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Dana Claxton, The Mustang Suite and Hybrid Humour 

Aboriginal people are often photographic subjects – it has been more rare to find them behind the camera. As subjects, First Nations people are often represented in a stereotypical manner as archetypes and symbols, expressing a make believe past rather than a contemporary lifestyle, as opposed to being portrayed in more realistic manners. As a result, contemporary Aboriginal photographic practice is often a reaction to canonical images by the likes of Edward S. Curtis, which portray the "Noble Savage" and the "Indian Princess" amongst other constructed types. Whereas Curtis gave the viewer staged and romanticised images of a "dying race", contemporary photographers try to show current experience and conditions of living: rejecting costume and staged tableaux in exchange for real people in real places.

In the autumn of 2008 and winter of 2009, Andrea Kunard and Steve Loft curated a major show of First Nations photography from Canada, entitled Steeling the Gaze. The exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Canada in conjunction with the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography and featured the work of twelve artists including KC Adams, Kent Monkman, Arthur Renwick, Greg Staats and Jeff Thomas, amongst others. All the works were portraits of First Nations people, by First Nations people – often self portraits. The works were incredibly varied, with extremes ranging from Monkman's portrayal of his alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle-testicle – a flamboyant vaudeville persona that draws equally on stereotypes of Native people in early photographic and cinematic examples and burlesque performance, à la Pauline Johnson – to Greg Staats' sincere and respectful portraits of Aboriginal peoples, shot in black and white, with soft lighting and tasteful poses.


Dana Claxton's The Mustang Suite presents neither of these two options. Her series portrays individual portraits of a family, as well as a group shot. The subjects sport a mix of modern dress and traditional touches, and each portrait makes reference to photographic leitmotifs common to representations of Native peoples. For example, none of the subjects smile or are named in Claxton's work – while they are individuals, the effect is of anonymity not uniqueness, something commonly found in the work of Curtis. Claxton's portraits are staged and highly theatrical, a trope more common with representations of First Nations people by others, than representations by First Nations people of themselves. But the work is also compassionate to its subjects and shows them to be comfortable with themselves, dressed in modern clothes and enjoying current luxuries while staying connected through their past, their traditions, customs and culture. Effectively, the portraits present the hybrid reality of most Aboriginal people today.


Homi Bhabha, a Harvard professor and an authority on post-colonial discourse, writes at great length about hybridity, a term he often uses in contrast to mimicry. Mimicry, for Bhabha, who uses the term to unpack the experience of the colonial subject, is an attempt to master the behaviour and attitude of the coloniser. The result is disconcerting as it is "almost the same, but not quite". This mimicry is often considered dangerous by the coloniser and a form of defiance by the colonised.1 Hybridity, on the other hand, is not an attempt to reproduce the coloniser but to absorb the desired parts of coloniser culture and in exchange give up some of the society’s original ways. Whereas mimicry is in effect colonised adapting to the coloniser, hybridity can be seen as a cultural exchange between the colonised and coloniser. Simply put, the exchange for mimicry is coloniser → colonised and hybridity is coloniser ← → colonised.


Claxton's photographs are informed by her own experience as hybrid subject. She is of Hunkpapa Lakota ancestry and in an interview with fellow artist and curator Tania Willard she describes herself as being influenced by her "experience as a Lakota woman, a Canadian, a mixed-blood Canadian, and my own relationship to the natural and supernatural world. That whole bundle of experiences goes in to the artwork. I think that's where the multi-layering comes in, because I've had a very multi-layered life."2 Her discussion and appreciation of hybridity is counter to popular historical views on the subject. In Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race, Robert Young discusses the predominant historical theories on the subject which range from the "straight-forward polygenist species argument" – a disbelief that different races can physically mix and that they will die out through dilution – and the similar decomposition thesis, in which mixed breeds ultimately revert to one "type", to the amalgamation thesis which "claims that all humans can interbreed prolifically and in an unlimited way; sometimes accompanied by the "melting-pot" notion that the mixing of people produces a new mixed race, with merged but distinct new physical and moral characteristics". The amalgamation thesis presumes that a characteristically similar new race will be produced, unlike Claxton's sense of individual hybridism.3 There is also the anti-amalgamation thesis, which is the negative version of the amalgamation thesis, "namely the idea that miscegenation produces a mongrel group, which makes up a 'race less chaos', merely a corruption of the original, threatening the pure race."4


Young also tables the possibility that distant species mixing will be less successful than close species mixing, causing degeneration. This hypothesis was popular from the 1850s through to the 1930s, during the height of British, French and German colonial power and coincided with the rise of pseudo-sciences such as phrenology – the belief that physical characteristics determined character traits. These common views demonstrate a general tendency to dislike mixing. Claxton's proud profession of her hybridity shows a determined and active shift towards a positive reclaiming and embracing of Bhabha's use of the term. The subjects of her portraits embody this reclamation, proudly demonstrating that they possess the best qualities of both cultures, rather than ultimately referring back to one culture or the other or degenerating between the two (or more) ways of life.


Claxton says that, "in The Mustang Suite I attempted to collapse the traditional and the contemporary to indicate that Aboriginal people have the best of both worlds. We don’t have to choose to live in one or the other, we can combine both."5 Picking the best of both cultures, the characters in The Mustang Suite show they belong to the same world. In an article about a different Claxton work, the video piece The Patient Storm (2006), David Garneau reminds us that, "real knowledge transcends the particular, the nation, even history … art works can serve as this threshold. They can be non-threatening portals between world views," ultimately showing that the traditional and modern ways in society are compatible.6 In The Mustang Suite, as in The Patient Storm, it is the "costumes [that] signal the traditional and enduring alongside the contemporary and fashionable. They are differences, but not opposites."7


Claxton has said that The Mustang Suite" is about presence – an Aboriginal presence in popular culture, an Aboriginal presence in history and an Aboriginal presence into the future."8 This presence is demonstrated through the use of characters that embody the experiences of contemporary First Nations people. While the work is about representation and the process of creating identity as an Aboriginal person, Claxton's images are inhabited by "actors", who are styled and posed by the artist. In order to "collapse the traditional with the contemporary" Claxton did not allow for any collaboration from the point of view of the "actor"/subject.9 While they are "actors", several of the sitters are related and only one is a professional actor. The girls are twins, and the "mother" is their "auntie through marriage."10 The boy and the "father" are actually brothers.


In The Mustang Suite "Baby Boyz" is represented as a young urban "warrior". He sits bareback on what Claxton calls "his Indian horse."11 He does so shirtless, in red Adidas track pants with white strips down the sides, which for Claxton represent buckskin leggings beaded in the traditional Lakota style. "Baby Boyz’" is presented as loving hip-hop and perhaps sports, as demonstrated by his choice in brand-name pants, but also as connected with the horse, an animal sacred amongst the Lakota since it was first introduced to the Americas.


Horses transformed Lakota society, which had previously been a pedestrian culture, and primarily relied on dogs to transport goods. Power structures in Lakota changed dramatically upon the arrival of the horse, demonstrating an early aptitude for adaptation and hybridity. According to Pekka Hämäläinen:

Horses did bring new possibilities, prosperity, and power to Plains Indians, but they also brought destabilisation, dispossession, and destruction. The transformational power of horses was simply too vast. Although Plains Indians had experienced constant and profound culture changes before European contact, the sudden appearance of horses among dog-using pedestrian people set off changes that could spin out of control as easily as they could make life richer and more comfortable. Horses helped Indians do virtually everything – move, hunt, trade, and wage war – more effectively, but they also disrupted subsistence economies, wrecked grassland and bison ecologies, created new social inequalities, unhinged gender relations, undermined traditional political hierarchies, and intensified resource competition and warfare.12


Claxton references this history of the horse throughout the work, from the title to the props. She also alludes to the Horse Dance, quoting from a traditional Horse Dance song in her artist statement, "they will appear – may you behold them! They will appear – may you behold them! A horse nation will appear."13 But the horse is not just about transformation and change: for Claxton there is also the idea "that the horse is power and freedom."14 The symbolism of the horse is paired in the work with the colour red, representing earthly life, which dominates the image. Claxton states that, "Red represents the sacred red, as a Lakota, we wrap our cherished items in red cloth, make tobacco ties for Sundance offerings and make red prayer flags. Red also represents the Red Nation, Red Power and Red Resistance."15

Claxton describes the "Baby Girlz" as twins who "wear their mukluks and help on the trap line when their grandfather calls, but also like to dress sporty and ride their city ponies".16 They are young, hip and attractive, and buy into contemporary youth culture as evidenced by their extremely fashionable bicycles and outfits. While the mukluks suggest a tie to a more way of traditional life, at first glance the photograph feels like an "American Apparel" advertisement – a clothing store famous for their use of "ethnic" looking young women, wearing skimpy but unbranded clothing – a brand popular amongst adolescent urbanites.


There are essentially three ways to engage with one's cultural history, particularly when it relates to a traumatic or difficult past. One can relive the saga, choosing to write the self into the narrative; one can reject the past and embrace the present; or one can remain ignorant of history. The generation gap that separates the "girlz" and the boy from "Momma" and "Daddy" is visibly apparent in the work. The younger generation appear nonchalant about their dual lifestyles and detached from the struggle of their immediate forebearers for the right to be considered in a contemporary setting. The parents, less removed from their history, and also a generation closer to the residential schools programs and the cultural erasure they attempted, become physically attached to history in Claxton’s images.17


Claxton exclaims, "Daddy – is free! He has his automobile. He works as a computer programmer and dances pow-wow during the summer."18The "actor" stands expressionless, gazing back at the camera in his "war paint" – a style of face paint once worn in battle but today used by dancers – aware of the visual juxtaposition created by the paint, his braids and his business suit. In the photograph, the separate pieces of his ensemble, paired with his deep stare, seem to symbolize a certain defiance about his hybridity, a challenge to those who refuse to picture First Nations people outside of romantic depictions of "Red Indians".


Whereas "Daddy" challenges history by writing himself into it, "Momma" engages the past by letting it go, through coming to terms with it in her own way. In her description of "Momma", Claxton writes that, "it's time to let history go. Although history has been slightly humiliated, history trots off, never to be a burden again. Momma is influenced by traditional woman’s dancing, medicine woman, BDSM and burlesque culture."19 History in Claxton's work is represented as a woman dressed as a horse. The two women ("Momma" and "History") perform horseplay, a form of dominance and submissiveness popular in BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, and Sado-masochism) circles. Whereas history has previously controlled the people, here "Momma" switches their roles, punishes "History" and then releases her. By dismissing history, "Momma" expresses her control of it. Her removal of herself from history is not the same as her "children's" reaction, who are apparently unaffected; her separation from the past is a survival tactic – she acknowledges it before letting it go.


Finally, the group shot – the family together. The father sits in the centre, subverting the notion of the Colonial seat of power and traditional Lakota gender roles, with his family around him. Claxton says that, "the chair stands in for this difficult history we have in North America. And now the chair and the blanket can stand together," in an effort to decolonise the subject and reclaim the portrait.20While we are entirely used to seeing the posed and staged Curtisesque shot, this family portrait is "a kooky response the archival portrait of 'Indians', but this time round, we are not static."21


In an article in the National Post, Paul Gessell writes that, "he ['Daddy'] looks indecisive and wary. He doesn't fit in anywhere, it seems."22 Conversely, Daddy and the family in general fit in everywhere; they are playful and use humour to show how hybridity, not appropriation, has impacted upon their definition of self. Gessell speaks about the work as a collision of cultures "in which Aboriginal and 'white' culture collide in both humorous and disturbing ways," stating that this work, like the rest of the work in Steeling the Gaze is a result of "the long-term repercussions of the disastrous Indian residential school system," that forced assimilation which, in Gessell’s view, resulted in a loss of culture.23 However, it is this same school of thought that produced Curtis's images of the vanishing race and the dying Indian. Claxton’s works light-heartedly show that Aboriginal presence in Canada is still visible and that it is our expectations that need to shift.


As David Garneau writes, "Indigenous presence in the popular media is usually a cue to stories of crime, abuse, poverty, loss, fluff and feathers pride, or government sponsored success."24 The alternative is often serious works that demonstrate the reality of "rez" life or the effects of colonialism on present life. Claxton's work is unapologetically neither.





  1. H. K. Bhabha, Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) 89.

  2. T. Willard, "Starting From Home: An online retrospective of Dana Claxton curated by Tania Willard, Secwepemc Nation" (20 April 2009)

  3. R. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race (New York: Routledge, 1995) 18.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Dana Claxton, email to author, 22 April 2009.

  6. D. Garneau, "Dana Claxton's Patient Storm" ConunDrum Online, Issue 4, October, 2006 (5 April 2010)

  7. Ibid.

  8. Claxton, email, 22 April 2009.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Claxton, email, 23 April 2009.

  11. Ibid.

  12. P. Hämäläinen, "The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures", The Journal of American History, Vol. 90, No. 3, December 2003, 833.

  13. Claxton, email, 22 April 2009.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Residential schools were part of a government sponsored programs to educate First Nations children in a Christian religious setting. Students were forbidden to speak their own languages or produce cultural artefacts, unless intended for the tourist trade. Separated from their families for most of the year, the children were often physically and/or sexually abused. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologised for the government’s role in residential schools.

  18. Claxton, email, 22 April 2009.

  19. D. Garneau, "Dana Claxton’s Patient Storm", ConunDrum Online, Issue 4, October, 2006 (5 April 2010)

  20. Claxton, email, 22 April 2009.

  21. Ibid.

  22. P. Gessell, "Native creative and contemplative; Aboriginal artists cast their lens on 'white' culture", National Post, Arts and Life section, Ontario edition, 17 November 2008.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.


Text © 2010 Amber Berson.


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