Dana Claxton: From a Whisper to a Scream

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lynne Bell for Canadian Art: I can still remember my first encounter with Dana Claxton’s art. It was 1996, and I watched a copy of her video I Want to Know Why (1994) for an exhibition I was developing on the topic of art and the city. From its first moments, the short video radiates an electric energy that never lets up; tapping into the transgressive power of montage, it offers an opportunity for surprise learning that challenges viewers to think again about the history of colonialism in the cities they inhabit.

With the grainy, juddering look of archival film, the video moves through New York, Ottawa and Indian Head, Saskatchewan, at a fast pace, exploring seemingly benign representations of Indigenous people that adorn buildings in these cities. In urgent bursts of words, a voice-over tells the stories of three women—Claxton’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother— who each died early as a result of harsh colonial conditions and the mistreatment of Aboriginal women. In a startling mix of imagery and personal testimony, Claxton highlights the history of what she calls “government-sanctioned oppression.” In one telling moment, the faces of the Statue of Liberty and Claxton’s great-grandmother are juxtaposed in close-up as the voice-over roars: “Mastincala, my great-grandmother, walked to Canada with Sitting Bull. And I want to know why!” It is a moment that reveals the violent paradox in white Enlightenment culture, which proclaimed liberty, justice and freedom for some while justifying the displacement and dispossession of others. At first lulled by a beautiful soundscape composed by Salish musician Russell Wallace, viewers quickly realize that something is wrong as the intensity and urgency of the repeated refrain “I want to know why” grows from a whisper to a scream.

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