Aboriginal artist Rande Cook has a bone to pick with the appropriation of First Nations culture. “If I have to do another killer whale motif I’m going to shoot myself,” he says emphatically.
Cook doesn’t want to create what galleries or collectors expect of him. He wants to tell his own stories, in his own way and in a traditional yet evolving style. We tend to pigeonhole native artists as carvers and blanket-box makers. Cook can carve and make boxes but he also belongs to a generation of native artists that’s turning convention on its ear by using all mediums, carving, drawing, painting, video, photography and performance to make their point.
Rande Cook at Times Square NYC
“We have strong stories; we have metaphors just like the rest of the world. Can we connect on an international level where people will start to understand us as First Nations people based on our stories and not based on the aesthetics and the masks? ” he asks.
Idle No More is a recent work in which he’s married native symbolism – the heads are direct origin stories, the men’s direct ancestors – with the western tradition of narrative painting. That’s Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper kneeling before the First Nations Team of Justice. The issue is native self-determination and the Team is holding the Prime Minister accountable because as Cook says “he’s always a faceless guy in the background negotiating everything. He’s never got any time to turn around and face Canadians.”
Idle No More
Idle No More Detail
Ravenous tells another story. A raven, which tradition says released the light –the sun, the moon and the stars – is tethered on a leash. Like a pet. In the background, a wolf preys on unsuspecting passers-by and a forgotten and destitute Hollywood icon, Mickey Mouse, crashes on the sidewalk. “It’s about the state of the world,” says Cook lamenting the rise of personal gratification over spirituality. “It’s individualistic. It’s not a collective anymore,” he says. “We’re going in one direction right now and we have to make a serious change.”
Aware that he too lives in a material world Cook says “my work is the story of my life and how I’m personally adapting” and for him, adapting means probing, questioning and satirizing. His smaller pieces which include T’in T’in, LOL and Let’s Boogie continue this interplay of western icons and traditional design. They’re also a little cheeky. If mainstream society can play with aboriginal images why can’t native artists play with western ones? “I like to have fun,” he says.
“I’m always pushing myself to be fresh,” he says about his approach to art. That’s Cook behind the mask in New York City. “What does New York mean to me?” he says about his 2012 trip to the Big Apple. “Commercialism and finance so I said I’m going to make a Louis Vutton mask.” (The mask is salted with gold inlay and Louis Vutton logos). “I wore it all over Times Square, went down to Wall Street and said we’ve got to ride this [bull] sucker. Am I railing against consumerism? No, I want to make people aware. Can we maintain balance within this world we live in or do we have to consume?”
Always questioning convention, he encourages others to continue the fight. “I think for our culture to continue to live, we need to make it fresh. We need to keep re-inventing.”
Next up, a fashion show that will open in Victoria next year. Traditional costumes will lead a parade of haute couture models accompanied by historical Edward Curtis films morphing into contemporary videos. And yes, there’s likely to be a reference, however fleeting, to the killer whale motif.
A selection of Cook’s photographs and the painting Idle No More are currently on display at Vancouver’s Fazakas Gallery.