Prairie Scene artist-in-residence Adrian Stimson brings his subversive trickster Buffalo Boy to the Capital
by Holly Gordon
Saskatoon-based artist Adrian Stimson doesn’t worry about negative reactions people may have to his art; the subversive nature of his installation and performance art, including his campy trickster Buffalo Boy, elicits both roundhouse applause and frowns. It’s the non-reaction that brings apprehension.
“I think not everybody should have the same reaction and, in essence, if your art becomes a trigger for somebody to access those emotions then it’s successful,” says Stimson over the phone from his studio. “It’s the indifference that I worry about.”
He laughs loudly, adding: “That if people just sort of go. ‘Oh yeah, whatever, that’s nice.’”
“Whatever, that’s nice,” doesn’t have a particular place in the artist’s narrative. Stimson, a member of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Reserve in southern Alberta, pursued First Nations politics for almost 10 years before attending the Alberta College of Art and Design and graduating with a BFA, majoring in painting. A move to Saskatoon saw him studying for an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan, expanding into both performance and installation media. Residencies, exhibitions and teaching opportunities have placed Stimson solidly in the in-demand category of Canada’s installation and performance artists — as one who works at his art full-time while doing some curating and sessional teaching.
It was during that second degree that the multidisciplinary artist uncovered Buffalo Boy.
“I started to sort of really research and look at the various performance artists, such as James Luna (and) Canadian Rebecca Belmore, and it really resonated with me on so many different levels from the idea of storytelling, trickster and so many things,” says Stimson.
“And so at that time (I) was also researching Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows and that whole history of spectacle and the inclusion or exclusion of First Nations people and also stereotypes within that. So I started looking at the idea of stereotypes as sort of a trickster strategy.”
Riffing off of Buffalo Bill led Stimson to create Buffalo Boy, a character parody of the showman that has the artist stepping into fishnet stockings and a buffalo corset to perform as the “campy Indian cowboy.” Stimson points to his First Nations history — including four years in the residential school system — as well as his grandfather’s role as an Indian cowboy in the Calgary stampede, as consistent background for each performance.
“I really saw performance as a media, or medium that has many possibilities in terms of affecting and reaching into society and commenting back on society,” Stimson relates.
At the opening night of Prairie Scene, the festival that has Manitoba and Saskatchewan’s arts communities conjoining in the capital for two weeks, Stimson manifests those comments through both himself and Buffalo Boy — the former installing Re-Herd, and the latter performing Buffalo Boy’s Blackout Bingo at the National Arts Centre.
Re-Herd is an installation project continued from something Stimson began at Buffalo Days (now the Queen City Exhibition) in Regina, where he cast 2,009 mini hydrostone bison, asking the public to paint each two-and-a-half-inch figurine and place it on a floor map of Saskatchewan. For Re-Herd, Stimson will place 4,000 of the same hydrostone bison, again asking the public to pick a mini member of the herd, paint it and place the artwork on a floor map of neighbouring Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The implication is two-fold: first, that the pile of 4,000 bison figurines — resembling the piles of bison bones during the slaughter of the herds in the 1800s — will repopulate the two provinces; and, secondly, that the artistic freedom of painting bison reveals the diversity of the people, and spaces.
Re-Herd is ongoing until the end of the week, but Buffalo Boy will make only one appearance.
“On the Tuesday night for the Swarm presentation performance, that’s when Buffalo Boy is coming out to play,” says Stimson, a smile audible over the line.
Buffalo Boy Blackout Bingo is Stimson’s response to fellow artist Edward Poitras’ 1885, displayed in the National Arts Centre during Prairie Scene. Poitra’s piece is a billboard that uses a photo of residential school children out on a field trip headed by a priest; the group sits in the snow on a prairie hillside, with the words, “THE AMAZON IS BURNING… WHILE YOU PLAY BINGO,” superimposed on the black and white photo.
“The whole piece really is layered as well; it speaks of the residential school history, speaks of current issues around the environment, and bingo which is a great First Nations past time,” says Stimson, a laugh escaping with his observation on bingo. “Or distraction, I should say. I don’t personally play bingo, and the last time I went was with my grandmother when she was alive many years ago.”
Misconceptions and stereotypes fuel Buffalo Boy’s performance; the ambiguously sexual cowboy will make his grand entrance as what Stimson calls “the shaman exterminator,” calling a blackout bingo.
“Part of the tongue in cheek is that Buffalo Boy, who’s sort of a campy cowboy in his own right, there might be bottles of bingo wine there so we’ll see who blacks out first — Buffalo Boy, or somebody in the audience.”
Stimson laughs again, and adds: “That won’t really happen, but… that’s sort of my own narrative about it.”
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