A lone bison wanders across the snowy plains of the prairies, enveloped in rich colors of red and dark brown, the only sign of life in an otherwise barren landscape.
Variations of this image appear again and again in the first solo European exhibition by Alberta Aboriginal artist Adrian Stimson, which opened in London, England on May 16.
Stimson said he hopes his collection, titled Manifest Buffalo: a buffalo dreamwould create a space where people could engage in conversations about Canada’s dark history with Indigenous peoples.
The title of the exhibit is a nod to “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th-century cultural belief that North American settlers were destined to colonize the continent.
“As human beings, we all have to get along. But that doesn’t mean we have to forget what happened, because when we forget what’s going on…it will continue to happen,” Stimson said, 58, a member of the Siksika First Nation, who spoke to CBC on opening night.
In 36 paintings created especially for the exhibition, Stimson reimagines the bison in a variety of scenes: sharing the canvas with a nuclear explosion; enclosed by a pipeline; and a calf jumping happily through the air, an oil rig in the background.
The juxtaposition of this age-old prairie icon wandering alongside modern objects like an airplane was not lost on art lover Adam Heaton, who visited the exhibit on opening night.
“There’s a past, present and future theme here, but you’re not quite sure what the future is, and there’s an inherent tension to that,” Heaton said.
“It’s something different”
Housed in a small gallery at Gurr Johns, an art consultancy and assessment group, Stimson’s collection is a welcome change of genre from the Old Master works that adorned the walls of the space a week earlier, said senior director Spencer Ewen.
“It’s something different,” Ewen said, “but just as valid and just as relevant.”
He reflected on the importance of an indigenous voice having a platform on the historic Pall Mall, “the bastion of traditional art”, which was the center of London’s art scene in the early 19th century.
Once the home of the Royal Academy, the National Gallery and Christie’s auction house, the artists allowed to develop and exhibit their work here were white European men.
Stimson, who is not only Native but has a gendered alter ego named Buffalo Boy, provides a stark contrast.
Stimson’s European solo debut was watched by Jonathan Sauvé, the head of public diplomacy at the Canadian High Commission in the UK, who thanked Stimson for bringing his art to Britain.
“Canada has a lot of work to do…but we sincerely believe that arts and culture are probably the best way to advance Indigenous reconciliation and expression,” Sauvé said.
Stimson, whose Blackfoot name is Little Brown Boy, began painting in 1999, after leaving his post as tribal councilor for his First Nation. He considers himself an interdisciplinary artist, and his sculptures, photographs and performances have been shown across Canada and internationally.
This is not the first time that Stimson’s reimaginings of the bison have caught the attention of the London art scene. In 2016, two of his paintings were purchased by the British Museum for its Blackfoot collection.
The role of bison
The bison’s historical and cultural significance to First Nations is a big part of why the animal figures prominently in his record, Stimson said.
The bison were a source of food and clothing as well as an element of Siksika spirituality, among other purposes, which was almost entirely wiped out by the fur trade, as detailed in George Colpitts’ 2014 book. Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and Last Buffalo Hunts on the North American Plains, 1780-1882.
“Every time I paint a bison, it’s a memory of one that was shot,” Stimson said.
“At this time of the massacre, I believe that this energy, these particles, were released into the universe. And I believe that it still exists in us and around us. So, as an artist, I have the pleasure and privilege of being able to kind of reach into that ether and kind of grab that energy, bring it into me, and create the work.”
The Siksika Nation’s Relationship to the Crown
When the exhibit opened, Stimson greeted attendees in the Blackfoot language and wore his traditional headdress to usher his ancestors and descendants into the hall, he said.
He added that donning his regalia also reaffirmed the Siksika Nation’s special relationship with the Crown, a relationship that was cemented in legislation by the signing of a treaty in 1877, which established an area of land for the tribes, promised annual payments from the queen, and ensured continued hunting and trapping rights in return for the Siksika ceding their rights to their traditional territory.
Stimson maintained that this “nation-to-nation relationship” will remain strong as long as “the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.”
Manifest Buffalo: a buffalo dream opens the same week as other members of Stimson’s Nation travel to a museum in Exeter, South West England, to repatriate several items belonging to Crowfoot, a late 19th century Blackfoot ruler century.
Stimson himself was invited to participate. As the former president of the Confederacy of First Nations Education and Cultural Centers, Stimson said he “passed down many laws” on the repatriation of historic artifacts.
The artist said that by “bringing the herd” to London, the bison once again became a means of survival, stirring up painful memories of colonization and teaching the world about the resilience of its people.