Hailing from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory in Quebec, digital artist Skawennati says she never imagined her work would be exhibited overseas – let alone that it would be taken in by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as part of their first official royal engagement of 2020.
In recognition of Canada’s hospitality towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during their Christmas holiday, the royals paid a visit to Canada’s High Commissioner to the U.K. and toured the Canada Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square, where Skawennati’s solo show, Aliens Avatars and Ancestors, has been on display since November.
“Before I exhibited over there, I had this idea that there wasn’t a big reason for an Indigenous artist to show [in the U.K.] – that my audience is here, that the people who would get my work the best would be here,” she explained. “[But] The world is shrinking – has shrunk – [and] there’s a lot to say to everyone in the world.”
“Especially in the seat of empire, there’s a lot to think and talk about, and there’s a dialogue that can happen.”
The show, translated to “Kaia’tonnihseronniá:nion Ratironhia’kehshón:’a Kahsotshera’okon’kénhen” in the Mohawk language of Kanien’keha, is the fruit of a collaboration between the ELLEPHANT gallery in Montreal and the High Commission for Canada in the United Kingdom, and features a selection of the characters that populate Skawennati’s digital universe to facilitate modern Aboriginal storytelling.
Since the 1990s, Skawennati’s work has fused this tradition with technology, using machina or digital avatars – like her signature regalia-touting figure “xox” – to make movies and photos, or “machinimagraphs,” in virtually limitless spaces.
“It allows is to imagine our futures in a futuristic setting,” she said.
The relatively new medium of cyberspace can yield empowering cultural and artistic explorations that many Indigenous people could not previously access, according to Skawennati.
“Before, people had cameras and we didn’t. They took pictures of us, and told their stories about us, and made stereotypes about us,” she said. “Cyberspace is a whole new medium that we can get in on at the same time as everyone else.”
While the medium itself is forward-facing, the content or lore that drives Skawennati’s work is based in the past.
Her 20-minute long animated film “She comes from ages,” for example, presents a sci-fi retelling of the Haudenosaunee creation story.
But the collection – as can be said of Skawennati’s body of work – is keenly focused on the idea of “Indigenous futurism.” Her TimeTraveller™ Portraits – on display at Canada House – portray a range of Indigenous people from “the 15th to the 23rd century.”
“It’s my understanding that in the U.K., a lot of people think that we’re not around anymore,” Skawennati explained. “Not only are we around, but we plan to be around for a very long time, and that we’re envisioning ourselves in the future.”
“Despite colonization and attempts at genocide, we are still working towards revitaizing our culture.
“We survived, but we’re on our way to thriving.”