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Beat Nation remixes art, hip hop and aboriginal culture

Breakdancers, snowshoe skateboards, lowrider bikes on display at Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit

Beadwork, carvings and powwow drumming are all part of a new exhibit that opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Feb. 25-but not in the forms one might expect.

Instead, visitors to Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture will see a beaded MacBook Pro electrical cord, skateboards carved to resemble old-fashioned snowshoes and a video of a breakdancer busting moves to traditional drumbeats.

"They all carry echoes of their ancestors in their work, but they are very much creating their own path and they very much are expressing the liberty to define themselves," said Tania Willard, co-curator of the show.

The VAG's version of Beat Nation builds on a 2008 initiative of the Grunt Gallery that Willard, a Secwepemc artist and graphic designer, co-curated with multidisciplinary artist Skeena Reece, who's featured in performance regalia in the signature image for the exhibition.

The expanded version of Beat Nation claims the second floor of the gallery and features the work of 27 artists from across North America presented in four distinct sections.

In addition to a b-boy breaking to thumping drums, Alaska-based artist Nicholas Galanin's video "Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan part 1 and 2" depicts a dancer decked in traditional regalia dancing to electro beats in the musicthemed section called "The Beat."

Musqueam artist Ostwelve has also curated 16 aboriginal hiphop videos for the show.

The aforementioned photo of Reece, who looks commanding in a painted bustier, scarlet button blanket that's actually decked with an enormous sequined grenade and a feather and horsehair headdress called a roach, that's traditionally worn by men-regalia she wore for a performance she did at the Biennale of Sydney, Australia, in 2008-is featured in "the stage" section, which spotlights performance, persona and identity.

Newfoundland artist Jordan Bennett's snowshoe-skateboards and skateboard trucks carved from moose antler are included in the portion dubbed "the street."

The final section, "the tag," showcases tagging, graffiti, pictographs and petroglyphs.

Beat Nation co-curator Kathleen Ritter, associate curator with the Vancouver Art Gallery, says few of the works have been previously seen in Vancouver, although the acclaimed sculptural Northwest Coast-type native masks that B.C. artist Brian Jungen fashioned from Nike Air Jordans are included.

"We thought that that was an important series to include because of Brian's influence to a slightly younger generation of artists who are working with a similar strategy of borrowing, appropriation, repurposing things from popular culture and mixing them with other signifiers of aboriginal culture," Ritter said.

Dylan Miner, a Metis artist who lives in Michigan, recently visited Vancouver to work with young aboriginal artists to build and decorate four lowrider bikes for the exhibit that symbolize each of the four directions on the medicine wheel.

Ritter says Beat Nation continues the VAG's ongoing commitment to showcase creations by aboriginal art-ists, as evidenced by an exhibition of pieces by Jungen, a mid-career survey of work by Rebecca Belmore and the 2006 exhibit Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art.

She says the gallery was particularly interested in highlighting the connection between aboriginal art and hip-hop. "Since the '90s, Vancouver's been a hotbed of aboriginal hip hop where we see young musicians picking up hip hop as a form for storytelling, for political activism, for indigenous languages, so we wanted to build on that tradition that's coming out of music," Ritter said. "That's really where the exhibition takes it cues and expands from there."

The Feb. 24 FUSE night kicks off the exhibit with hip-hop inspired performances by the Beat Nation Live ensemble. The Friday night event will include music and visuals by Jackson 2Bears, award-winning multimedia artist and filmmaker Bear Witness and DJ collective A Tribe Called Red.

The Beat Nation exhibit runs to June 3.

For more information, see Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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