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nomorepotlucks » Dana Claxton and the Graceful Art of Rage – Dayna McLeod

Dana Claxton and the Graceful Art of Rage – Dayna McLeod

Paint Up #1 - Dana Claxton

Spanning photography, installation, performance and video, Dana Claxton’s work is fierce.

Influenced by her experience as “a Lakota woman, as a Canadian, a mixed blood Canadian, and [her] own relationship to the natural and supernatural world”[1], Claxton’s work is powerful, emotive and graceful. Her single channel video, Buffalo Bone China, shown here, demonstrates this intensity. Featuring a rich, mesmerizing soundtrack of drumbeats and vocal chanting that is set against a synthesized atmospheric background, Buffalo Bone China “metaphorically recalls First Nations peoples’ loss of the buffalo and the historical use of buffalo bone to make fine china. Specifically the work refers to British colonial practices that resulted in the decimation of the buffalo and the devastating effects upon First Nations people who relied heavily on the buffalo for their survival. Buffalo bones were gathered into huge piles on the prairie and some bones were exported to England to be used in the production of fine bone china.”[2]

Claxton’s rumbling soundtrack underscores the intensity of found, black and white, footage of running buffalo which has been slowed down, and we see these great beasts travel across the plains with labouring strength as one throbbing, cohesive, moving body. Just as we become comfortable, familiar even, with the ebb and flow of their movements and the undertow of the soundtrack, a man with a gun shoots his rifle. A close-up of a buffalo intimates his demise as a cacophony of symbols crash and the performer silently screams. Delicate pink, white and gold china appear in the frame – in the buffalos’ place – which is now marked by a single buffalo skull. The skull is superimposed on the china as the symbols continuing to thunder, almost as if raining down on the china itself. Hands gently caress the plates and saucers, slowing the moment down for reflection. This calm is shattered by another silent scream from the performer as their long black hair is dragged across the dishes, blurring the line of where it has come from, what it is made of, what it means. The performer walks towards us, past the camera and through a gated archway covered in vines, super-imposed and shrinking against the running buffalo who keep running in slow motion. This video is dedicated to the Buffalo People.

NMP is lucky enough to have had a chance to talk to Claxton about her work, her process and what motivates her to create.

Dayna McLeod: In keeping with NMP’s theme for this issue, how has “rage” and anger evolved in your work? Do you live this rage?

Dana Claxton: Well rage is beauty in many ways – its like a cleansing when you release it. Birthing rage!! I am not sure my work has ever had anger, so I can’t comment on that. But rage…always! I think I live rage by feeling deeply.

DMC: Your performance work often contains elements of ritual and ceremony. How do you see your relationship to your audience within this context?

DC: I want to give something beautiful.

DMC: Are you offering a gift?

DC: In some work yes, that was my intention – to give spirit or the possibility of spirit.

DMC: Is this an opportunity for healing?

DC: If that can happen, that is wonderful, certainly in my work with Primeaux and Mike the peyote singers who sang healing songs was to share this beauty with an art audience.

DMC: What do you want back from your audience?

DC: Love and a connection.

DMC: What do you want to give your audience?

DC: Hope, spirit, love.

DMC: Where did The Patient Storm come from?

DC: A commission from Urban Shaman and curated by Ahaswis Maskegon Iskew.

DMC: What inspired this video?

DC: Sky teachings and resistance.

DMC: What is the text based on?

DC: I wrote it. But hiptrip hop, poetry and Lakota teachings.

DMC: How did you make this piece?

DC: In the studio with the actors and post production.


DMC: What is the AIM project?

DC: Beautifying the American Indian Movement and celebrating this movement’s commitment to justice and autonomy.

DMC: When you first discovered the confidential documents that you use within the project, did you have a visceral and/or emotional response to them?

DC: I thought they were beautiful in an odd kind of way – the blacked out sections were mysterious and telling at the same time. What they didn’t reveal and what the documents did reveal. As well as the form and the colour.

DMC: Your practice spans film, installation, photography and performance; how do you envision a piece when you begin it?

DC: Generally, the idea comes to me and I ponder and sometimes pray about the idea. The dream world also is a place for significant teachings.

DMC: How do you decide what form it takes?

DC: For instance, I just made landscape # 2 – from an ancient vision quest site in Southwest Saskatchewan – we shoot on HD, while I was shooting the land decided that I had to be in the landscape, you know the spirit of art making can be very demanding! When it calls us, as artists we either respond or not and move on to the next project or calling. Sometimes a place or an object will call to be made into art and other time, I work ideas through.

DMC: Are you inspired by media/medium?

DC: Absolutely, film, photography and performance inspire for their materiality and the multiple way of working with them.

DMC: What is your favorite photograph that you have created and why?

DC: They all become favorites at some point and right now, this very moment its’ Paint Up # 1.

DMC: How has surrealism influenced your work? Do you consider yourself a surrealist?

DC: One could argue that the surrealist were influence by tribal cultures. If anything I am a supernaturalist!

DMC: What artists have influenced your work?

DC: At the moment I am inspired by Kent Monkman, I really think we are contemporaries. Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Jeff Wall, Marina Abramovic and Paul Wong.

DMC: Do you see your practice and/or pieces that you have created as being in conversation with these artists?

DC: I think a lot of contemporary art is having a conversation.

DMC: What are you working on now?

DC: A series of photos and a video installation on a secret topic.

DMC: In your 1997 performance and installation, Buffalo Bone China, which was presented in Saskatoon at AKA Gallery in association with Tribe Inc, you smashed pieces of China to make bundles to place in a sanctified circle while an experimental video of buffalo played. What inspired this work?

DC: The Buffalo Nation and wanting to honour them as my relatives.

DMC: How does the single channel video relate to the performance?

DC: That the buffalo were harmed, they are powerful and I honour them.

DMC: How did the single channel video evolve out of this piece?

DC: I made the video, then did the live performance, then combined the two to make the installation.



DMC: You are of Hunkpapa Lakota ancestry: can you talk about how your heritage has shaped you as an artist and as an activist?

DC: My cultural and spiritual teachings have enhanced my life, my work and the way I walk in the world. I have been inspired, perhaps even forced to seek justice as a result of being born into a culture that oppressed. That oppression hurt my family and myself deeply and hurt my mother and my grandmother. In some ways that historical oppression, of course is part of contemporary life and the structural dehumanization of Indian people still lingers. When you see injustice what do you do? I make art, I try and help others, I cry, I shout, I scream, I do, I feel, I think, I want, I want to participate fully in life and contribute.

DMC: The Sky has been very important to your creative process. What is the significance of the Sky in Lakota teachings, and how do you approach translating its meaning to your audience?

DC: Well….everything you need to know is in the sky. The sky can teach us everything. So I ponder, I ask, I pray and I receive – the teachings to live a good life. As well the teachings in sky, reveal their manna through form and formations. I translate the goodness that sky shows me into art in some occasions such as the Patient Storm, which is about sky teachings and going-ons.

DMC: According to Tania Willard, “The effects of colonization, discrimination, and systemic racism on Aboriginal people and on your own family history has fueled your early work.” How do you (do you, can you?!) resolve these issues in your life as an artist, activist, Canadian and Lakota woman?

DC: Great question …of course the resolve is on-going as is the oppression. I had to forgive, I know that sounds cliché, but forgiveness releases you from carrying the weight of it around. But with the forgiveness, is also the knowledge of knowing the difficult history and present – so it still fuels my work. What did I have to forgive and why need to be considered. Pure resolve will only happen when aboriginal people are no longer harmed – so perhaps I wont ever be resolved, so I won’t ever be content, so there’s still lots of work to be made and work to do.


[1] Tania Willard, Curator: Starting From Home: An online retrospective of Dana Claxton, 2007, , (2010, 17, 09)

[2] Brodie, Leah, Marketing & Communications Manager: Dana Claxton: Buffalo Bone China, Art at the MacKenzie, (2010, 17, 09)

Dana Claxton is an interdisciplinary artist whose work includes film and video, installation, performance and photography. Her work is held in public collections, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Art Bank of Canada. Her work has been screened internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Walker Art Centre (Minneapolis). Her work has been screened at Sundance Festival and Microwave in Hong Kong. http://www.danaclaxton.com/