Specializing in hand sewn industrial sculptures that come alive in performance, Maria Hupfield, as an Anishnaabe from Wasauksing First Nation, Ontario, Canada, places her Indigenous heritage at the center of her work to shed light on aspects of history that are too often gleaned over. She would describe her work as, “non-static, non-fixed items, not just a painting or a sculpture, as we think of in the Western tradition, something with one meaning that we only see in one way. My work has multiplicity,” she tells Pasatiempo.

By straying away from Western tradition, Hupfield’s art challenges Western conceptions of gender, nationhood, and sovereignty. In doing so, her work aligns with United Nations Sustainability Goals of Reduced Inequalities, Gender Equality, and Life of Land. Double Punch is a token of women’s empowerment with Indigenous women at its foci, making their struggle visible to confrontWestern gender norms.

It is Never Just About Sustenance or Pleasure, 2016. Image courtesy of Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

Two performances entitled The One Who Keeps on Giving, and It is Never Just About Sustenance or Pleasure elaborate on the Anishinaabeg understandings of nature, offering a solution to questions of environmental sustainability.

Lastly, Nine Years Towards the Sun makes a powerful statement about the ongoing presence of Indigenous culture despite colonial tribulations. The exhibit highlights the struggle of Indigenous groups to urge efforts towards a more equitable future for all.

After living in Brooklyn for 9 years, the artist has returned to Toronto as an Assistant Professor in Indigenous Performance and Media Art, and a Canadian Research Chair in Transdisciplinary Indigenous Arts, at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. She has since accumulated a large collection and has been featured in a number of exhibitions across Canada and the United States.

Double Punch, 2011. Image courtesy of Maria Hupfield.

Double Punch featured in a curation by Elizabeth S. Hawley known as Native Feminisms addresses the way in which indigeneity intersects with feminism. In this piece, striking gloves have been embellished with gold-tone bells to represent both cultural identity and women’s empowerment. A survey by the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety reveals that, as of 2022, 63% of Indigenous women have experienced physical or sexual assault in their lifetime, about double that of non-Indigenous women. Colonialism has played a massive role in shaping the present circumstances of Indigenous women.

Policies enacted under the Indian Act pushed Indigenous women to the margins of society, denying them of many rights including the right to vote and participate in government. Double Punch is an ode to reclaiming the power that existed prior to colonialism. It empowers Indigenous women to take a hold of the gloves instead of simply rolling with the punches. It symbolizes their resilience, makes their struggle visible, and demands a seat at the table for Indigenous women in the United Nation’s movement towards, “ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.”

The One Who Keeps on Giving, 2017. Image courtesy of Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

The One Who Keeps on Giving is a performance confronting Western notions of nationalism. The performance takes the maple leaf, a symbol of Canadian sovereignty, and reconstitutes it as that which belongs only to nature. Similarly, It is Never Just About Sustenance or Pleasure questions the Western binary of human and nature. An Anishnaabe scholar and writer, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, in her book entitled “As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance” writes that the Anishnaabeg conception of, “nationhood is based on the idea that the earth gives and sustains all life, that ‘natural resources’ are not ‘natural resources’ at all, but gifts from Aki, the land.”

This is relevant to Hupfield’s performances in the way that she challenges the dichotomy of man versus nature. As the objects she creates interact with the forces of nature in performance, her work exemplifies the way in which nationhood encompasses non-living entities. Her work suggests that, in order to work towards sustaining life on land, Indigenous values regarding nationhood - where humankind is not without nature and thus the conservation of nature becomes the conservation of humankind - become more widely accepted and adopted into Western modalities of thought reflecting upon the Sustainable Development Goal for Life on Land.

Nine Years Towards the Sun . Image courtesy of HyperAllergic.

Indigenous culture is more than a relic of the past. Nine Years Towards the Sun features a perforated trophy case in which several objects are on display. The perforation is a metaphor for the way in which these objects are alive and present the way that Indigenous culture lives on despite a history of tragedy. Even calling it a history of tragedy downplays the extent of dispossession and horrors that ensued since the colonial occupation, to be precise the 500 years of occupation - as referenced in Golden Dollar where a hood is embellished with 500 US Sacagawea dollar coins. As a result, Indigenous communities are far from any essence of equality with the rest of North American society.

According to Human Rights Watch, 85 First Nations reserves across Canada do not have access to clean drinking water. As a result of subpar living conditions and policies that have kept a foot on the neck of Indigenous society, suicide rates for First Nations youth are about six times higher than that of non-Indigenous youth, and substance abuse rates are also significantly higher in these communities. By staying true to her Indigenous roots in her various creations, Hupfield’s art uplifts the Indigenous community and urges institutions to prioritize the health and well-being of these communities working towards the United Nations goal to reduce inequalities and “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all.”

A history and culture that has been so adamantly attempted to erase Hupfield illuminates through handcrafted objects and vibrant performances. Her art is a testimony for Indigenous knowledge systems to be placed at the centre of all ways of knowing. By doing so, gender equality, the conservation of nature and the resurgence of marginalized populations can be drawn closer in the foreseeable future.

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