Montréal

Nadia Myre, Pipe, 2017, ink-jet print, 48 x 72".

Nadia Myre, Pipe, 2017, ink-jet print, 48 x 72".

Nadia Myre

Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

Nadia Myre, Pipe, 2017, ink-jet print, 48 x 72".

Entering a dark gallery, one encounters a handful of objects, or— as the French title of Nadia Myre’s show, “Tout ce qui reste,” suggests—“all that remains.” They are not so much scattered as deliberately placed, as if to evoke a sacred ritual. All are deeply symbolic: Whether offerings for trade or shrines to remember, each has undergone a meticulous process of handicraft that sanctifies or effaces it.

The atmosphere is one of quiet contemplation, but the histories of the indigenous peoples that these objects reference are violent. An oversize woven basket—large enough to contain a body or two—is filled with fragrant loose tobacco. Three strings of beads that look as if they have been carved from bone hang limply on the wall, longing for a neck. If bodies once made use of these items, they are nowhere to be found. Their histories have been erased, their lands stolen, their languages forgotten.

Born in Montreal, Nadia Myre is a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, as well as the 2014 recipient of Canada’s prestigious Sobey Art Award for young artists. In this small but compelling survey, Myre reflects on the material traces of the ongoing encounter between the indigenous tribes of North America and the European settlers who appropriated their lands and decimated their populations. Combining traditional processes of craft and labor—weaving, beading, and carving—with photography and video, Myre transforms personal and collective acts of mourning into sparse, elegant forms.

By bringing her finely honed Minimalist aesthetic to bear upon themes of historical memory and social injustice, Myre avoids the blunt didacticism of much contemporary identity-based work, without diminishing her work’s political impact or personal resonance. Although Myre’s show encompasses sculptural and wall-based media, her three-dimensional works most successfully negotiate the subtle relation between memory and forgetting. In Grandmothers’ Circle, 2002, a series of carved wooden poles that resemble wishbones lean together in a triangular formation. Although the work is an homage to both of the artist’s grandmothers, her knowledge of their pasts differs significantly. While Myre can trace her paternal French Canadian lineage back to the sixteenth century, knowledge of her mother’s indigenous ancestry proved unrecoverable; like many victims of the Canadian federal government’s forced relocation of First Nations children from their homes to residential schools, Myre’s mother grew up in an orphanage, away from her family and alienated from her cultural heritage. Myre’s poignant sculpture, at once an opening and a barrier, suggests that this matrilineal foundation for her identity is necessarily precarious and incomplete.

In “Code Switching, 2017, Myre repurposes the bone-like remains of seventeenth-century ceramic pipes that she discovered while mudlarking on the banks of the River Thames. Unbeknown to the artist at the time of her collecting, these industrially made pipes date back to the beginning of widespread tobacco use in Europe, after Native Americans first shared their knowledge of its production with colonists. Myre’s translation of the artifacts thus references the devastating consequences of trade between white settlers and the indigenous tribes of the New World.

While the title “Code Switching” suggests the alternation from one language to another, it also implies a contested legibility. The idea of legibility is notably at stake in Indian Act, 2000–2002, in which pages of the 1876 Indian Act, which gave the Canadian government exclusive legislative authority over indigenous land and rights, are obscured with red-and-white beadwork. Of the twenty pages that hang framed in a grid, half are encrypted completely. This is not a question of simple adornment, but a negation of a negation. It is no less affective for being the most didactic piece in the show.

Myre is at her best, however, when her work is more indeterminate. In Orison/Oraison, (Net), 2014–17, the strongest and most mysterious work in the show, a delicate red fishing net rises slowly into a tent shape and just as gently falls to the floor, where it is held in place by a circle of rocks. Animated by a discreet pulley, it nonetheless seems to move with the rhythm of breathing. I am still wondering what this strange prayer means, and why it haunted me so.

Ara Osterweil