Before you can see it, you can hear it: the video projection by Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin in the opening gallery of Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, a compendium of new work by indigenous North American artists opening this weekend at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. The work, titled Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan, translates as “We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care,” and it has two parts. First, you hear the pounding electronic music composed by Galanin, which inspires the performance of traditional Tlingit dancer Dan Littlefield. Masked, dressed in full regalia, and carrying a raven rattle, Littlefield moves to the new beat in the old ways. Next, you hear the drumming and chanting of traditional Tlingit vocals and drums – this could be an archival soundtrack from a hundred years ago – but here a dancer (the electrifying David “Elsewhere” Burnal) is seen in an empty dance studio, dressed in slouchy hip-hop attire, and breakdancing to the old songs in new ways.
Old is new, new is old, African-American breakdancing meets Northwest Coast antiquity, but what stays the same is the power of the beat, that fundamental element found across all cultures and all times, the beat of the mother’s heart, of our own heart beating, that universal sign of life. The pulse of aboriginal art goes on, and survival comes in marvellous new forms.