Review: A poet, a painter and a cellist decolonize the canon with panache and passion

The story of Canada is so often told with the voice of the dominant culture, it was a rare opportunity Thursday night to hear other takes of the tale of this land and all its peoples.

The Restorying Canada conference, currently on-going at uOttawa until Saturday, has as its prime directive taking a new look at this country’s past and present. Much of it is in the form of panels, papers and presentations on a variety of subjects from academics, journalists and others.

But Thursday night in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Canada a poet, a painter and a musician set about to “decolonize” the canon.

The poet, George Elliott Clarke, read with his usual enthusiasm and panache, from his latest collection Canticles I.

These, he warned the audience, were strong, pungent verses that proved to be full of anger and bodily fluids. Along the way he upended some pretty central pieces of the canon of Western European literature, starting with Homer in the poem The Odyssey of Ulysses X, the title an echo of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the assassinated African-American leader. He also took on paragons of poetry such as W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot, whose words can be respected, he said after the performance, but whose personal beliefs were less than laudatory. And in a “take” on Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat, Clarke posits a slave ship. It was a compelling reading.

Clarke, who is the parliamentary poet laureate and a professor at the University of Toronto, was followed by a presentation by the visual artist Kent Monkman, who has become well known for taking romanticized Western European paintings of indigenous peoples and the wide open spaces of North America through the centuries and turning them on their collective heads.

Monkman told a powerful story of his family history and removal from fertile land just north of Winnipeg by incoming settlers to the Fisher River Cree Nation three hours north. That injustice, which was all to present for him in the form of his beloved grandmother, has fuelled his art, which was originally highly influenced by modernism.

He described his move from abstraction to realism with his own special twist in the presence of his avatar, for the sake of another word, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a two-spirit presence, who pricks the balloons of icons of white settler society in his paintings and performances.

Tying the night together was the truly unique cello music of Cris Derksen, who is the daughter of a Cree father and Mennonite mother from northern Alberta.

Her assignment was to mirror and expand the words of Clarke and Monkman with music and she did that with aplomb and lots of electronics. She set up in a corner of the auditorium stage with a guitar synthesizer which played a variety of sounds, a drum machine and her dark grey carbon fibre cello.

This ain’t no cello concerto by Elgar or Dvorak. Nor is it all electronica. Derksen, who is classically trained,¬†is melding styles and traditions into something all her own and it’s simply fascinating and captivating to listen to and to watch. She was always moving from device to device and back to the cello. The music is also very pointed. One song was dedicated to Pussy Riot, the all-female punk ensemble that was jailed by Russian authorities. Another, called Buffalo Girls, spoke to the tragedy of missing and murdered aboriginal women and another was called Blasphemy.

Derksen, who was nominated for a JUNO in 2016 for the album Orchestral PowWow (the title says it all), is certainly an artist worth catching when she returns to Ottawa for a performance during Chamberfest on Aug. 1.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.