This summer, I spent a very hot afternoon with some of the smartest people I know, thinking about inheritance and what obligations we must try to observe in carrying histories forward, however aligned or maladapted they may be to who we understand ourselves and others to be.
Convened by Deanna Bowen, I sat with John Hampton, Peter Morin, Lisa Myers and Archer Pechawis on a stage at the University of Toronto. On the occasion of the Hart House’s Centennial, Deanna was invited by the Art Museum at the University of Toronto to examine the foundations of racialized cultural identity in Canada, and as our point of departure we took The God of Gods (1919). Written by Carroll Aikens, this play uses the architecture of a tragic love story to describe the horrors of war, but in a way that inscribes an all-to-familiar racial violence: in all of its performances, in Canada and abroad, white actors in red face were centre stage, a formal echo of the play’s derogatory ideas about Indigenous people and cultures. Deanna has taken our conversation from that day and articulated it as a new video work that will be part of her upcoming exhibition at the Art Museum entitled God of Gods: A Canadian Play.
As described in the press release:
The play is steeped in primitivism, a manufactured construct that positioned Indigenous cultures as naïve precursors to European civilization. In the past, The God of Gods has been presented as an example of seminal Canadian theatre, and it continues to be celebrated as an important play in Canadian history. Bowen’s project visualizes the social and political networks that, in the early twentieth century, came to shape long-lasting and deeply entrenched ideas of Canadian culture.
It is too easy to single out the play as abhorrent and aberrant from our contemporary perspective. More useful, and as Deanna’s exhibition will work to reveal, is the way that these logics were and are prevalent throughout our Canadian cultural institutions and social formations. In this sense, one of our obligations to history is having the clarity and bravery to chart the ways that racism is a foundational component to the long arm of history, from then to now, so that it might be possible to root social and interpersonal relations in new kinds of logic, kinds that don’t confuse surface with substance. Critical conversations about what we understand as Canadian culture is one way to begin.
I look forward to seeing the final video work as part of the exhibition. Knowing Deanna’s practice, I am sure that the archival and contemporary materials she will draw together will provide insight into the writings of histories, and how this work is continually maintained or unsettled in the present. And as the exhibition encounters it publics, I look forward to continuing to interrogate how aesthetic forms are complicit in—or can resist—the ways that social and political power in Canada dispossess Indigenous individuals and communities.
God of Gods: A Canadian Play will be on view at Art Museum at the University of Toronto from 04 September – 30 November 2019.