The Polyphonous Calls for Land (and Land Back) of Manuel Axel Strain

Manuel Axel Strain, "It’s gunna fall," 2022. Bricks from Maple Ridge Museum & Community Archives, mortar, fake grass, crow feathers, elk hide, horse hair, dandilion dyed fabric with image transfers, beads, sinew, porcupine quills, wool, candles, hemlock, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Unit 17 (Vancouver). Photo: NK Photo.

Among the works installed by Manuel Axel Strain in Unit 17’s florist turned gallery space were:

A stolen white-picket fence hemmed in by a square of fake grass

A chair supporting a pillow emblazoned with a black-and-white photograph of a woman

A pair of oil portraits layered underneath elements of Coast Salish design

A bundle of sticks, stripped bare of their bark and adorned with leather, beads, and shells

A precariously stacked pile of bricks sandwiching mortar and ephemera

All these elements became sensorially bound together by an invisible olfactory thread of foraged plants, distilled into an oil and emitted by the rhythmic expulsions of a diffuser. What struck me about this exhibition was its sense of movement; not literally, in terms of mechanics and velocity, but conceptually. A flickering. A state of indeterminacy. I felt a sense of withholding. A feeling that although I may have recognized some of the exhibition’s motifs, thematics, and histories, there was always much laying beyond the veil. There was a definite set of relationships, felt on an affective level, but could I locate them all?

Strain is a Two Spirit artist of the xʷməθkʷəyəm (Musqueam), Simpcw, and Syilx peoples and is based in the sacred region of their q̓ic̓əy̓ (Katzie) and qʼʷa:n̓ƛʼən̓ (Kwantlen) relatives. Their multimedia oeuvre traffics in a conceptual density reflective of their engagement with Indigenous epistemologies, communities, familial relationships, and histories of labor and extraction. The artist’s untitled exhibition at Unit 17 in Vancouver grappled with private property in the Canadian settler-colonial state. Their installations pointed to the tensions produced by the violent superimposition of colonial notions of territory and ownership on preexisting Indigenous frameworks in so-called Canada. Rather than thinking through Strain’s work by retroactively mapping leftist economics onto Indigenous systems of knowledge, I wonder, instead: what could it look like to center Indigenous notions of property and exchange that exceed the flattened exchangeability that has become the de facto mode of thinking about land under settler capitalism?

Manuel Axel Strain, qné7e says tá7a, 2022. Stolen white picket fence, fake grass with bricks and a red skirt underneath, Indian Status application, braided deer hide, belt buckle, snake skin, pigeon feathers, cedar bark, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Unit 17 (Vancouver). Photo: NK Photo.

Capital renders land into commodity by entering it into a system in which all things are exchangeable under the dollar sign and the market. Capital thereby overrides the sticky, complex, and intrinsic qualities and values of land and the human and nonhuman lives that land sustains. The subsumption of these complex relations into such a system sterilizes them when unattended by critical examination. Writing on the process of territorial occupation in the settler-colonial state, scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang note in their seminal essay “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” (2012): “In the process of settler colonialism, land is remade into property and human relationships to land are restricted to the relationship of the owner to his property. Epistemological, ontological, and cosmological relations to land are interred, indeed made pre-modern and backward. Made savage.”

Strain’s work gestures toward preexisting modes of Indigenous ownership that deftly eschew that colonial framework of land-human relationship. Within these Indigenous frameworks, land is stewarded: It is in an entangled relationship with the human and nonhuman alike, the living, the dead, the past, the present, and the future. Exchange is not predicated on profit but instead prioritizes a recognition of these complex and inextricable links between all that exists on and in relationship with the land.

Perhaps the most visible point of engagement with property in the exhibition was qné7e says tá7a (2022), which was installed in the gallery’s corner. Translated from Secwepemctsin, its title reads as “great grandmother says no.” The assemblage consists of a stolen white-picket fence resting on top of a mound of fake grass. Strain formed this subtle hump by hiding a red dress and a pile of bricks underneath the bright-green material. They further embellished the sculpture with materials including snakeskin and an Indian Status application. Strain’s use of assemblage pulled recognizable forms and materials from their original locations and repositioned them in a way that made them seem unfamiliar or strange, effectively warping the image of a white-suburban lawn.

The white-picket fence is the classic marker of private property within the Euro-settler schema of residential design, marking out one’s domain while signaling their monetary wealth. The fence also calls attention to the monocultural space it encloses. In the European feudal framework in which the lawn developed, the privilege of monocropping one’s estate boasted that the land’s proprietor did not need to grow food. In the era of climate breakdown, the lawn takes on a more insidious nature through its environmental toxicity as it creates functionally ecological dead zones that require heavy watering and fertilizers. The economic function of the lawn is particularly visible when considering the planned nature of twentieth-century suburbs on Turtle Island, especially relative to antiBlack redlining practices, in which urban planners denied primarily Black working-class communities access to goods and services.

Strain’s use of the lawn motif, in turn, called to attention one of many colonial tactics of severing land from its ties to the larger world. The lawn’s artifice and its fence are a forced imposition of a vision of what land can be, marking out the settler-colonial territorial parcel, delineating land for exchange. Strain’s destabilization of the lawn’s iconography poses the question: who owns the land, and how? Moreover, the work questions what we think of a life, Strain told me. Within an Indigenous cosmology, all things are living and infused with a vitalism of one form or another. The fence’s wood thus constitutes a piece of life in this larger cosmology, but when deployed in the service of the lawn, it cordons off the land from both humans and nonhumans, almost like a dealer of death.

Manuel Axel Strain, It’s time to wake up, 2022. Wood, photo, acrylic paint, leather, beads, sinew, shells, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Unit 17 (Vancouver). Photo: NK Photo.

This engagement with the built environment and its relationship to nature, privatization, and exchange also took shape in It’s gunna fall (2022). Strain created this sculptural work using bricks bound together haphazardly; it was evocative of an abstracted post-industrial ruin. As the title suggests, this assemblage signals precipice, an unsound grounding, and the inevitable toppling of what should be an enduring material. Almost altarlike in form, the structure contains a paradox. It is meant to support its own weight, with each brick supported by the application of mortar. But Strain also inlaid fragments and ephemera from the natural world, as well as images from the Maple Ridge Museum & Community Archives, between the bricks, which negated the sculpture’s structural stability.

Like the fence in qné7e says tá7a, Strain’s use of brick gestured toward other structures from the settler-colonial built environment, and in turn, troubled the work’s reading. Specifically, it brought the development of so-called Gastown, one of Vancouver’s earliest sites of colonial occupation, into focus. Bricks are nearly omnipresent in the neighborhood’s nineteenth-century multi floor buildings. Through the abstraction and re-deployment of forms and materials that seem familiar or known, Strain beckons a re-consideration. Vancouver’s growth into the metropolis we know today is due in no small part to the presence and productivity of a host of mills, ports, and fisheries that early settlers developed. Of course, along with this transformation of the inlet into a site of industry came the prolonged genocidal violence of occupation.

Strain deployed a clever irony in this work through two gestures that they pointed out to me. First, Strain shared with me that while on a Secwepemc medicine walk they learned it can be considered bad luck to remove clay—the material being a form of living, nonhuman kin—from a river without knowing the proper protocols. In this way, we can almost view most early colonial brick structures as a giant accumulation of cosmological missteps. But second, these structures also accidentally accrue a sacred quality: the oxidized red of the bricks mirrors the hue of ochre, an earth pigment deriving its color from iron oxide, found in abundance in the traditional territories of the Smelqmix people. They used ochre not just in pictographs—whose artistic importance Strain acknowledged—but as a spiritually infused material, an intercessor between the world of the spiritual and the living. By extension, the brick in Strain’s work almost re-sanctifies the material. Is this accidental sanctification what ultimately keeps the structure upright? The idea of territory oscillates between multiple points, refusing any stabilization. What Strain suggests in It’s gunna fall is both the debt that colonial structures owe to the world they occupy, as well the incisive possibilities laden within Indigenous epistemologies toward toppling these precarious edifices.

If qné7e says tá7a draws attention to conflicting notions of the land in relationship to larger ecological structures and It’s gunna fall portrayed spiritual relations, then It’s time to wake up (2022) illustrated the relationship between territory, life, and death. This work consists of a bundle of wood sticks, aged and stripped of their bark, which Strain adorned with a variety of decorative materials, such as beads, shells, and photographs. Installed in a corner of the gallery next to a window, the propped-up wooden forms almost seemed to form a provisional architectural structure. Yet, the work more strongly suggests the movements enabled by walking sticks. Specifically, the sticks invoke the harrowing journey made by the artist’s mother, on foot, when she walked alongside others from Kamloops to Adams Lake to reclaim the spirits lost to the city’s former residential school. On the walk, they knocked their sticks against the earth to help guide the spirits of the children taken by the residential school’s genocidal apparatus back to their home.

In this suite of works, Strain raises one of the most pressing questions regarding colonization: how has settler occupation shifted our conceptions of the intrinsic essence of land? Evidently, as many—including Tuck and Yang—have pointed out, calls for Land Back fundamentally express the need to right the wrongs of expropriation and theft. Even within a leftist framework, the necessity of returning land should not need to map cleanly onto a Eurocentric view of statehood. As the biosphere breaks down and histories of colonial violence continue to be unaddressed, the questions begged by Indigenous cosmologies refuse to lose their relevance. To think about private property through Strain’s polyphonous work is to both call attention to alternative modes of ownership and highlight the flattening ways that the settler views land. Instead, Strain dialogued with Indigenous epistemologies that conceive of land not as an enclosed parcel ready for exchange but as an infinite entity inherently tied to all beings: human, nonhuman, things beyond the mundane, and lives past, present, and future.

1 Comment

  • Donald Fager says:

    I read “The Polyphonous Calls for Land and Land Back” by Manuel Axel Strain, and I must say, this piece provides a thought-provoking perspective on the complex issue of land ownership and indigenous rights. Strain’s exploration of the multifaceted nature of this topic truly highlights the importance of acknowledging historical injustices and engaging in meaningful conversations about restitution and reconciliation.

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