Jason Baerg's Umpehdu weeunpe dooweh eyeh / He who paints the day (Thunderbird) vibrates at a new frequency. There's a cosmic exchange that happens when you see the Cree Métis artist's work now displayed at Royal Bank of Canada's new UK headquarters. You don't have to agree to the exchange and you may not notice it. But it's there in the vibrant, suspended pieces of MDF. “It's kind of a star map,” says the Toronto-based artist. “Colour has a vibration and every colour has an audio tone, so I hope it does give the viewer something real and something motivating.”
Baerg cares deeply about dynamics. It's a trait instilled in him by artist Ray Robinson, a mentor and key influence in Baerg's approach. “He was a mathematician first,” he says. When Robinson set up a pose, he was constantly considering how the dynamics of the model were affecting everything in space. “It would take him half a day to set up the pose and then we'd tape off that model,” recalls Baerg. “So I think about dynamics too... I really hope with all of my work there's this activation and motivation for other people to make contributions to move us all forward.”
So much of Baerg's creative process is rooted in absorption – the retention of ideas and stories from the community around him – so he can speak in some new language that furthers the dialogue. The language he speaks is expansive, pushing boundaries in visual art through the use of emergent interactive digital technologies in drawing, painting and installation. But he's also quick to call out his traditional approach. “I'm also really old school… I hate that phrase but I really think art echoes from the same place – like imagine the first song that was ever sung, imagine the first dance that was ever danced, imagine those drawings that became petroglyphs,” he says. “It's this vital need to connect with one another, that's why we do it, that's why we perform.”
What does it mean to be Indigenous?
Conceptually, his works tell stories of Cree cosmology and Indigenous futurities, identity and language, connection to the land and the human influence on climate and the environment. Umpehdu weeunpe dooweh eyeh / He who paints the day (Thunderbird) pulls together a lot of these ideas. The work's title refers to the artist's two given names, written in Cree. The piece is about connection and exchange. And like a lot of Baerg's work, the project came from an exercise in advancing the dialogue.
The artist ventured from Toronto back to his home province of Saskatchewan (Baerg was raised in Prince Albert) on invitation from Neutral Ground, an art gallery in Regina, Canada. He worked with two Indigenous knowledge keepers and storytellers – Dakota Cree, Paulette Poitras and her mother Marcella, a matriarch and economic development officer for a First Nations community outside of Regina.
Jason Baerg's Umpehdu weeunpe dooweh eyeh/He who paints the day (Thunderbird), 2019 / Photo: Jonathan Bassett
“We started in the conversation as to what it means to be Indigenous in Regina, Saskatchewan,” he says. From there, they zoomed out on what it means to be Indigenous in Saskatchewan. “Then continental, what's it like to be Indigenous on Turtle Island... and then we dialled out to what it means to be Indigenous today globally.”
Elevating Indigenous voices
The project allowed Baerg to explore and advance Indigenous abstraction, part of his continuous approach to elevating Indigenous voices. As a curator, he helped develop the national Métis arts programme for the Vancouver Olympics. He's served as an adjunct instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico and founded the Metis Artist Collective. He volunteered his time as chair for the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and the National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition.
But that drive to connect and elevate extends beyond the Indigenous community to emerging artists in general. As a professor at OCAD University in Toronto, he teaches drawing and Indigenous Visual Cultures. “One of the breakthroughs that I've had in teaching is actually collective research sharing,” says Baerg. This past year, he's done an experiment with all of his classes where he has the students research their ancestral homelands and share artists from these places that have made contributions to abstraction in a group forum.
“All of a sudden it becomes like a suppository or a database,” he says. “It's a really exciting time where now we're breaking away from the Western perspective and having people report on and present on and demand that they present in their own language because they should have that.”
Using your voice to create change
When he talks about the emerging artists he teaches, so much of it centres on what they've given him, how they've helped to further his creative process. “The students inspire me, the students challenge me and I'm there to hold space and structure,” he says. “It's great to get their perspectives and their positionalities… it's been good for my art practice.”
Everything always seems to come back to this idea of furthering the conversation. That's the artist's responsibility – a gift, sure, but also a responsibility. “Respond to your reality... respond to what you think is relevant and use your voice – be as profound as possible,” says Baerg. “Take risks in what you're saying, take risks in what you're making, take risks in what you're presenting because we need change.”
A language is dichotomous in that it has rules but it's most electrifying when those rules are broken. Disruption is a synonym for progress. “We're all charged with keeping the conversation interesting,” says Baerg. “If there's a dip in attention, somebody has got to do something weird – you know what I mean? Somebody has got to bring something to the table... we're all in charge of actually advancing the dialogue.”
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