- Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and the national imaginary by Margot Francis
In this important new book, Margot Francis draws on the theoretical concept of haunting to study Canadian nationalist emblems and their reproduction by Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural producers. She focuses on four nationalist emblems—the beaver, the railway, Banff National Park, and "Indianness"—that are at once familiar clichés to those with any experience of Canadian culture and potent sites of political negotiation and contestation. Francis combines meticulous historical research, detailed analysis of visual artifacts and artistic practices, and a sophisticated theoretical framework to ask new questions about the work of visual and cultural icons in reproducing Canadian national mythologies. As well, this book makes an original and valuable contribution in studying "contrapuntal methods for reimagining white, Anglo-Canadian historical memory" (xiii) by contemporary visual and performance artists. Perhaps its most groundbreaking contribution, however, is this book's articulation of queer sexuality to the analysis of Whiteness, race, Aboriginality, and Canadian nationalism.
In addition to its scholarly rigour and theoretical sophistication, Creative Subversions is highly readable and engaging. Chapter One is an introduction that begins with "An Auto-Ethnographic Story" about Francis' experience of living in a house she felt was haunted by the history of the Bruce Mines and Anishinaabek people. This leads to a theoretical exploration of haunting, via Michael Taussig's notion of the "public secret," that leads Francis to ask, "when banal emblems of national belonging convey a knowledge that is both articulated and refused, what might this teach us?" (4-5). Noting that the most devastating "public secret" in Canadian culture is the contradiction between the dominant ideology of liberal democracy and the historical and ongoing legacies of violent colonialism, Francis then turns to Michael Billig's concept of "banal nationalism" to explore why seemingly innocent or ordinary signifiers can "prompt powerful forms of affective nationalist sentiment" (12). The artists who critique and contest such sentiments in counternarratives of nation building must therefore, as Francis shows, work to denaturalize the ordinary and remember the repressed.
The remaining chapters are organized around the book's four main icons and move from early exploration to the present. Chapter Two charts the beaver from early natural history images produced by explorers, through television and popular culture, to recent pieces by four female Canadian artists who rework this gendered, racialized and sexualized emblem. From her discussion of beaver hats in advertising to the beaver in political cartoons, Francis moves on to the beaver in sexual slang, tracing its signification to discourses of Indigenous women as sexually immoral. The chapter concludes with four contemporary female Canadian artists who have responded variously to this long and complex history of beaver imagery: Joyce Wieland, Wendy Coburn, Jin-me Yoon and Rebecca Belmore. Although they work from different subject positions and across media, all four of these artists show how the beaver has been anthropomorphized in dominant nationalist discourses and used to mark gendered and racialized others.
In Chapter Three, Francis queers the familiar history of indentured Chinese labour on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). She begins with the earliest images of the CPR in photographs and advertising, juxtaposes these to archival materials, and concludes with analysis of Dirty Laundry (1996), a thirty-minute video by Toronto-based queer artist Richard Fung. Two of the most revelatory moments involve archival materials. First, Francis examines railway worker C.D. Hoy's photographs of Chinese, Indigenous, mixed race and White men, women, and children in early 1900s worker camps. These are unusual in their lack of a romanticized or touristic gaze and because they reveal the "shifting norms of sociability and sexuality" in these predominantly masculine racially diverse communities (77). The second revelation is a hand-drawn sketch of a Chinese man Francis encountered in the private notes of CPR manager William Van Horne. This sketch appears on a page full of accounting figures, and so Francis reads it against the grain to theorize the significance of its crude racial stereotyping as a sign of the centrality of the Chinese male...