“A surprise wake-up call. Run to the kitchen, jumping and scrambling to the table. Waiting for our moose meat porridge. Excited to have him home. . . . Love you, Dad.”
—Note from the Remember series, 2013
For Brittney Bear Hat art is a tool to explore the elusive notion of identity. “I grew up here in the Calgary area but felt separated from my aboriginal community,” she recalls. “For a lot of my life I felt I was making it up as I went along. I felt I was a stereotype. I didn't understand what made me native. What was my culture and identity?”
Growing up with a creative streak, she followed the lead of her elder sister Richelle Bear Hat and entered the Alberta College of Art + Design, in 2007, and was encouraged to explore and experiment. “If it weren't for ACAD, I wouldn't be where I am now,” she says. “It definitely helped me build a practice for myself and figure out how to talk about what I want to make.”
Bear Hat built on this foundation in a series of residencies – including ones at Contemporary Gallery and The Banff Centre – where she started deep explorations of her roots, exchanging ideas and inspiration with other aboriginal artists, including her sister.
“Most of my time is spent googling different names, titles, phrases – all linked to being ‘Native.’ I was intrigued by the stereotype I found in the images I would search.”
—From the description of the This is . . . series, 2011.
In her This is . . . series Bear Hat will often take the visual clichés and reframe them so that the viewer questions their own cultural assumptions while the artist at the same time exorcises her own demons of identity in the accompanying handwritten notes. A particular piece depicts a series of three shots of impassive native warriors, for example, she writes, “This is what it means to be stoic.” And the subtext is, stoic is what she is also expected to be.
Once Bear Hat got the stereotypes out of her system, she felt more at ease to explore what her identity really meant through her father, Arthur Chipesia and her mother, Liberty Chipesia who died April, 2000.
My Mother would sometimes blast Biggie from the kitchen to wake us for breakfast.”
—Note from the Remember series, 2013
If Bear Hat's mother serves as a muse for much of her work, her father still provides living inspiration as well as a source of full-hearted support for his daughter's explorations, which lately have included adding video to her repertoire and marking a return to silkscreen prints. He is also the guardian of family stories, fleshing them out for her as needed, and letting her know the ones that are sacred and must be kept secret.
“It's very important for me to hold onto all my childhood memories,” she says. “I just want to remember my mom and my dad.”
As her art practice has evolved, Bear Hat has come to believe that there is more that links her with non-aboriginals than separates them. The idea of connection underlies the OURS show she had this year with Jennifer Tellier at the Latitude 53 gallery in Edmonton.
Drawing on a previous drawing-performance collaboration between the two artists, the installation was composed of personal artifacts and elements of family history. “Jen is someone that I was able to share with and connect with. We both come from a similar background. We share a similar childhood,” says Bear Hat. “We both grew up with fathers who were hunters and who took us out with them all the time. They are continually passing on that knowledge to us.”
In the show itself, there no indications as to which artist produced which work. Viewers could see that the real experiences we have in common trump the artificial divisions we often create.