(Re)Mapping Alberta Territories: (Re)Claiming Indigenous Space and Agency

Author: Yang Lim

Photo credit: Miriam van Eck

Photo credit: Miriam van Eck

      In the wake of the work accomplished through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and subsequently through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Manitoba, there has been a push at the public and governmental levels to redress the legacy of residential schools upon Canada’s indigenous communities and to advance the process of reconciliation between these communities and the provincial and federal governments.  In relation to this, there has been an increased recognition in the public sphere regarding how Canada’s indigenous communities have had their perspectives and experiences misrepresented or excluded from predominant institutional and media discourses.   As a result, indigenous artists such as Marina Hulzenga are creating artworks that prompt people to reconsider their perspectives and attitudes towards Canada’s indigenous communities.

      Marina Hulzenga’s project Liminal Space (Awasitipahaskan) was on view this past June in Edmonton’s Bleeding Heart Art Space on 118th Avenue, which was advertised as part of The Works Art and Design Festival.  Through this project, Hulzenga disrupts the geographical space and political borders that demarcate Alberta as a province and define it in relation to the Canadian nation-state.  She challenges the public’s understanding of space and borders by highlighting their constructed nature and the ways in which they serve to privilege or exclude particular narratives that are perpetuated about that space.  As she states in the description that accompanies her work, Hulzenga hopes that her work will “widen, stretch, erupt our existing spatial awareness and make room for the re-discovering and re-imagining of our narrative.” 

      Indeed, Hulzenga exposes the biases inherent in “Western” mappings of space as an abstract process as they suppress and erase the presence of the numerous indigenous communities that are a significant part of this province and its history.  Her work reinscribes the presence of the province’s 141 First Nation reserves, all of whose presence has been suppressed and erased in mainstream representations of Alberta’s land.  In doing so, Hulzenga articulates a more complex understanding of Alberta’s geographical space that destabilizes its provincial borders, encourages a more fluid conceptualization of that space, and situates it within the context of indigenous oral narratives and communal memories that give it meaning. 

      The installation itself includes a large map of Alberta hanging on one wall that shows all of the indigenous reservations and settlements with their respective boundaries.  Complimenting this large map are some white rectangular boards that each depict the geographical shape of a specific indigenous community and includes a label that identifies each community’s name with its geographical coordinates.  These boards are arranged in a row and run along the perimeter of two walls close to the baseboard.  The juxtaposition of these two elements—the large map and the indigenous communities that are represented individually on white boards—draw attention to the problematic process of mapping a territory and the ways in which it can privilege a particular perspective upon that space. 

      By drawing attention to these indigenous communities, Hulzenga deconstructs our understanding of Alberta’s map and forces us to consider what maps may not show or emphasize.  Conventional maps of Alberta that people may be accustomed to seeing in sources such as geography textbooks, driver guides, and tourist guides will tend to depict the province’s major roadways and elements related to the land’s physical makeup, such as the water features, elevation levels, and so on.  Indigenous reservations and settlements have not been consistently represented and the political borders that define Alberta as a province take precedence.  As a result, the indigenous communities’ histories are also omitted as they are inherently tied to the land upon which they define their identities.  These omissions are made even more apparent by Hulzenga’s inclusion of a historical map of Alberta in her installation that also do not identify these communities.  In relation to this, the arbitrariness of reservation boundaries is highlighted by Hulzenga’s depiction of the Enoch Cree Nation reserve’s traditional land map alongside the chronological shrinking of their territory. As a result, Hulzenga posits an alternative understanding of space that is more fluid and defined by the cultural communities’ historical boundaries and experiences rather than by the political borders artificially imposed by the Canadian nation-state without acknowledgement or consideration of the historical context that has preceded them.

      Furthermore, these spatial representations of Alberta omit the narratives that give them meaning.  Hulzenga has collected oral narratives about indigenous peoples’ memories of their childhoods growing up and how it is strikingly different from where they live now, which people can listen to by putting on one of the headphone sets, each of which are tied to a small tree.  As a result, this conveys an understanding Alberta’s territory as not only a physical space but also a discursive space that is given meaning through narratives and storytelling.  The individual anecdotes emphasize how the land is not simply a physical, abstract entity but rather something that has cultural, ancestral, and personal significance and that is given meaning through the retelling of stories in the present.  Their stories may convey regret or a sense of loss around the fact that they can never return to the ways things were before in their respective communities.  However, at the same time they convey a sense of humour to emphasize that these communities are living, breathing entities.

      Related to these narratives is Hulzenga’s inclusion of selected drawings from Enoch Cree nation members who have been asked to draw a map of their reserve from memory in one minute.  The drawings range from attempts to create a representation of the reserve that accurately identifies key roads and landmarks to those that are more interested in creating a suggestive rendition of their community that identifies markers of personal significance.  The results of this seemingly simple exercise reveals the complexity of meaning-making that occurs in relation to a geographical space and the fluidity and ambiguity inherent in this process, since one person may derive significant meaning from a particular place whereas another person may not.

      Another element of the exhibit are the aerial photos of Churchill Square and other locations around Edmonton with the tile and gravel components outlined in red.  For Hulzenga, the presence of gravel takes on a cultural meaning as it signals the shift between the border of one territory to another.  These illustrate how the physical materials that make up the land themselves are endowed with meaning, which is something that may not be readily apparent to people.

      The only drawback to this installation is that its format and spatial layout are perhaps limited by the gallery space’s size and shape.  Had there been more room available, it appears that Hulzenga could have spread out the different elements of her installation a bit more so that people could navigate around and view it more easily, such as the white rectangular boards that depicted the specific indigenous communities.  Nevertheless, the impact of Hulzenga’s work will still be felt by the people who have viewed it.

      As a whole, Maria Hulzenga’s exhibition offers an important intervention into the discourse of truth and reconciliation.  The act of mapping is an important part of this dialogue as it is tied to the history of indigenous communities, who have had their traditional lands systematically taken away by the government and reduced to a fraction of its original size on reservations.  As a result, Hulzenga’s work prompts people to become more aware of and acknowledge this history that indigenous communities have experienced and that continue to have lasting effects to the present day.

      A previous version of Maria Hulzenga’s Liminal Spaces had appeared previously at last year’s The Works Art and Design Festival, but with a different spatial arrangement and in a different venue.  For more details about her artistic practice, visit her official website at http://www.marinahulzenga.com.


Christine FrostComment