Beat Nation: When contemporary and traditional are no longer a binary opposition


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Images from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal

It is widely known that over the centuries the image of the indigenous people has been constructed from a Eurocentric point of view. Whether in Latin America, in Europe, or in the U.S., the aborigines are typically associated with ideas of tradition and subjugation, often perceived as naïve or even weak, as an ancient group whose existence in present times seems anachronistic.

Aborigine artistic practices are equally affected by these ideas. The category of indigenous art is a very impermeable one, at least from the hegemonic discourses. For many, the phrase “contemporary indigenous art” is just a contradiction. Surprisingly –for them- aborigine art can be contemporary in more than one way.

First, there is the time frame: Every artistic practice that exists in this time is somehow contemporary. That is kind of obvious, and while there are many indigenous individuals producing any kind of artistic pieces at the moment –and that is something that worth highlighting-, this is not the sense of contemporaneity I want to focus on.

Then, there are two other possible ways of understanding the label “contemporary indigenous art”: One that perceives it as aborigine artists using the contemporary, new forms of art (street art, performance art, video art, conceptual art…); and other that considers how aborigine art has for long evidenced some conditions that now are attributed to contemporary times (fragmentation, multiplicity, its ludic and ephemeral character…). Both of them are very interesting approaches that deserve a closer look, and I want to use the Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop, and Aboriginal Culture exhibition, -showcased in Canada last year- to illustrate my point from now on.

Beat Nation was born in 2006 as a website based gallery, and in the summer of 2013 opened as an art exhibition “…featuring more than two dozen artists using beats, graffiti, humor and politics to challenge stereotypes, the exhibit coincides with the growth of Idle No More, an indigenous political movement in Canada.” (Sommerstein, ¶2)

At first glance, Beat Nation is indigenous art as it showcases aborigine artists practicing all kinds of contemporary art forms.

Now, I want to bring up a term that Oswald de Andrade coined in 1928, and that is mentioned in the article Against Latin American Art written by Gerardo Mosquera, to define a process of appropriation of a dominant culture, when referring to Latin American contemporary art: anthropophagy.

One might be tempted to identify this exhibition as an act of anthropophagy, as a way for indigenous culture to adapt to new times in order to survive. In fact, Beat Nation showed a phenomenon much more complex than that.

It happens that the principles of hip hop, of performance, of breakdance, and even of graffiti have somehow been long embedded in Canadian indigenous cultures -and in indigenous culture worldwide: The human body as center of some  rituals, the idea of taking over public spaces with painting, the circular perception of time (the beat); these are all aborigine ideas and practices. So, could we say that in Beat Nation indigenous artists where appropriating of a dominant culture? Who is appropriating whom? What is traditional and what is contemporary in this exhibition? What belongs to the dominant culture and what to the dominated?

Néstor García Canclini, an Argentinian communication theorist, coined another term that seems much more suitable for this case: Cultural hybridization. In the article Against Latin American Art, Mosquera quotes Canclini: “[Cultural hybridization is] not the synonymous of fusion without contradiction; it rather help[s] to show peculiar forms of conflict generated in recent intercultural dynamics that have taken place in Latin America [and the world], amid the decadence of national projects of modernization.” (p.15)

Even though this concept does not gives us all the answers to the previous questions, it certainly seems a much more appropriate lens with which to read Beat Nation‘s exhibition, and to comprehend the complexity of he tensions and interplay between contemporary art and indigenous art in Canada, Latin America, and across the globe.

Bonus Content: Here is a video of  the exhibition.

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Mosquera, Gerardo (w.d.). Against Latin American Art. Contemporary Art in Latin America. Artworld, Black Dog Publishing.

Sommerstein, David (2014). Hip hop’s Aboriginal Connection. Recovered in September 17, 2014, through the link: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/04/259428743/hip-hops-aboriginal-connection

Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal. Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop, and Aboriginal Culture. Recovered in September 17, 2014, through the link:

http://www.macm.org/en/expositions/beat-nation-art-hip-hop-and-aboriginal-culture/

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