Art should speak for itself and good art does. So the question is this? How much more does art say if you know a little bit about the artist? For artists like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, their persona became part of the art. The same thing could be said about contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin who have consciously cultivated and incorporated their personalities into the marketing of their art.
Understanding art by analyzing the artist becomes even more relevant when the artist is affiliated with a group or country that has certain historical, cultural, philosophical or political traditions. A painting of the bible with a placard placed next to it that reads “Joe Doe, of white supremacist descent” will immediately illicit a different response from the same painting whose accompanying placard reads “Joe Doe, of African-American descent”. Chances are, however, that two artists coming from such disparate points of departure would never treat a subject in the same way. Art is never objective, not in its creation nor in its interpretation.
This is certainly true of the art of Jude Norris. Of Cree, Anishinabe, Russian, Scottish, Gypsy, Métis descent, Norris culturally identifies with her Indigenous ancestry, a connection which she describes as stemming from her “inward, psychic” need to reconnect with her First Nations roots. In her personal essay, The Story of the Ekwa (pronounced eh-gwah) Buffalo, Norris writes: “Obviously, cultural relationships also come into play, as the antlers, being used as they are by the Indigenous artists, cannot help but bring up traditional connection between First Nations people and the animals they [the antlers] belong to.”
For Norris, artist and art are inseparable. As such, Norris’ Ekwa buffalo are imbued with personal relevance and history – they are as much a visual diary that speak of her individual search and passage back to her roots as they are a majestic animal that connects to the Aboriginal people as a whole. In Norris’ words:
“Shortly after all this buffalo re-connection, contact, and creation happened, I also re-connected with my own Plains Cree Nation and Territory. We are, of coarse, intrinsically and anciently connected with the buffalo. I see this period and these events as in part the Buffalo Nation calling me home. Before this, I had once gone to see an Elder in Toronto, to ask about why I felt such intense emotion towards these animals, and everything that had happened to them – as if it were real to me. He explained to me that all things that happen exist always, outside of time as we know it, and this is why I could feel these things as if they were now, even though they happened in the past.”
In Plains Cree, Ekwa means ‘let’s go’ or ‘right now’, a befitting title for a series of individual buffalo in movement. It is as if each of her buffalo has been freeze-framed while in motion. Executed in digital print, the deceptive simplicity of Norris’ buffalo bear a strange, almost surreal connection to cave art. The fact that they have been digitally rendered catapults them into the twenty-first century without negating their primordial energy. There is something deeply spiritual about Norris’ buffalo that transcends the derogatory categorization “Indian art” that sometimes enters the mainstream mind when confronted with a First Nations artist’s depiction of a “nature” image such as buffalo. Norris’ buffalo defy the confines of cultural and/or religious affiliation and enter the universal sphere of what we all aspire to be – brave, independent, communal, free, and eternal.
The buffalo is not new to the art of Norris. Her 1999 Red Buffalo Skydive, a 3 minute single channel piece created by rotoscoping (drawing over) the frames of buffalo video footage, shows a moving buffalo while Norris’ voice recounts a rather odd story about a paraplegic and his post-accident skydiving adventures.
An interesting juxtaposition comes into play as you watch the piece and listen to the story – the buffalo keeps moving back and forth without going anywhere much in the same way the paraplegic in the story is attempting to find freedom of movement without much success (he attempts to skydive, but breaks his legs, he tries again without success…). What the… was admittedly my initial reaction but then image and story suddenly unite into a parallel reality as the paraplegic finally finds a way to realize his quest for freedom and movement through a tenacity similar to the buffalo. It is at this breaking point of revelation that a new understanding of what you are seeing and listening to comes into play – Norris’ image and story-telling connect to all of us.
The buffalo’s journey is as much the paraplegic’s journey which is as much our journey in our quest to live a meaningful, spiritual, healed life – a quest that is as old as the buffalo itself.
Jude Norris’ new website is up – www.tatakwan.com