Sacred Feminine, begins with the presence of
Sky Woman. On one wall of the gallery Fontaine retells the story of
Sky Woman grabbing at the tree roots from the hole in the sky and
falling onto the back of turtle. Only muskrat, of all the animals,
can successfully heed her request for soil in which to plant her
roots. . . The earth on the back of turtle; the deliberate and
careful planting; the sky blue paint on the long expanse of gallery
wall.. . . Sky Woman and Turtle Island begin their relationship of
mutuality with Mother Earth as a sacred and feminine principle. Lita
Fontaine makes this story her own through an installation and
through finely composed photographs that detail the body, the
land/seascape, the built environment, and the Pow-wow.
From that story to this moment. From the back of the turtle to this prairie
landscape. Lita Fontaine has travelled a path of growing up Indian and urban,
Catholic and Anishnaabe, artist and Indian artist, student and teacher, wife and
lover, sister and daughter, on and off, shedding skins and acquiring new ones. I
have curated her work, seen her jingle dress, and she has taken me to the Pow-wow.
She has eaten my mother’s chicken soup, and varnitchkes and kasha.
We have hung out on walks in cafes and art openings. Now, I am standing at the
centre of her creation wondering about the beauty, order and harmony of the new
work. Gone are the cliché images that Fontaine appropriated and used to
criticize the histories of racism and residential schools. Gone are the baroque
paintings where Fontaine, a consummate colourist, decorated and embellished with
lavish amounts of acrylic paint. In their place, Fontaine has constructed an
installation based in part on the words of the Sufi poet Rumi, “let the beauty
we are, be what we do.”
There are many transformations here. The
rectangular space of the gallery becomes a circle by virtue
of a centralized installation on each wall, asking the
viewer to circumnavigate the space. Interior becomes
exterior with the abundance of blue. Body becomes landscape.
Photography becomes painting. Pow-wow dance and movement
dissipate into air and colour. The sexualized body of woman
in secular culture is made scared and whole again.
In Sacred Feminine, the two longest walls each have an installation of
five photographs in black and white and colour photography. On one wall, three
classic nudes, shot in black and white, are flanked by two coloured landscapes.
It’s a startling juxtaposition of hue, theme and approach.
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The nudes resemble
early modernist photographs. The shallow focus, tight compositions, high
contrast of figure with ground, and cropped off heads, hands and feet effect the
aestheticization of the body. Yet, the rough texture of middle-aged skin and
small details of elegant navel piercing re-inscribes identity and personality.
To the immediate left of the nudes, hangs a larger, coloured image of three
teepees, still, balanced and composed against the great expanse of sky. To the
immediate right, another landscape photo, blurred and over-enlarged, showing
twin grain silos set in a prairie field etched in grays.
The contrasts of nude
and landscape / intimacy and distance / tradition and change are disassembling.
The viewer begins to read the folds, curves and undulations of the bodies as
For those who have followed Fontaine’s practice as a multi-media artist, it is
no surprise that photography begins to approximate the look of painting as
Fontaine exploits the abstract colour effects of shallow focus or the
pointillist and pixilated effects of over-enlargement.
On the opposite wall are
another five photographs that show Pow-wow dancers, the sea, and a deserted
river or lake side where two poles sit in the sand. None of Fontaine’s
photographs are titled. The images of water and of land work to still the mind
and the senses. There is a lot of light here, which, in the adjacent
photographs, is split into the rich jeweled tones of the closely shot and now
out-of focus Pow–wow dancers.
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Turquoise, fuchsia, rosebud pink, vivid green.
It’s as if Fontaine, surrounded by the swirl and beat of the drum, the press and
the heat of bodies, the pounding on the earth, had taken a moment to look up and
look in. And in that instant, everything was transformed into air into light and
colour. The metaphoric stillness of the posts on the land, the path through the
forest, and the place where sky and sea meet are counterpoints for Fontaine’s
dancers. These are vistas, relationships and personifications that are cast at
a human scale.
It’s a pared-down approach to image making that has
Fontaine eliminating previous emphasis on repetition and excess.
Earlier bodies of work, seen at The Winnipeg Art Gallery or the St.
Norbert Art Centre attempted to dislodge the negative impacts of the
colonial record through an ironic use of racist imagery related to
Aboriginal people. In those works, Fontaine sent-up stereotypes by
integrating them into decorative borders and obsessive repetition.
Fontaine — a
jingle dancer, and a mover and a shaker — has had an abiding interest in the
interaction of gender and fashion within colonial, contemporary and capitalist
discourses. This has stimulated her research into fetish, fashion and ritual
objects. An adjunct room, separated by a black curtain, provides a glimpse into
these rituals, recalling both the ironic work of James Luna’s The Sacred
Colours are Everywhere and a reprise of Fontaine’s MFA thesis exhibition at
the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina.
Fontaine plumbs the depths of kitsch, camp,
sex and desire. She uses lace, sequins, satin and feathers on four stiffened
undergarments that hang from the ceiling at the four cardinal directions. These
red, black, yellow and white articles would not be out of place in the
Victoria’s Secret catalogue —objects and practices which implicate and
define women. Fontaine seems to be using this circle to recast and encircle
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Their momentary beauty and status as fetish—dissolves into the
circle, grounded by the four rocks which describe the four directions. Sky Woman
returns into a world of balance and harmony.