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s North Americans, the present-day selves we inhabit are informed—and troubled—by the fraught colonial histories of this landscape and others. THE COUNTER/SELF, an exhibition curated by Mona Filip, brings the work of indigenous and diasporic artists of Canada and the U.S. together to explore the implications of these circumstances. Through the performance of alter egos that employ heritage, histories and lived experience, these artists engage with and disrupt established colonial narratives and identity constructs with both humor and reverence.

Filip, originally from Bucharest, Romania, is the curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. With THE COUNTER/SELF, she has created a microcosmic representation of the complex socio-historical North American past and present. Placed in concert, the artists’ individual refractions of selfhood play off of each other to stage sites of productive tension.

Originally showcased at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto in 2023, THE COUNTER/SELF was awarded Best Exhibition at the Ontario Galleries Awards last year.

“It’s really exciting to bring it to new audiences and to also play with it once again,” said Filip. “The works of the different artists have really interesting points of connection, and when you work with one space and then you get to play with another space, you can explore other juxtapositions and dialogues between the works.” 

Now on display at the Lilley Museum of Art, this exhibition is the first to fill and unite the first and second floor galleries since the Lilley opened in 2019. 

Meryl McMaster’s “My Destiny is Entwined With Yours” is from the 2019 photo series “As Immense as the Sky.”

The space has been well-used to demonstrate the dynamic nature of this exhibition. Enter the first floor, and beyond walls flanked by Meryl McMaster’s landscape-bound self portraits, you can glimpse Helio Eudoro’s spotlit, human-shaped textile sculpture glowing on the virtual shore of Lake Ontario. Climb the stairs to the museum’s second level, and you will be held at finger-gun point by Adrian Stimson performing as Buffalo Boy. Lean over the second story railing, and you will be met with a jarring view of Sasha Shevchenko’s alter ego Lyusterko, her crimson silhouette laying still near molotov cocktails.

A performance still from Adrian Stimson’s “New Born Buffalo Boy”

Well aware of the performative nature of the self, the works in THE COUNTER/SELF combine performance with static mediums, including photography, sculpture and digital collage. For some artists, like Stacey Tyrell, this performance is staged just for the cameras, while for others, like Adrian Stimson, a member of Alberta, Canada’s Siksika Nation, the main work of art is the public performance, which is then documented for display. Still others operate somewhere in between, like artist 2Fik, who creates tableaus for the camera and also stages separate public performances as his character Ludmilla-Mary.

The Montreal-based artist 2Fik creates characters who appear in performances and photos. This one is Ludmilla-Mary in “Sur Le Bord.”

The works present in the Reno iteration of the exhibition include those that were shown in Canada, with the addition of pieces by Las Vegas-based artist Adriana Chavez. Chavez’s inclusion in the exhibition adds an anchor farther south on the North American map to expand the geopolitical context under consideration. 

Chavez, a queer artist of Indigenous Mexican, Spanish, and Portuguese descent (who uses both she and they pronouns), brings their alter ego Juan Chico—already a familiar character to many Nevadans—into the exhibition’s fold via digital collages that draw on Catholic iconography and idyllic Mexican art. 

The artist describes Juan Chico, a character informed by the men in Chavez’s family, as “fun loving, playful, sometimes a trickster, a little naughty, yet with a deep well of sorrow.”

While the inspiration for Juan Chico comes mainly from her father and grandfather, the source material in which he cheekily appears for Chavez’s contribution to THE COUNTER/SELF (like Jesús Helguera’s “La Malinche” in “Claimed” and Antonio María Esquivel’s “The Fall of Lucifer” in “I’m Torn”) is drawn from iconic imagery seen in her mother and grandmother’s homes.

Juan Chico’s infiltration of these images allows Chavez to explore difficult topics with a trickster’s edge—here’s Juan Chico teasing the violent colonial history of the Catholic church; here he is again cast as both Hernán Cortés and the enslaved Indigenous girl who accompanies him on his horse.

“I was thinking of the colonized body, and thinking of myself, because I’m white presenting yet also Indigenous,” said Chavez. “There was one day where I was just feeling like I wanted to be sacrilegious and put my head on these religious icons… That was playful and funny to me because I can take the piss out of this religious stuff that sometimes scares me and is fraught with colonization.”

As Chavez turns to her paternal and maternal heritage to inform Juan Chico, Juan Chico in turn informs the evolution of Chavez’s own self. “He seems to be a vehicle for vulnerability and presence and connection. I feel like more of me comes out through him,” said Chavez. “He allows me to play and to come forward in that way, in my play and curiosity and joy, in those authentic feelings.” 

On on Wednesday, April 3, the Lilley Museum will host a conversation at 5 pm with artist 2Fik and curator Mona Filip, and Adriana Chavez will perform as Juan Chico.

On Thursday, April 4, 2Fik will lead a performance walking tour in Midtown. The 30-minute tour will meet at Good Luck Macbeth Theatre, 124 W. Taylor Street, at 4 pm and will conclude at the Emerson cocktail bar, 955 S. Virginia St., for a conversation about art and performance.

Cover photo: A performance still from Adrian Stimson’s “New Born Buffalo Boy”

Photos courtesy of the Lilley Museum

Posted by Delaney Uronen

Delaney Uronen is a Northern California-born writer and UNR graduate who now lives in Reno. Art, community, and landscapes keep her bouncing between both places.