. Art can be a powerful medium for presenting minority perspectives, but as Ryan convincingly argues, art with a sense of humor can be even more powerful. Yet, I cannot help but be disappointed by the exclusion of Alaska Native artists in an otherwise thorough, insightful and much needed contribution to the study of contemporary Native North American art.
‘Trickster’ forces changes in our viewpoint
When a trickster shifts and transforms, it’s important to pay attention, and not just with eyesight, sense and sound. Trickster figures are incredibly powerful not because they are judicious and reasonable, but because they have ambiguity and flair. Western anthropologists, philosophers, world-renowned psychologists and distinguished intellectual thinkers have tried for centuries to grab the trickster by the tale. But so far, even a description of this deceiver has eluded them. Definition requires stability, after all. The very term the “trickster” is an invention of Western culture, an academic attempt to comprehend a variety of Native American mythological figures. The word first appeared in literature in Daniel Brinton’s 1885 article “The Hero-God of the Algonkins as a Cheat and Liar” and until recently was not used by any American Indian cultures at all.
North American manifestations of prankster figures include Coyote for Western and Southwest tribes and Raven in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. A character type found in virtually every Native American mythological tradition, the trickster is wily, always mischievous and often a buffoon. The trickster’s greatest genius, however, is its alliance with the Creator figure, an evolutionary cunning that would dumbfound even Darwin. It is this ability to transform willfully into ever-evolving manifestations of the cultural imagination that has captured B.C. anthropologist Allan J. Ryan’s quixotic attention. His book, The Trickster Shift, illuminates the presence of powerfully ironic “trickster” transforming elements in the works of outstanding Canadian Indian artists.
Taking exception to academic attempts to explain and catalog the ambiguous trickster character, he sets this book up as a palette for “trickster discourse.” Borrowing the term from Gerald Vizenor, an American mixed-blood Anishinaabe writer, he describes his scheme of allowing the trickster voice to speak for itself. This book, therefore, “is a discourse among tricksters, about tricksters, and even as tricksters,” a compilation of audacious metaphor in art.
The concept of “the Trickster shift,” is the brainchild of artist Carl Beam, and “is perhaps best understood as serious play, the ultimate goal of which is a radical shift in viewer perspectives and even political positioning by imagining and imaging alternative viewpoints.” Those “in the cultural know” have always been aware of the artist as “Trickster,” the ultimate grand master of our most enduring forms.
Ryan’s book is extravagant and witty, full of gorgeous art and artist dialogue, edged with irony, comic awareness and acute perceptions. If he manages by his unique effort to pull off a paradigm shift in our understanding of the trickster character, it will be a bold, long-needed, well-deserved triumph.
Native ironies in art—Humour, creativity will change attitudes about native art
Sit down with Allan J. Ryan as he guides you through the pages of his new book, The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art, and it’s very likely a light bulb will appear over your head as you simultaneously utter “oohhh.”
That’s because Ryan’s one-of-a-kind book, which started out as a research proposal for a doctorate in anthropology he earned at the University of British Columbia, bursts the bubble reserved for stereotyping native culture. Instead it unveils a narrative of modern times in a multi-layered, wry and mischievous wit.
Getting the joke or realizing the irony becomes an enlightening journey, as the reader travels through pictures of unfolding Indian history.
“With the layering and sophistication of the humour, the images will change how people think of native art, how people think of native people and culture,” says Ryan, a White Rock resident.
The Trickster Shift title comes from the Trickster figure in native history, often seen as coyote, whose wry and teasing nature has been threaded through native story-telling in pictures and words.
“The artists take inspiration from the trickster in the studio, living by their wits,” Ryan explains.”I see their work as visual trickster narratives.”
Ryan explores the roles of the Trickster in this collection of more than 160 images (most displayed in rich colour) by 30 Aboriginal artists. The cover piece, by Gerald McMaster, shows a Plains Indian pointing a novelty gun at a soldier. The word BANG! appears on a cloth hanging from the end of the gun.
“It’s a representative cover” explains Ryan over coffee. His enthusiasm for this bound collection of art and narrative is mounting as he talks. Proving the accessibility of his work to even those who know little about native history or visual arts, it’s clear he has checked the credentials that follow his name at the door as he explains some of the themes in the book.
“It’s about teasing,” he continues. “It’s parody—a reversal from the standard Hollywood scenario. It’s also about the whole idea of, ‘Bang! I got you!’ as opposed to ‘Bang! You’re dead.’ It was a historical practice of the Plains Indian to touch your enemy instead of kill him, so he’s humiliated.”
So, the Trickster teases. But it also educates.
Another piece, a photograph by Shelley Niro of her mother striking a pose on the trunk of an old car, shows something we don’t often connect to the old image of stoic native women, toiling away as they work the earth. It depicts a sense of Aboriginal pride and fun.
“The whole idea of Indian Princess and Earth Mother is shot in just one little photo,” Ryan says.
And the trickster heals.
A George Littlechild painting shows a repetitive design of crosses and churches in the Easter egg colours that are his trademark. Referring to the native residential schools, it is titled Boarding School Wallpaper.
“Here you take a painting and a pattern of abuse and turn it into a pattern of colour,” Ryan says. “There’s a necessity today to talk about these issues. Here’s a way into it. These are painful issues and this is black humour.”
The Trickster Shift skillfully mixes the author’s own commentary with dialogue from the artists, which Ryan gleaned from more than 80 hours of interviews.
“I wanted to get a sense in this of how people talked, so it’s not tidied up. People are quoted at length how they’re talking in their living rooms,” Ryan says. With a flicker of a smile, the Ph.D. adds: “This has appeal way beyond academia.”
Allan Ryan, an anthropologist, art historian specializing in Native art, singer and songwriter, in his book The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art shows the presence of strong modern Native art. He also reveals humor and irony in works of the Native artists. Also the latest concepts of cultural anthropology are used to explore the Trickster.
In the book there are more than 150 illustrations of pictures, blankets, three dimensional installations, carvings and cartoons by 31 artists. All of them are Native Americans from different tribes: Ojibway, Blood, Mohawk, Mi’gmag, Plains Cree, Sioux, Chipewyan, Salish, Okanagan and Métis. The author includes in the book interviews with artists and conversations with Indian elders, modern writers, museum curators and actors. Ryan also provides in the book biographical information about the artists. Fifteen interviewed artists have art degrees, mostly from Canadian art colleges and universities.
The illustrations of art works are the important part of the book. All of them are chosen because of the humor in them. Allan Ryan emphasizes that humor is not something accidental there. He, as an anthropologist, insists that humor is an essential part of Native aesthetics. Humor is the main quality of the trickster, who is the chief character of the book. Trickster is an embodiment of humor in Native tradition. He is a playful comic spirit, often pictured as a coyote. Trickster’s comic adventures entertained and educated generations of Native people, and of course the Native artists found great inspiration in Trickster’s traits, such as “curiosity, ingenuity, playfulness, earthiness, irreverence, and resilience” (p. 6). The trickster is neither good, nor evil. According to noted anthropologist Lawrence Sullivan, “in Trickster chaos and order, sacred and profane, farce and meaning, silence and song, food and waste, word and event, pretended ignorance and pretended cunning, stone-life and flesh life, male and female, play and reality, compose not only an ironic symbol but a symbol of irony” (p. 8). As another famous anthropologist Paul Radin expresses it “laughter, humor, and irony permeate everything Trickster does” (p. 6). It is difficult to overestimate the influence and importance of the trickster in Native tradition. The modern writer Gerald Vizenor in one of his novels asserts: “The tricksters and warrior clowns have stopped more evil violence with their wit than have lovers with their lust and fools with the power and rage” (12).
Native artists employ humor and irony in the best Trickster tradition. Allan Ryan gives examples of political, religious, and cultural humor. These examples illustrate the main issues of the book—self-identity of Native people and their place in the world. The author, through art examples introduces the history of the Native people of Canada. The following art examples support it. Gerald McMaster, who is Plains Cree, in his picture Hau! The Ouest Was One (p. 179) challenges the official history of Canada. The title of his picture is a parody of the original movie How the West Was Won. By “west” one understands all western culture and western man. “Ouest” is French for west. “Hau!” is the Lakota greeting. McMaster’s title of the picture is a “cleverly constructed trilingual pun” (p. 181).
Another McMaster painting, Trick or Treaty (p. 177), is a very sharp critique of Canada’s early Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who is depicted with a painted white clownish smile. The title is a witty word play. Brilliant titles and art solutions characterize McMaster’s works in general. Cree elder Vern Harper said that McMaster “has the coyote spirit in him” (p. 38), thus indicating the continuity in native tradition.
The sharp humor of Trickster is present in a third work of Gerald McMaster titled Oka-boy/Oh! Kowboy (p. 237) as well. It was created as an answer to the Oka stand-off in Canada in 1990, which was provoked by an intended expansion of a nine-hole golf course onto Mohawk sacred land. McMaster made a very elegant and clever play on the word “Oka.” It goes like this: Oka-Okay-O Kanada-O kant u see-Oh! Kowboy. The artist asks: “Is everything okay now? Can it ever be okay? “O Kanada” and “O kant us see” are references to the Canadian and US national anthems. Allan Ryan explains that the word “Oka-boy” refers to the warriors, “Oh! Kowboy” refers to the soldiers. The artist also mentions a song, “Mon Cowboy.” It is remarkable how much meaning the artist was able to compress in the work. The border of the picture has a “perversely playful design,” which repeats “okaokaokaoka … like a broken record or an endless protest chant” (p. 236).
In two previously discussed pictures there were cowboys. They are present also in many works of other artists. These cowboys, admired heroes of many boys around the world, unexpectedly become anti-heroes. There are two opposing forces—cowboys and Indians. The spiritual Indian is contrasted with a secular cowboy. John Wayne loses here all his charm and attraction.
The Trickster, being a playful spirit, shifts his attention from history to political correctness. The artist Jim Logan, Métis (Cree/Sioux/Scottish), while looking at the pictures in the National Gallery [of Canada] collection, discovered that “out of art works that depict nudes 85-95 percent of them are women” (p. 130). He found it not politically correct. His The Diners Club (No Reservation Required) (p. 128) is a “cheeky replay of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (p. 126). In Manet’s picture the men are dressed and the women are nude. In Logan’s work, in a truly Trickster’s trick, it is reversed—the women are dressed and the men are nude. Allan Ryan sees it as “the delightful gender … and dress reversal” (p. 126).
Reservations, quite naturally, are often the subject of art works of many Native artists. Why Indians live on reservations. Why they cannot leave them. These are questions addressed in Native art with a lot of humor and ingenuity.
Jim Logan’s picture Let Us Compare Miracles (p. 193) is about alcohol abuse by Indians. Here the early Christian martyr St. Sebastian is depicted as a Native who is shot with arrows. For the background of the picture the artist reproduced a popular beer bottle label with a pastoral scene. Logan compared here not sufferings, but recoveries. The miraculous recovery of St. Sebastian from his wounds is paralleled here with the recovery of Indians from a century of alcohol abuse. Recovery, healing not only in a physical but also in a moral sense—this is what Trickster brings with his humor.
The Trickster, a comic spirit, knows no boundaries; all the world is open to him. Gerald McMaster’s picture Glasnost (p. 262) is the Trickster’s arrival to the international scene. The artist, playing on the Russian word “Glasnost”—freedom of speech and openness—invites the Canadian Government and Native people toward a new cooperation. In the picture there are two figures—cowboy and Indian—and words over them:
ranch =/= reserve
D.I.N.A.=/= Indian gov’t
Land Claims =/= sovereignty
G L A S N O S T
One is not required to admire political humor in art, but one cannot help but admit how cleverly, skilfully and perhaps persuasively it is done.
Allan Ryan emphasizes throughout the book a healing quality of Trickster humor. This type of humor Gerald Vizenor calls “a positive, compassionate act of survival” (p. 5). Hope and healing are everywhere in Native art. If there is a rosary made from bullets – it is presented in the form of a heart (a symbol of love), if there is a man leaving a reservation in search of truth – there is a rainbow in the background (a symbol of hope).
It is good to know more about Indigenous people and their art. The Trickster Shift is not about art, and it is not about anthropology, and it is not about humor—it is about all of these, which makes it unique.
[The books reviewed] share an underlying focus on First Nations cultural expressions and can be productively reviewed under the rubric of contemporary Canadian First Nations identity construction. A refusal to be defined from external sources is a powerful, cohesive theme in these works. In an era when many are clamouring for First Nations voices to be heard in the literature, Johnston and Van Camp’s efforts contribute to a growing body of published Native authors. Likewise, although Ostrowitz, Ryan and Wyatt are non-Native and come from groups who have traditionally defined Native art and culture from the outside (art historians, anthropologists and art gallery owners), these authors have used Native informants and recognize the need for Native artists to speak about their own artistic productions. Although there is a certain amount of naivete in thinking that mere recording of words is enough to rectify power differences, the attempt to equalize voices should be applauded.
These texts also speak of the reality that First Nations identity is not made in a vacuum, and Native people must recognize the external sources which they are resisting. In a sense, production cannot be understood without reception. All five of these books address this interaction between Native and non-Native people and reflect on the relationship of internal and external identity construction. They flip the stereotype of the Indian as objectified in the Euro-Canadian colonial gaze and turn the lens back onto the Euro-Canadian as tourist in a Native land. First Nations authors and artists in these texts are critical of being seen as the “other,” but they make use of their outsider status. For example, Ryan describes how Plains Cree artist Gerald McMaster “interrogates the cowboy/Indian phenomenon—that curious coupling of a minor blue-collar profession with a complete race of people—to reconfigure Aboriginal history and comment on contemporary intercultural relations.” McMaster plays with the prevalent stereotype in a series of works titled The cowboy/Indian Show in order to undermine its power and to make space for alternative perspectives. Ironically, the very stereotype he is refusing becomes the foil for his own identity construction. …
In his book, The Trickster Shift anthropologist Allan Ryan asks why humour has become a significant mode for First Nations artistic expression. His answer is that humour is both a critical strategy and a cultural world view. The extent of the works displayed in these pages (160 colour painting, drawings, photographs, sculptures, performance pieces and installations) visually represents the outpouring of contemporary First Nations art in 1980s and 1990s Canada. The sheer exuberance and force of their critique bespeak a giant backlash building against non-Native stereotypes of Indians. Ryan’s book affords the opportunity for a mainstream audience to access these subversive works all in one place, where previously they were scattered in private and public art collections.
Ryan mimics the content of his text with a post-structuralist format or what he terms a “trickster discourse.” His book is a collage that replicates with its design First Nations artists’ methods for post-modern art making: juxtaposition, layering, multiple competing voices. Ryan creates a space for the vibrant artwork to react with and against the words of the artists and his own organizing text. Elaborate and informative footnotes serve as factual backbone to aid in providing context and in pinpointing historical moments significant for his and the artists’ interpretations. Ryan achieves his aim: a discourse that is “[a]t once open-ended, unfolding, evolving, incomplete,… imagined in numerous verbal and visual narratives and a multiplicity of authoritative voices.”
Evocatively, Ryan depicts First Nations artists as “warrior diplomats.” Humour has become a diffusion strategy to disempower non-Native people who have attempted to define and limit First-Nations identity. Clearly, displaying art becomes a powerful tool for controlling one’s own identity construction. In fact, one could even suggest that this text not only reflects pre-existing First Nations identity, but that it promotes growth of positive First Nations identity. Interestingly, Ryan does not reflect on his own role in this critical act. His text belies the fact that he is only a recorder of artists’ voices or a collector and displayer of their contemporary art. Missing from his text is a self-conscious analysis of his own participation in Native identity construction. Allowing the text to be heteroglossic does not in and of itself explain away the need for self-reflection or the effects of non-Native interpretation of Native art. Ryan’s organization of artistic material into four overarching themes of self-identity, representation, political power and global presence necessarily affects the way readers view and understand these works of art. This organization should have been discussed and perhaps deconstructed within the body of his book. This criticism aside, Ryan’s rich compendium of contemporary First Nations art will be seminal for teaching both Native and non-Native students about contemporary First Nations artistic identity.
Over the past 30 years, this reviewer has had occasion to be in art galleries throughout the United States and Europe. During these visits, viewers made outrageous assumptions; as one person commented, “Indians should stick to traditional painting like C.M. Russell did.” First, Charlie Russell was not an American Indian; however, his nineteenth-century paintings of Plains cultures have come to represent “Indian lifestyles.” Second, the person making the comment, was at the time viewing a modern version of Lakota ledger art. Lakota ledger art is a very traditional art form for Lakotas.
Such is the kind of irony found in The Trickster Shift. Or, as Allan J. Ryan put it, the general public “sees Native art as mystical and legend bound” and refuses to see it as “the active spirit of the traditional Native trickster” (3). A portion of the artwork in this book represents a variety of social and political issues Indigenous peoples face. There are powerful pieces, such as Gerald McMaster’s “Shaman,” in which a medicine man explains the theory of transformation to cowboys, thus debunking the dumb-antagonist-Indian Hollywood stereotyping of Indigenous peoples.
Other impressive examples abound. Jim Logan confronts the damage done by the advertising industry that equates beauty with thin, blonde women in “Venus Myth.” As part of the painting, Logan wrote, “So powerful is beauty that my sister wishes she was white and my sons won’t look at their own…” (81). Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun uses striking colors and surrealistic versions of traditional images to drive home the impact of the destruction of the environment in “Hole in the Sky” and “Throwing Their Culture Away.” Ron Noganosh relies on a three-dimensional approach in “Will the Turtle Be Unbroken?” Noganosh describes the sculpture as “one hell of a bleak statement on the world. The Ojibway legend of creation is that the world is built on the back of a turtle. That’s a turtle shell there [which rests on a model of the Starship Enterprise in the sculpture]. The Earth is moving through space…on the back of a turtle. These are rainforests burning [on the globe of the world that sits on the turtle shell], there’s oil slicks on it, half the God-damned world is turning into a desert!” (269).
Other works of art contained in this book help to dispel one of the myths about Indigenous peoples: that we don’t have a sense of humor. Bill Powless’ “Tourists” turns the tables and puts the camera in Indigenous hands. Shelley Niro does an Indigenous satire of the classic Marilyn Monroe in her “500 Year Itch.” Ryan includes interviews with the artists, speaking about their work, their lives, and their inspirations. He also critiques the works from a scholar’s point of view. Overall, the book offers a potent mixture of Native voices and worldviews.
Ryan lectures frequently on anthropology, art history, and First Nations Studies, and has also worked as a graphic designer, singer/songwriter, and television satirist. He holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia. Ryan organized a workshop on Native American cartooning at the Native American Journalists Association meeting in Tempe, Arizona in 1998, and is currently researching the work of Native American cartoonists.
Humour with a message
There’s a touch of the Trickster in Allan Ryan, the University of Victoria teacher who has just written The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art (UBC Press, 320 pages, $65).
At 54, with curly hair and a puckish face, he’s a latecomer to the academic world. He started his working life as a satiric songwriter, skewering Pierre Trudeau: “PM Pierre with the ladies, racin’ a Mercedes.” It actually won a prize and air time on CBC Radio.
But now Ryan is turning his comic eye to First Nations humour. He will teach three courses on aboriginal art at UVic next term and was recently a panelist at the 12th Biennial Native American Art Studies Association Conference, held at the Ocean Pointe Resort in Victoria.
He was also selling his book there at a discount for conference-goers.
“But this is not about selling books,” he said in an interview. “It is about giving people access in one easy place to the things that have enthralled me for the past 10 years.”
This move to detect and dissect the humour in aboriginal art started when Ryan left behind his own studies at the Ontario College of Art, and his career as a songwriter, script writer, graphic designer. He read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an indictment of the white man’s treatment of the First Nations. He enrolled in native studies at Brandon University in Manitoba and promptly won two medals: “I thought I was a singer taking a break. They treated me like an academic.”
He was encouraged to keep studying and eventually got his master’s degree in anthropology and museum studies in Tucson, Ariz., and his doctorate from UBC.
His book, The Trickster Shift, is based on 80 hours of interviews with artists and scholars, and comes largely from work done for his doctoral degree.
Along the way, Ryan, who comes from British stock, and his wife adopted an Ojibway son, Noka, who is now 17. The family lives in White Rock.
The title of the book is in itself a joke. Ernest management consultants talk solemnly of the “paradigm shift,” the concept that society is following different patterns. The trickster is the jester or clown in native legends and art, sometimes appearing as a raven or coyote. Ryan calls him a risk taker, rule breaker, boundary tester and creator transformer.” Whatever he is, his appearance in art forces the viewer to look at things in a different way.
Ryan has collected the work of about 30 aboriginal artists for his book, which is lavishly illustrated in colour and black-and-white.
He tells with glee how he “collected” a photograph of a totem called The Oka Golf Classic by B.C. carver Ya’Ya Ts’itxstap.
“I managed to track him down in Hazelton and he just happened to have a friend visiting who had a $6,000 camera. So they sent me the picture. And then he just happened to mention ‘You know, I did another pole.’ Indian Affairs had a transparency and so it was a last-minute addition to the book.”
What Ryan calls “a sly and rude little piece” is a totem pole called Elijah Harper and the Deadheads, which has Harper appearing as an eagle, sitting above a ring of 11 white skulls, each shot through by a bullet. They represent the prime minister and 10 provincial premiers, whose Meech Lake accord was scuttled by Harper, a Cree and former provincial politician from Manitoba.
“It changes our understanding of what totem poles can be,” said Ryan.
The book is full of such images, poking fun at traditional native art and Indian stereotypes.
“Some people don’t want to see anything that dares to reinterpret the classic Northwest art form. They’re frozen in the past,” scoffs Ryan.
He has found a mask-maker who addresses contemporary issues, and one of his favourite Bill Powless paintings is of a “brave,” posing with a flamingo: “It’s taking a stereotype and juxtaposing it with something from contemporary society. And it’s asking the question ‘While you’re at it, what else don’t you know about Indians?'”
Many of the paintings take “white” icons and poke gentle fun at them. Jesus, Marilyn Monroe and Venus de Milo come in for gentle ribbing from First Nations artists. Even the busby-wearing guard on Parliament Hill is recreated in Indian braids.
Next term at UVic, Ryan will use the book as one of two texts for a fourth year seminar on the Politics of Representation in Contemporary First Nations Art.
He’s speaking at the Seattle Art Museum next Thursday, taking his guitar and his slides. He’s also excited that Harper’s magazine will run a colour image from his book in January. They’ve chosen The Universe is So Big the White Man Confines Me to My Reservation by the Vancouver-based Salish artist, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
“Let’s have a good laugh at these images together,” says Ryan as he savours the Shelley Niro photograph of her mother, a substantial middle-aged Indian woman, posing cheekily on the hood of a car. “It demolishes so many stereotypes, the Earth mother, the Indian princess. It’s layered with meaning,” says Ryan.
He believes the aboriginal skill at injecting humour into art comes directly from the oral tradition, when stories were handed down without benefit of the printing press. The titles of the works are often word plays. Puns are very big. So is irony. But there is a message too.
As Ryan told his conference audience, showing Carl Beam’s collage about his time in residential school, “The innocent souls of children were the prize in a spiritual battle.”
Over many generations Native people lost their will to speak for themselves. The years of oppression, segregation and forced integration into the majority White society had a lot to do with this silence. Those brave leaders who attempted to speak were often never heard, their voices silenced by racist laws and/or simple disbelief. It is only in the second part of the 20th century that the voice became louder and the politicians began to hear it. Much of the strength of this voice can be attributed to contemporary Native artists who undertook the role of spokespersons and critics for their people.
When I first had contact with Native people I immediately recognized their fantastic sense of humour. Observing contemporary Native art, I quickly discovered that it reflects not simply the traditions and contemporary lives of people, but in fact goes much further to raise issues of great importance in contemporary society.
From the history lessons we know that perhaps the most important figure after the monarch of the medieval court was a jester. He was the one who could say anything and criticize everyone, even risking his head to gently chide the monarch himself. Most of the time he used humour to make his point, thus avoiding losing his life. I strongly believe that contemporary Native artists have assumed a similar role in our society in the latter part of the 20th century. He is very observant, he studies the past and understands the present, and tries to bring attention to the most important issues of our time, injustice past and present. Is he a modern jester or a trickster?
This role of the artist is a complicated one. In visual art you have to be precise and make the point in one short statement. In order to do this your understanding of the issue must be of the highest caliber.
In his book Allan Ryan fulfills our expectations. The text is loaded with information. There is a formal discussion of the value of works of art and their historical context together with frequent quotes from the artists about their personal experiences. Well illustrated, the text provides hours of interesting and intimate time. This book is a gem!
The majority of the works relate to political issues, but there is also a large number dealing with the imposition of European religion on Native people. Through analysis of these works one begins to understand for what purpose the new religion was used. It definitely was not a proper introduction to the true faith. It was the abuse of religious concepts to exert control over the people and to integrate them into White society by destroying their own faiths, their languages and their traditions, a truly fascist, and not Christian, means of conquering. The church played a major part in the cultural genocide of Native people across North America. The works of art presented in this volume confirm this idea.
Although many, if not most, Native artists depend upon humour to carry the point across, most of the time the humour is very black. It is tragic and restrained. This somehow confirms my hypothesis that there is similarity between the Trickster and the Jester. Both personages are tragic figures, not quite threatened with the loss of their lives but doomed in their existence. One issue raised by the artists in their personal statements was the problem of identity. Because many contemporary artists deal with more political than cultural issues, they face the problem of the definition of a Native artist as established by their traditional communities. In the past it was only acceptable to do traditional forms of art, such as moccasins, birchbark biting or symbolic representation of Native legends. To this day many artists follow this tradition. They do not face the wrath of their community. The moment an artist abandons those traditions and tries to express wider and perhaps more urgent social and political issues, often using western techniques, he is perceived as a traitor to his culture. The preservation of the culture is important, but every cultural group should also have one or more powerful spokespersons, people who can identify the most pressing issues of the day and have enough courage to talk about them in a strong yet simple way. I should stress the simple in here, because the statements made by Native artists today are directed both to our politicians and to the general public which may have problems understanding the more complex statements.
When I look at the illustrations in this book I am impressed with the quality of expression and with the honesty of artistic statements. Somehow Allan Ryan convinced me that contemporary Native art is superior to much western art, simply because it deals with real issues in a convincing fashion. Western contemporary art frequently identifies the issues, but leaves one questioning the honesty and sincerity of the artists. Do they really believe what they say or do they express themselves thusly simply because it is fashionable to say it? Lack of honesty is evident in western contemporary art much too frequently.
The Trickster Shift is a valuable manual of the contemporary Native art scene. It finally assembles in one huge volume art works never before seen together and often lost in small local shows or minor publications. With a great and witty writer the book comes to life. I hope that it becomes a permanent desk copy in the offices of politicians. A message to our politicians: if you don’t understand Native issues, read The Trickster Shift. It will change your life. A message to the general public: the history of western art is only part of the story. Read The Trickster Shift to learn the other part. It will complete the circle.
A message to all: Don’t miss it. Books like this are published only too rarely.
Allan J. Ryan’s The Trickster Shift is a richly illustrated presentation of originals of contemporary Native North American art produced over the last two decades. Ryan is known as a graphic designer, television satirist, singer, song maker, recording artist, and as a professor of Native Studies, Anthropology and Art History. Currently, he is Associate Professor in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario and holds the position of New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture.
What are “tricksters” and what does Ryan mean when he talks about “the Trickster shift”?
Tricksters, which basically exist in all cultures throughout the world, are especially important to North American and Canadian Native peoples. Some of the best known tricksters are, for example, Loki in Norse mythology, Hermes in Greek mythology, Monkey King in China, Agu Tomba in Tibet, Ananse the Spider in West Africa, and Maui in Polynesian mythology, whereas in the Native American tradition there are such tricksters as Coyote, Raven, Hare, and Blue Jay.
Tricksters can be described as in-between figures of balance and transformation in a comic drama. They keep people alert to their own survival and powers to heal and support survival through humor. Many of these trickster figures are on the one hand involved in mischief and gambling, and on the other to the bringing of fire, the notion of mortality, the power of wind and creating and saving the earth. (The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology 123, 266, 268).
In terms of Native American culture, the trickster stories that appear in practically all tribal traditions share many common features, although each tribe has added something new to the oral trickster tradition. In the Native American context, the term “trickster” refers to a complex figure known for its tricks, jokes, and even crude behaviour. However, the trickster is also respected as a teacher, culture hero and creator, and stories about him (more rarely her) are told throughout Native North America (Gill, Dictionary 308).
As Allan J. Ryan claims, tricksters, with their comic adventures and questionable behavior, “have entertained and educated generations of Native peoples” (5), and this has naturally influenced “the work and practice of many Native artists” as well (6). Since tricksters are known for their curiosity, (sometimes twisted) sense of humor and playfulness and, especially, for their ability to survive, it is natural that many Native artists have been inspired to follow in the footsteps of the trickster to study the multiple meanings of symbols, multiple voices and alternative realities and interpretations influencing the formation of self (selves) and others.
Tricksters and trickster artists encourage viewers and readers to question the traditional, often uncompromising concepts of art and truth or permanent, solid cultural interpretations. Jokes tend to replace formal and organized ideas with informal and uncontrolled or vital and dynamic energies, so tricksters – and trickster artists – show that many officially accepted patterns and structures can and should be questioned. In this way, systems of representation and symbols of power and control are revised, subverted and recontrolled. So, the concept of “Trickster shift” naturally develops from the very nature of the trickster. The term itself was introduced by Ojibway artist, Carl Beam, at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, and it can be translated as “serious play, the ultimate goal of which is a radical shift in viewer perspective and even political positioning by imagining and imaging alternative viewpoints” (Ryan 5).
Ryan’s book is full of these seriously playful and politically aware trickster artists, members of the “Art Tribe,” so to speak (xiv). Ryan first develops the notion of the Trickster shift and then he divides his material into four key themes: The Re/Creation of Identity, Subverting the Systems of Representation, Subverting the Symbols of Power and Control, and Double Play on the World Stage, thus developing trickster dialogue and discourse from microcosm to macrocosm, from the individual to the global level.
Ryan freely crosses borders and enters and re-enters the open-ended worlds of image and written word, thus creating a third dimension, an interactive process of visualized text where “the small things”, such as footnotes, are as important as “the big ones”. Concerning the footnotes that are abundant in this book, Ryan quotes in his Postscript Vine Deloria Jr, who says: “The difference, then, between Pure and Applied research is primarily one of footnotes. Pure has many footnotes, Applied has few footnotes” (284).
The reader, or viewer, is invited on a visual journey, from image to image, images which occasionally converse with one another. A good example is Carl Beam’s (Ojibway) Self-Portrait in My Christian Dior Bathing-Suit (1980), which mocks the mainstream society’s values and plays with the word ‘Christian’ as well (Ryan 46). This painting is alluded to by Ron Noganosh’s I Couldn’t Afford a Christian Dior Bathing Suit (1990) and Viviane Gray’s Carl, I Can’t Fit into My Christian Dehors Bathing Suit (1989) (Ryan 48-49). Here it is worth noticing that the word ‘horde’ refers to a wandering troop or gang, especially, a clan or tribe of a nomadic people migrating from place to place for the sake of pasturage, plunder, etc., and in French ‘dehors’ refers to ‘outside’, to emphasize further the suit’s limited ability to accommodate her figure (Ryan 50).
Ryan has chosen a wide and representative selection of artists to present the idea of the trickster shift. In Chapter 2, “The Re/Creation of Identity”, he presents such artists as Bill Powless, Gerald McMaster, Woodrow Crumbo, Carl Beam, Shelley Niro, and Rebecca Belmore. These artists recreate and redefine their identity by using photo emulsions and ink on wooden cabinets, by etching, by water colours, sewn fabrics, hand-tinted black-and-white photographs and mixed media. Through such media these artists tell surprising, personalized trickster stories.
The theme of Chapter 3 is “Subverting the Systems of Representation”. Here we meet Jane Ash Poitras, Ron Noganosh, Bob Boyer, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Carson Waterman, Jim Logan, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, and Harry Fonseca, among others. Through irony and comedy, viewers are reminded of the Native reality and alternative interpretations that question the mainstream culture and its systems of representation.
Chapter 4, “Subverting the Symbols of Power and Control”, continues with the ideas of de/reconstruction, recontextualization, and border crossing. Such artists as Edward Poitras, George Littlechild, Beau Dick, David Neel, Peter B. Jones, and Ya’Ya, as well as many of the previously mentioned artists use cartoons, red cedar, wall installations, and stoneware to create new mental connections by playing with language to question political realities and to seduce and shock the reader to go beyond conventional interpretations.
In Chapter 5, “Double Play on the World Stage”, many previously mentioned artists comment on issues that are more global than tribal. The Native American element, however, is still strongly present in their way of approaching the post-modern world and the moment in history when we humans are gambling this time with our lives and the life of Mother Earth.
However, when you gamble or toss coin with the trickster, you have to be prepared that there is more to it than just heads and tails. Nothing is ever good or bad, or black and white, for the trickster. Rather, one is always forced into a third dimension of mixed colours. Maybe con/temporary trickster truth can be found somewhere in the grey tail of Coyote or in the colours of a contemporary trickster artist.
Ryan ends his book with a quotation from Cherokee writer Thomas King, and a drawing by Harry Fonseca (1993) of the Trickster wearing a leather jacket and earring. The mythic figure has entered the modern world, ready to create new trickster stories, new images, new realities.
My friend, Nampiao, put the pot on for some tea. I clean up all the coyote tracks on the floor. -Thomas King
Gill, Sam D. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992.
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Chancellor Press, 1996.
For a list of Publications by Allan J. Ryan, provided by Carleton University’s School of Canadian Studies (see http://www.carleton.ca/~aryan/author.html)
As illustrated by the recent Reservation X, Native Canadians are enjoying an especially vital art climate. Definitely disturbing and certainly immediate, this wonderful book brings together the work of some of these edgy young artists. Anthropologist and satirist Ryan (Univ. of British Columbia) celebrates the pervasive use of the old trickster humor, in this case by those who survive duress by satirizing, teasing, poking fun at, or humiliating whatever causes stress and pain. The result is the kind of modern art many find hard to handle: comic strip or graffiti, performance art or poetry, montage or assemblage, and always in-your-face, e.g., Bill Powless’s “Indian’s Summer,” a painting of an obese Indian in a bikini and umbrella beanie with a feather, eating a popsicle by the ocean. Comments range from “sick” to “this self-satisfied image of contemporary reality gently confounds the viewer and all but demolishes romantic fantasy.” While this book is challenging and possibly offensive, it is a brave attempt to raise readers to new levels of consciousness. For larger public libraries or art collections with a Native American interest.