Wylie: Krista Belle Stewart explores First Nations histories

Krista Belle Stewart uses historical source materials and documents as she explores First Nations histories.

One on One: Work to Rule: Krista Belle Stewart installation at Kelowna Art Gallery.

The current exhibition in the Mardell G Reynolds Gallery space at the Kelowna Art Gallery may be puzzling to some viewers as it is conceptual art, that is, art about ideas, first and foremost, in which the visual aspects of the work are in service to the intellectual aspects of the art.

The artist is Krista Belle Stewart, originally from the Douglas Lake area of British Columbia, and the show is the third in the gallery’s annual One on One series, in which an emerging First Nations curator selects an emerging First Nations artist with whom to work. The curator this year is Tania Willard, who recently was a curator in residence at the Kamloops Art Gallery for two years.

Krista Belle StewartAs Willard explains in her curatorial text in the online publication for this show, at kelownaartgallery.com. Krista Belle Stewart is fascinated by historical source materials and documents, especially those pertaining to First Nations histories. And it is through her consideration and then transformation of these that her art comes into being. In the current exhibition, Work to Rule, Stewart’s sources were a period book cover from the 1970s, an historical 19th century photograph, and a 35-mm slide of a painting by the late American artist Leon Polk Smith.

This is not to say that her work does not encompass aesthetics and beauty: The one red wall is visually delicious, for example, and the experience of the jacquard weaving that the visitor can walk around, to see both its back and front, is like looking at a huge photographic negative, and turning it back and forth in the light.

The opposite wall is covered completely in random, brightly-coloured facsimiles of a book cover, with its title Indian Artists at Work, printed over and over so that is becomes a mind-numbing pattern. What stays with us is the grid, a notion that Willard also explores in her text, that is, the role of the grid in Stewart’s work, whether on a large scale, or broken down into fabric pixels in her weaving.

Krista Belle StewartUltimately, Willard concludes, the grid represents a kind of freedom, as it can always be dismantled, the threads disentangled, the former tension giving way to a natural energy.

Through the crucible of her own imagination, interpretation and creativity, Stewart has created a charged environment, where visitors may consider, for instance, the inclusion of a bucket of soil from her ancestral land, as a symbol for her connection to that place. As well, they can look into the Duchampian peep hole at the Leon Polk Smith slide, both a nod to conceptual art traditions, while paying homage to an artist whose identity (as a “queer” Cherokee) was subsumed to pressure for his art production to fit with the mainstream of the time in the 1960s.

None of this meaning sits on the surface of Stewart’s work, a viewer must mine each piece, and read Willard’s text for a full understanding of the work, which, by means of metaphor and nuance, becomes even further illuminated and illuminating over time.

One on One: Work to Rule: Krista Belle Stewart, curated by Tania Willard runs at the Kelowna Art Gallery until July 3, 2016.