The multi-media practice of Australia-based Anishinaabe artist Rolande Souliere entangles the visual language of hard-edged geometric abstraction with that of contemporary traffic signage to consider how colonial infrastructures mark both spaces and the people inhabiting them. Her solo exhibition Frequent Stopping IV and V presents new large-scale, site-specific work at the Contemporary Art Gallery’s two public sites: its street level façade and the nearby Yaletown-Roundhouse Station. This exhibition draws from Souliere’s ongoing body of work that creates interventions using caution tape and street barrier patterns in immersive, muscular installations.
Souliere has a long history of working with the materials and metaphors of the road. Earlier sculpture and installation projects, often using compositional strategies of repetition through stacking, wrapping, weaving and binding, have incorporated automobile tail-lights and headlamps, GPS systems and reflective roadside signage. Stripped from their usual contexts and redeployed within the gallery space, these seemingly universal symbols are uncoupled from their role as wayfinding aids and instead suggest the extent to which regulatory bodies dictate our movements on the land, and the role of the automobile in the hungry expansionism of North American colonial infrastructure.
In her Frequent Stopping series, Souliere’s use of red-and-white and black-and-yellow caution tape—commonly used to flag roadside construction, potential hazards or obstacles in our urban environs—has a very particular point of origin: the long legal battle fought by her own Michipicoten First Nation to settle their land claim. As members of the Ojibway Nation, the Michipicoten people have lived for at least the past 7000 years along the Michipicoten River—a major trade route to James Bay—at the north-east edge of Lake Superior. In 1853, Ojibway Chief Totononai signed the Robinson Superior Treaty on behalf of his people and was granted a promise from Canada that a reserve would be surveyed and set aside for the Michipicoten Nation. That reserve, however, was not sited in its rightful place at the mouth of the river (unsurprisingly, a location identified as economically strategic for settler development in Northern Ontario), but an area several kilometers west, forcing the relocation of the Michipicoten community with dire implications for its economic and social stability. Those who persevered on the reserve were compelled to move again in 1897 when gold was discovered (and the land purchased by a developer), and a third time in 1899, when their new reserve land was sold to Algoma Central Railway Company. Between 1900 and 1970, the Michipicoten were forced to relocate a total of five times further, by which point they were completely cut off from their traditional territories. In 2000, the Michipicoten filed their land claim. To prevent further sale of the originally promised land while the claim was under negotiation, the Nation attempted to register a “caution” on the land which, in Canadian real estate law, formally notifies the public of a concern that requires resolution before the land can be sold. However, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a First Nation could not register cautions on land to prevent its sale. Despite these many obstacles, the Michipicoten finally won their land claim—the second largest in Canadian history—in 2008.
In Frequent Stopping IV and V, Souliere materially and metaphorically renders such “cautions on the land” ultra-visible, as highly public notifications of the many outstanding debts to Indigenous communities and the many territories—including those of the Salish Nations upon which Vancouver sits—never ceded to the state. Rather than suspending caution tape temporarily between two points in space as we normally encounter it, the artist fixes it directly to walls and windows, marking space in a gesture that speaks of permanent visibility and reclamation, delineating lines that cannot be drawn and redrawn. The pattern of the tape proliferates and repeats itself to become disorienting, thwarting our predisposition to simply “follow directions.” Souliere stacks the tape pattern in alternating orientations to dizzying optical effect, creating entire planes of flat, graphic colour which are then “woven” in meta-patterns across the surfaces to which they are applied. As the Frequent Stopping series multiplies across spaces in city after settler city—public installations have appeared in Sydney, Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and now Vancouver—Souliere’s project remains resolute in its aim to point to the ways our perception of boundaries shifts according to perspective and to the fact that so many Indigenous land claims—despite being first pressed decades or even centuries ago—have yet to be resolved.
Compellingly, Souliere’s artistic practice was established after she immigrated to Australia, and it has developed in direct dialogue with many Aboriginal communities there. Australia offers another stark example of the logic by which Indigenous peoples worldwide have been stripped of their land title and sovereignty: Captain Cook’s account of the Indigenous people he first encountered in what is now Australia stated that they had “no form of land tenure because they were uncivilized, which meant the land belonged to no-one and was available for possession under the doctrine of terra nullius.” Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson points to the ways that the notion of terra nullius—or “empty land”— illustrates the differential power of one account over another “by establishing the terms of even being seen.” Souliere’s work is pointedly illustrative of Simpson’s point about presence and the ability to be seen. Her unmistakable, ultra-high visibility installations aim to counter the disproportionately empowered political apparatus that has rendered her people invisible to the state, even on the land to which they rightfully belong.