What Is My Name? deals with the theme of forced cultural assimilation by a dominant group of people over the indigenous minority, and the resulting long-term repercussions. It exposes the history of the “Indian residential school system” which saw thousands of Aboriginal children taken away from their families and homes, and put into the harsh and often abusive environment of church administered, government-funded schools from the nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries.
The work depicts various scenes from traditional camp life to school life, and the physical and mental transformation of the children. The base of the tree contains scenes of life on the land referencing the idea of family and cultural roots, the place where one comes from and to which one belongs. The branches, comprised of scenes from life at the residential schools, symbolize the growing of ill, even fatal, effects of contact with non-aboriginals on Aboriginal peoples. Like the branches in a genealogical tree, they also suggest that future generations must deal with the consequences of the loss of cultural identities and ancestral languages .
In her previous projects, Karine Giboulo focused on the social, economic, and political situation of “the other” in foreign lands, and the role of the Westerners was minimized. The latter would usually make an appearance as a guest (or intruder) in the world of “the other”. Their presence was used as a narrative device to illustrate an idea about globalization in our contemporary world. In this diorama, Giboulo focuses her attention on the West, and the story of her own country. Claiming (as she often does about all of her work) that “when we talk about others we are actually talking about our- selves”, here she is committed to directly critiquing the self while assuming the part of the oppressor.
This work is an acknowledgment by the artist of the historical plight and suffering of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. It is meant to help the artist come to grips with wrongdoings from the perspective of the descendant of the transgressor. It is about exposing an atrocious history through compassion and regret. Giboulo states that this project was “a labour of love”, and that she treated each of her delicately hand-sculpted figures with sensitivity, sympathy, and respect.