Here are some further thoughts on different ways of bringing the early modern past and the present into conjunction with one another, prompted by an unexpected encounter with a canoe! As the darkness fell last week in the cool and expansive space of the double-height foyer of one of the colleges at Kent, a 12ft papier mâché and birchwood canoe swayed gently on a long steel line. It was being rocked between members of the audience at the event to mark its launch, as they absent-mindedly tried to centre it. Alex McKay, the artist who had spent several weeks making it in situ, talked about the significance of his work, called Treaty Canoe. The texts with which it is covered are transcriptions of treaties made between the British colonial territories and their indigenous people, texts which date back to the early seventeenth century and have a continuously troubled history into the present day. One of the main aims of the project is to explore the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples – such as Native Americans and First Nations Canadians – and the Crown, and its ongoing significance to indigenous rights, as part of the Idle No More movement.
This has been a ‘public engagement event’ with a difference. For a start, Alex, David Stirrup and their team have been camped out in the foyer for a couple of weeks, and they’re excellent at engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in conversation – I’ve seen them in equally effective action with students, heads of department and small children. Intrigued, they’ve come and discussed the gradually-emerging form of the piece, and in doing so been drawn into dialogue about its meanings. Then they’ve written out those documents again themselves, encouraged as they did so to think through the process of writing and rewriting, codifying and replicating promissory notes about land. It’s those pieces of writing which have formed the outer skin of the canoe.
And then there’s something about the object itself which is immediately, disarmingly appealing. It’s instantly recognisable and simply beautiful. The methods by which it is made are traditional ones, so one element of its appeal is a kind of practice as research – seeing something take shape in the way it has always taken shape, and viewing it as a tangible connection of process to early modern makers of such objects.
After the speeches, the canoe was raised up way above our heads by two enormous men from the Estates department, and I asked Alex whether he was pleased with the way it had turned out – it’s the second one he’s made. That turned out to be terribly hard to answer – was I asking him about the physical form it had taken (more regular than the last one), or about the effect its making had had upon those people who had been involved in the process (very satisfying)? Was I asking an aesthetic or a political question? That tension’s at the heart of what I’ve found so fascinating about this project – the simultaneous allure of the object and repulse of the message it conveys; its physical beauty and the deeply complicated ideological issues that beauty gestures towards. Listening to the formal speeches, and then standing up above later on in the silence of the mezzanine taking this photo, I was struck by the barely-contained emotions circulating around the treaty canoe, by how rare it is that early modern history has such a direct connection to live and heartfelt political activism, and by how central a material object has been to bringing those things into the same space. Someone apparently came up to the team and suggested they were wasting their time: ‘you’d be much better off trying to get people to sign a petition’ she said, demonstrating a remarkable lack of perception in every sense of the word!