Fox Tail Moccasins
mixed media, 2016
5 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 43 in 14 x 19.1 x 109.2 cm
Collection of the Artist
The complete medium consists of:
Found shoes, Arctic fox tails and fur, capacitors, light emitting diodes, resistors, glass beads, porcupine quills, rooster feathers, dyed split feathers, tin cones, white heart trade beads, plastic pony beads, satin edge bias, mother-of-pearl buttons, synthetic porcupine hair, cotton thread, rope, metal, wooden shoe lasts.
In 2013 Barry Ace was invited to the North American Native Museum (NONAM) in Zurich, Switzerland, to participate in a welcoming ceremony programmed around their acquisitions of his work. While there, Ace had the opportunity to spend time with the Karl Bodmer collection. Along with names like George Catlin and Edward Curtis, Bodmer (1809-1893), a Swiss-French artist, has become associated with the documentation of Indigenous people at a particular moment in North America when there was a drive to visually preserve what was seen as “The Vanishing Race”.
As viewed from a 21st century critical lens, Bodmer’s paintings, prints and aquatints, produced for European audiences, can now be understood as historically problematic with their feverish agenda of “salvage anthropology,” documenting cultures thought to be heading towards extinction. Yet, Ace underscores that despite the erroneous origins, because of Bodmer’s incredible attention to detail, his work holds current value as meticulous visual documents on Indigenous material culture from that time.
His encounter with one particular illustration - Bodmer’s depiction of Mandan warriors in trail-duster moccasins, “sparked a renewal” for Ace, as he stated. This aquatint was published in the book Travels in the Interior of North America by German Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied. Upon completion of an expedition to Brazil, where as an artist, ethnologist and naturalist he documented flora and fauna as well as the Aimoré people, the Prince organized a second expedition to the United States. For this journey, he hired an assistant - Bodmer, who would be specifically designated to the task of visual documentation. Bodmer proved to be a perceptive and sensitive recorder for their trip up the Missouri River.
In Bodmer’s image, the two Numakiki (Mandan) warriors, Sih-Chida and Mahchsi-Karehde, are in ceremonial attire. Ribbon-like shapes snake out from their moccasins. The practical application for such an appendage would be to erase one’s trail along a dusty path. Ace notes that in this image their purpose is not for battle but ceremonial, delighting the eye with their colour and patterning.
Upon returning to Canada from Switzerland, Ace produced Nigig Makizinan (Otter Moccasins) in 2014 and Fox Tail Moccasins in 2016. The first pair of “traildusters” were acquired by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). In 2019 they were featured in Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, the NGC’s second edition of their International Indigenous Art survey that began with Sakahàn in 2013. For Nigig Makizinan, Ace used Fluevog shoes gifted to him. For Fox Tail Moccasins, the companion work to Nigig Makizinan, Ace utilized his own shoes. These black leather shoes, with fox fur and feathers trailing behind them, are embellished with mother of pearl buttons, trade beads, porcupine quills, feathers, tin cones and pipe bone traditionally used in the breast plates of men’s regalia. They also showcase Ace’s signature referencing of traditional Anishinaabe beadwork, the striking and colourful motifs of the Woodland style representing healing medicinal plants. As has become Ace’s trademark, the flowers, leaves and stems are made with glass beads and electronic components - resistors, capacitors and diodes. The components, with their capacity to transmit electrical energy, are a simile for beads or manidoominens in Anishinaabemowin. The word translates as “spirit energy berries,” as glass seed beads were understood to hold within them the capacity to emit spiritual and healing energy.
For Ace, he claims his work is not about “reproducing an object as a replica but rather using the work as a reference or sounding board.” As with much of Ace’s oeuvre, there is a reverent citation of the historical that he builds on to create a contemporary iteration. When viewing Bodmer’s work, as captured by his colonial gaze, “we are looking at a historical stasis,” Ace asserts. Ace’s own work, with its innovative and beautiful use of repurposed electronic components, breaks the colonial confinement to set Indigenous culture into the present.
The companion work Nigig Makizinan (Otter Moccasins) is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
We thank Leah Snyder, digital designer and writer, The L. Project, for contributing the above essay. Snyder writes about culture, technology and contemporary art, and is a regular contributor to the National Gallery of Canada's Gallery magazine and other Canadian art publications.
All quotes attributed to the artist unless otherwise noted.
Please note: This work is accompanied by a letter of authenticity and provenance signed by the artist.
Available for viewing at: Heffel Montreal
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