The year 2016 was a turning point for Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway.
The year 2016 was a turning point for Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway.
After training as an engineer, she was working for SaskEnergy and running a boutique with her family. But that year, she lost the boutique and her job.
“I was devastated,” she said. “What am I going to do?”
Something else was happening that year that gave her new direction. The family went to the Standing Rock demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It left her with a renewed sense of the power of serving the community.
“Am I best suited to go back and be an engineer and to do project management?” she remembers asking herself. “Or am I best suited to just focus on community development?”
The answer, it turned out, was simple enough. Community work had always been her passion, even if it didn’t pay the bills. But by combining art, storytelling and the project management skills she learned as an engineer, she’s since become a force to be reckoned with in Regina.
BigEagle-Kequahtooway was one of the loudest voices calling on the city to deal more honestly with its past, notably by pushing for renaming Dewdney Avenue as Buffalo Avenue. That struggle is still being fought.
Yet another fight was recently won. She spoke to the Leader-Post in what was once the Dewdney Park and Pool, now renamed to Buffalo Meadows. She grew up just two blocks from here, in Regina’s North Central area.
Later, for two-and-a-half years, she spent time at her familial White Bear First Nation. It was there that she reconnected with her enormous family — 37 aunts and uncles and about 200 first cousins — and with the land.
“I feel more connected, as they’re connected over there to the land, so I got to be connected through them,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest lesson… our ceremonies are still alive.”
So it was natural enough for BigEagle-Kequahtooway and her husband, Lorne, to co-found Buffalo People Art Institute to help preserve those traditions. In the years since her turning point, they’ve been scraping, stretching, tanning and braining buffalo hides, creating art and sharing the process with those eager to learn.
They’ve done it about 50 times, in Lorne’s estimation. But in BigEagle-Kequahtooway’s view, it’s only an initiation.
“I feel like we’re still babies in learning this,” she said.
But the couple has nonetheless hosted a seven-part video series as a how-to guide on their work. They’ve led workshops across the province, including at Grasslands National Park. BigEagle-Kequahtooway held an exhibition at the University of Regina, where she was named artist in residence.
The buffalo is at the centre of everything they do. But so is their relationship. “I’m his muse; he’s my muse,” she said.
For BigEagle-Kequahtooway, the buffalo is a symbol of resilience. Long after they were nearly eradicated in the 19th century, she feels like they are still everywhere — in the sweat lodge, in the sun dance, in the land.
But she hasn’t given up on seeing the buffalo return on a grand scale, like they were when her people depended on them for every aspect of life.
“There’s 90 million cattle that are on this continent — zero from 500 years ago to 90 million,” she explained. “Well, maybe in another 500 years people will realize, hey we have to go back to buffalo, because the way that we’re running our ecosystem here with mono-agriculture and non-sustainable farming, maybe there’s better ways to do it.”
Working with buffalo hide can be an arduous process. First they have to find the hide, which can be the toughest step of all. Then they haul it. They soak the hide, poke holes in it, stretch it out on a 10-by-10 foot frame and use tools to scrape the muscle. They dry the hide before scraping still more layers. By then, the hide is ready to be brained. One buffalo brain is enough to treat its own hide. The brain, she explained, contains a chemical called lecithin that breaks down fibres and softens the hide.
The result can make robes, drum skins and parfleche for so much more.
“For me it’s about feeding our soul,” said BigEagle-Kequahtooway. “It’s about the process.”
Her training in mathematics and engineering has stayed with her, and still influences her work. “The art that I enjoy is based on geometry,” she explained. However much she tries to let loose and work with the spontaneity of a child, she can’t quite free herself from her love of order.
“I’ve got to get out my geometry kit. I’ve got to make my designs. I’ve got to make sure it’s symmetrical,” said BigEagle-Kequahtooway. “That controlled way that I do things.”
Her art has passed through the hands of a prime minister and a pontiff. She and Lorne made a parfleche gift commissioned by Justin Trudeau’s office as a gift to Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme. Trudeau passed it on with his own hands at an event this month.
A couple years ago, the Kequahtooways gifted a beaded cross to Pope Francis. As the pair worked on the project, BigEagle-Kequahtooway had her mother in mind.
“My mother went to residential schools… thinking of her, and so many others that have been to residential school in my family,” she said.
She saw the work as an opportunity, given the questionable role of the Catholic Church in Canada’s history with Indigenous people. BigEagle-Kequahtooway believes energy, feelings and messages can be transferred through art. So this one was important.
“Should we write a message?” she remembers asking during their beading work. “We put a prayer in it, and the prayer was: We want our people to live.”
She was told that the gift did, in fact, reach the pope.
Now, as the pandemic recedes, BigEagle-Kequahtooway is thinking about another turning point. She’s looking for ways to take her work to White Bear and her husband’s Zagime Anishnabek community.
“We’ve been focused on urban places because it’s where we live, and it’s where our kids live, and so we’ve been focused on bringing ceremony, bringing community here,” she said.
“Then sometimes we ask ourselves, what are we bringing into our home communities, because that’s where we’re from… It’s kind of in the back of our minds, because we always want to go back home — we want to feel like we belong.”
At some point in the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of dollars will be funneled to the son of the sitting American president—and none of us will know anything about who sent the money, or where it originally came from, or why anyone chose to send it in the first place.
The transactions will nominally center on artwork created by Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son. After spending years working alongside post-Soviet oligarchs—work that complicated his father’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine—Hunter has tossed on a new hat as an emerging “artist.” CNN has reported that his debut shows—one in Los Angeles, another in New York—will be held in late September, though the dates haven’t been announced (which may be because of the scrutiny the sales have received). Whenever they happen, Hunter will make the transition from unqualified oil-and-gas adviser to budding Basquiat—and will offer his artwork to the highest bidders his gallery can attract. The sales have raised concerns that buyers will purchase the art to curry favor with the president, creating an ethics minefield for the White House.
Hunter’s artwork isn’t bad, per se. A certain base-level skill is evident in the paintings. Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic for The Washington Post, told CNN that Biden was comparable to “a cafe painter. By which I mean, you see a certain kind of art in coffee shops, and some of it is OK and a lot of it is bad, and sometimes it’s surprisingly good. But you wouldn’t, unless you were related to the artist, spend more than $1,000 on it.”
Unfortunately for the White House, the people about to profit from Hunter’s foray into the art world are anticipating far higher returns—and suddenly presenting the Biden administration with a new Hunter-related headache. Hunter’s gallerist, Georges Bergès, has said he’s expecting as much as $500,000 for some of the paintings. That’s a pricing echelon that would put Hunter, a person with no formal artistic training, “in the very top tier of emerging artists,” according to Artnet. (“The whole thing is very, very weird,” added Artnet’s Ben Davis, not least because the Bergès Gallery’s previous best-known client was Sylvester Stallone.) For his part, Hunter has been clear about what he’d say to those questioning the propriety of his shows: “Other than fuck ’em?”
As of now, the Biden administration appears caught between the appearance of something wildly untoward and the reality that there’s not a whole lot it can do about the situation. Hunter remains a private citizen and is allowed to sell his scribblings to whomever he’d like, regardless of the provenance of the funds and the buyer’s motivation. Attempting to untangle this Gordian knot of ethical concerns, the White House and the gallerist struck a deal in July. Although the full details haven’t been revealed, both CNN and CBS have reported a number of particulars. Per the agreement, Hunter will supposedly never know the identity of the buyers, or even of the underbidders. If you squint, you could see how such a deal would address the ethical concerns. After all, if Hunter doesn’t know who’s showering him with hundreds of thousands of dollars for his paintings, how could they ever get in his good graces?
But further details undercut whatever protections the agreement may provide. Hunter will appear in person at the shows. “Of course [Hunter Biden] will be there,” the gallery spokesperson said. He’s supposed to refrain from discussing any sales and will instead “keep the conversations focused on the creative process of his art.” Nevertheless, he’ll be schmoozing with any and all potential buyers—buyers who are vetted solely by his own gallerist. (A representative of the Georges Bergès Gallery told me Bergès was “unavailable for comment”; George Mesires, an attorney for Hunter Biden, did not respond to my requests for comment.)
And yet there are no guarantees that these guidelines will be followed. There is no way to ensure that the gallery owner will keep purchasers’ names private, or that Hunter—a man not exactly known for his tactfulness—will stick to the script. As Walter Shaub, the former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in July, “There’s no mechanism for monitoring, no mechanism for notifying the public if confidentiality is broken, no mechanism for tracking if buyers get access to [the government].”
In short, little will guard against the possibility that the buyers may be interested in something beyond Hunter’s paintings—and that they may be willing to pay however much they need for access to the man whose father sits in the Oval Office.
Hunter Biden is, of course, hardly the first relative of a sitting American president to capitalize on their last name. The entire Trump brood was one oleaginous mass of conflicts of interest, foreign entanglements, and suspect financing. Even that lodestar of ethical leadership, Jimmy Carter, saw his family race to the shady-money trough after he became president: His brother lobbied for the Libyan regime, and his son was a computer consultant for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. To be fair, there is no reason to assume that President Biden would ever succor his son’s potential patrons—just look at how then–Vice President Biden browbeat corrupt figures in Ukraine while Hunter sat on the board of Burisma.
Still, this is a situation without modern precedent: A presidential family member is bartering something intangible, something without any intrinsic value whatsoever—except the undeniable value of the painter’s last name. He’s selling abstract, two-dimensional images, and charging tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, while potentially hiding the identity of the people he’s selling them to.
That opacity may be problematic given the people involved in this gambit, but it’s not unusual for the multibillion-dollar global art and auction markets. To the contrary, it’s the norm. As one pro-transparency activist recently said, “[The art market] is often called … the largest unregulated market in the world.” Unsurprisingly, this lack of regulation has attracted widespread criminal activity. Over the past decade, the industry has exploded into one of the world’s most popular conduits for the anonymous, unchecked laundering of dirty money into legitimate assets.
The U.S. has stood at the center of this transformation. With the largest art market in the world, and the second-largest auction market (after China’s), the U.S. provides platforms for billions of unregulated dollars to flow freely and anonymously among buyers, sellers, and middlemen. And though other industries—banking, shell-company providers, and the like—now face a complex web of rules and regulations designed to block dirty money, the American art industry remains completely exposed to any comers. As The New York Times recently summed, “Buyers typically have no idea where the work they are purchasing is coming from. Sellers are similarly in the dark about where a work is going.” All that matters is that mountains of unchecked monies exchange hands—gallery and auction-house owners take anywhere from 20 to 50 percent (or more) of the sale prices as commissions—resulting in the transfer of staggering wealth.
Examples abound. Last year, an in-depth Senate report uncovered that a pair of sanctioned Russian oligarchs allegedly laundered millions of dollars via the American art market, all in order to skirt U.S. sanctions. (A representative for the oligarchs has denied the allegations.) In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s long-standing dictator, alleging that he’d used American auction houses to transform some of his ill-gotten gains into, among other things, the world’s greatest collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the Prince of Pop’s crystal-studded glove. One former federal investigator told me that Obiang is the “poster child of kleptocracy.” (As part of a settlement agreement with the DOJ, Obiang forfeited $30 million in assets but did not admit any wrongdoing.) And Jho Low, the Malaysian financier at the center of a multibillion-dollar laundering racket, allegedly used his art as collateral for a nine-figure loan from Sotheby’s, one of the leading auction houses in the world. No safeguards, no financial checks, no questions asked. (Low was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges related to the alleged embezzlement scheme; he denied wrongdoing and remains at large.)
The market is essentially expected to police itself—but why would it? Simply too much money is at stake, and, according to one legal scholar, “art dealers have little incentive other than good faith to flag possible money-laundering schemes involving artwork for law enforcement.” As an auction-house executive who worked with the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator told me, Obiang “was always a decent guy … It’s hard to—he’s a client—hard to take that hat off and look objectively. Because he did help our business—and was a good client.”
Instead, we have to take dealers at their word when they say they’re on the lookout for questionable funds flooding the market. In the case of Hunter Biden, that means we have to trust that the gallerist selling the artwork is sufficient defense against the possibility of dirty money flowing directly into the pockets of the president’s son.
Recently, however, signs indicate that some long-overdue transparency—or at least less opacity—may be coming to the art and auction markets. Earlier this year, with little fanfare, Congress passed legislation requiring antiquities dealers to identify the people behind the sales and purchases, cutting off a key stream for oligarchs, organized criminals, and others who secretly move looted artifacts under the cover of shell companies. Although the new regulations are limited only to antiquities, they set the playbook for the kinds of rules that could soon apply to the art business. As a first step, Congress earlier this year mandated a federal study on financial malfeasance in the art market. As the Senate report from last year stated, “Congress should add high-value art to the list of industries that must comply with [Bank Secrecy Act] requirements. Given the intrinsic secrecy of the art industry, it is clear that change is needed in this multi-billion-dollar industry.”
Smaller dealers may gripe about the costs of complying with additional regulations—and not without reason. But unfortunately for them, they operate in a sector that’s become too compromised for the government to keep ignoring it. This regulation is clearly necessary, and those who have profited from the art market’s explosion over the past few decades can see what’s now barreling toward them. “We are in the paranoid-terrified phase of what’s going to come down the pike,” the former head of the Art Dealers Association of America said earlier this year. “Right now, I think people are a little panicked.”
Hunter Biden’s debut will only add to this heightened scrutiny—and might accelerate change in the industry. In addition to the calls for reform that have been growing louder in recent years, freshman GOP Representative Mike Waltz introduced a bill in late July that would force all children and stepchildren of sitting presidents to reveal the sources of their income. Waltz dubbed the bill the Preventing Assets and Investments With No Transparency From Executive Relatives Act, or, fittingly enough, the PAINTER Act.
An exhibit at the Art Gallery of Windsor is shining a light on the experiences of Windsor’s LGBTQ community.
“For me, it’s a really important moment in my life,” explained Meaghan Sweeney, one of the artists on display, who identifies as queer, on the asexual spectrum.
The Pride and Joy Community Art Exhibition, sponsored through an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, features about 46 artists of all ages, with more than 70 pieces of art featured so far.
Sweeney explained that for a long time, they had a hard time feeling like they belonged or that they were “queer enough.”
“Being able to give myself the space to exist is one of the biggest kindnesses that I can do for myself, and also, one of the best things that people can do for themselves within the community,” they said.
“So that’s also why it was really important for me to be involved with this exhibition.”
Sweeney’s art used playing cards to create representation for the asexual, or ace, community.
Janet MacIsaac, a queer non-binary woman, submitted two pieces of artwork for the exhibit, one of which, The Art of the Flight, represents the the journey of finding love and joy after being a survivor of sexual violence.
“The piece really captures the journey from kind of that place of trauma to a place of kind of reclaiming a sense of love, happiness and pride in who I am and in my body,” they said.
“That journey is something a lot of people go through, and it’s a struggle … to get to that point of loving yourself again is radical and revolutionary. And I’m happy that I was able to kind of channel a lot of the stuff I’ve learned over my years in education and feminism into this piece. So really proud of it.”
The special initiatives co-ordinator with the art gallery, Derrick Carl Biso, who also happens to be MacIsaac’s spouse, has been working on programming for the LGBTQ community for the past year.
They explained that this exhibit is the “capstone project” of everything they’ve been working on.
“Listening to some of the artists speak, I was getting teary-eyed,” Biso said.
“I realize how important this show was and how meaningful it was to me personally. And getting to be in this room and look at all the art on the walls, and I’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks now, I feel so good. I feel so grounded and held by a community.”
Biso added that they feel so much pride and joy with how it’s all turned out, along with being able to include two pieces of their own in the exhibit as well.
The exhibit includes art work on the walls, digital displays — plus an evening gown created by a teenager getting involved in drag.
“I hope it inspires dialogue and conversation about how we can make Windsor a better place for trans and non-binary people and just generally the communities and people here who face marginalization and exclusion,” MacIsaac said.
“But also dialogue about the joy and happiness and pride that we have happening in this community and just the amount of talent, creative talent that we have in the queer and trans community in Windsor.”
Sweeney hopes the work generates excitement among those who identify the same as they do.
“There’s very few opportunities for ace representation,” they said.
“So, I hope that they enjoy that and I hope that people are curious and open and that they do feel like they’re celebrated through what’s going on here today.”
The exhibit is already open to the public, and continues until the end of October.
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