Curator Daina Warren draws from her expertise in Indigenous art as practiced in Canada to present a powerful female-centric exhibition.
With Transformative Power: Indigenous Feminisms at the University of Denver, viewers are not only getting a glimpse of the thriving contemporary Indigenous art community in Canada, but they are also witnessing an up-and-coming curator opening the door to weighty messages and uncomfortable truths.
More than a year ago, Daina Warren, a member of the Montana Cree Nation in Maskwacis (Bear Hills), Alberta, Canada, was tapped as guest curator for an exhibition in the planning stages at DU’s Vicki Myhren Gallery. It would bring together works by female-identifying Indigenous artists working in various media. Warren expanded on the idea, letting “feminisms”—the plural—connote that the power emanating from those who identify as female “has many variations,” she says. “It’s a much wider expanse than the usual concept of feminism.”
It has been a busy year for Warren. She recently left a gallery director job in Canada to become a program manager at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where she is liaison to IAIA’s many Native and First Nations artists-in-residence. She says she’s adjusted well to New Mexico over the past few months and likes the fact that she can squeeze in more time for independent curating.
The common thread of Transformative Power is its ultra-contemporary, thought-provoking look at sociopolitical, environmental, and gender issues through a female-centered lens and with an Indigenous voice that’s above and beyond colonialist perspectives. To get an idea of how willing Warren is to push boundaries, consider the inclusion of two pieces by Rebecca Belmore (Lac Seul First Nation/Anishinaabe) from Canada.
Belmore is internationally known for her evocative work in photography, performance art, and other disciplines. An eighteen-foot-long reproduction of Belmore’s landmark photograph Fringe (2008) is on display above the gallery’s outdoor stairway. The work depicts a woman lying on a hospital bed with a diagonally slashed back, where red beads hang like fringe from the wound. It’s an arresting commentary on the marginalization of Indigenous culture as well as histories of cruelty toward Indigenous women. In the same vein, Belmore’s video installation Apparition (2013) features the artist sitting silently, duct tape over her mouth, to symbolically demonstrate the loss of Indigenous languages.
Elsewhere in the gallery, the video Boi Oh Boi (2012) by TJ Cuthand (Plains Cree/Scottish/Irish) is surprisingly open about sex and anatomy as it chronicles, with humor and honesty, Cuthand’s journey to becoming a trans man after long identifying as a “butch lesbian.” Nearby are two photos by Dayna Danger (2Spirit/Queer, Métis/Saulteaux/Polish) depicting nude women holding antlers and skulls, meant to question the line between empowerment and objectification.
When Warren is asked why she doesn’t shy away from potentially disturbing work or work referencing nudity and sex, she credits her knowledge of the contemporary Indigenous art scene in Canada.
“Yeah, I feel like I have the easy part of the job. It’s the artists who are pushing boundaries, and I really want to support them,” Warren says. “[Artists in Canada] are really kind of in-your-face about a lot of stuff. By bringing it to Denver, I realize it’s a whole new audience, and there might be people who’ve never encountered work like this before, or at least the intensity of it. But I’m pretty confident in how it’s being expressed and what’s being expressed, just because I’ve been working with many of these artists for so long.”
Transformative Power includes artists who live in the United States and Canada. Notably included are two works by rising star Cara Romero (Chemehuevi Indian Tribe), whose photographs are currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Colorado-based artist Anna Tsouhlarakis (Greek/Navajo) created the centerpiece plaster-and-wood installation Her First Story: Shadows and Bones (2022), evoking the idea of woman as savior and protector.
Warren’s curatorial credentials are solid, bolstered by art degrees from Canadian universities in 2003 and 2012. For more than ten years, she served as the director and curator of Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Urban Shaman emphasizes First Nations, Métis, and Inuit art. In addition, Warren served as one of six Indigenous women curators in the Canadian delegation to the International First Nations Curators Exchange, an Australia Council initiative with programming in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Among her awards is the Hnatyshyn Foundation Award for Curatorial Excellence in 2018.
Warren is hopeful that the wide acceptance of bold and evocative First Nations art will continue migrating to the States.
“There are a lot of things coming out now around visual art and fashion that make me realize there is a turning-around of sorts, a welcoming of Indigenous artists of all kinds,” she says. Exhibitions like Transformative Power, she reasons, can only help reinforce the essentiality of the feminine lens in new Indigenous expression.