Arts Preview: Panel of Indigenous artists re-imagine Canada’s story at University of Victoria event
‘A future where we are all one’
By Jamila Douhaibi
Messages are weaved into the art we create. Whether created by children or trained professionals, art can act as a window into a specific time period. It can carry powerful stories that connect to people from multiple backgrounds.
It’s why artwork from Port Alberni residential schools can tell us about the past and help us work toward reconciliation.
That was one of the topics at a March panel event called, “Reconciliation and resurgence: How Indigenous artists are re-imagining the story of Canada.”
Shelagh Rogers, chancellor at the University of Victoria and honourary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, engaged with three panelists to talk about the role art has to play in the reconciliation process.
Rogers says it is fortunate to have people creating art in response to their experiences during significant points of history because "reconciliation can't just be a buzzword."
"I want to live in a country that keeps its promises," she says. At the end of the day, "reconciliation is love."
Sending a message
Each panelist has used art as a form of creating a conversation or sharing a message digestible by anyone who views it.
Carey Newman, a visual artist of Kwagiulth, Salish, and British descent, and one of the panelists, says becoming an artist "was never a decision made, it just was.” His father was a carver, so he became a carver.
In 2008, he traveled to several communities in the province to participate with others in the creation of a totem pole for the Cowichan Indigenous games. His experience caused him to "look for ways to create meaning and have a message" in the art that he made.
The creation of the Spirit Pole in 2008, as well as a project he did at Camosun College interviewing residential school survivors, were a few of his inspirations for the Witness Blanket. A large scale installation, the piece commemorates what Newman learned about residential schools, with photos, documents and other pieces reclaimed and collected from schools, band offices, and treatment centres.
"Reconciliation was woven into the process because we were bringing people together," says Newman. The blanket "reaches into people's lives because of everyday objects" that were used to create it, he notes, and as soon as something becomes personal people can relate to it on an individual level.
"I needed to have resurgence and resilience," woven into the blanket, says Newman, so he used current pieces and stories from survivors and their families.
The piece has traveled across Canada and is currently in New Westminster.
There is also a companion documentary, which will be released later this year.
"Be brave, ask questions, go to places [where] Indigenous people are standing up," says Newman in regards to the future of reconciliation in Canada.
"If we're not really standing equally, these issues will repeat themselves."
Panelist Andrea Walsh, curator and visual anthropologist at the University of Victoria, was part of a repatriation of art project. Drawings and paintings created by children at Port Alberni residential schools in the 1950s and ’60s were returned to the original owners and their families.
The art was originally donated to the university, where Walsh saw a possibility for reconciliation through repatriation by returning the artwork to the artists.
Originally trained as a printmaker and photographer, Walsh had a shift to where she started "thinking about how art worked in society." She says she started asking herself, "Why are we as humans compelled to leave art?" Walsh found that art provides an environment for "telling stories there are no words for."
And that's why the works done by the children at the residential schools are so important. The "marks made by children carry truths," says Walsh, and this art specifically acts as "extensions of the children who went through" these atrocities. Art changes the way you think and feel, and changes people's mindsets away from simply "consuming the facts of residential schools," says Walsh.
The future of reconciliation "is about a return of land," she says. "If we normalize this landscape as occupied since time immemorial," says Walsh, there is a foundation of recognizing privilege and systemic colonialism.
At the end of the day, she wants to see a "much more compassionate Canada."
‘Here as reflection’
Chief Rande Cook, a Kwagiulth visual artist and Audain Chair in Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Victoria, also spoke on the panel. "Art has always been a part of me," he notes.
While the residential school in Alert Bay where he grew up was no longer open, for Cook, "growing up and witnessing the after effects of residential schools... art was my escape," he says. Wanting to learn traditional art and carving techniques, "I actively chose to decolonize from the get go" by not going to art school, says Cook.
"My whole entire life has been self-reconciliation," Cook adds. He believes Indigenous people were never boxed in until residential schools. People "never stopped singing... that's what got them through," he says. "I'm here as a reflection of the banning of potlatches," and everything that happened after, Cook says. "I'm that act of reconciliation."
Teaching Indigenous art to non-Indigenous students at the university, "I look at our art form in a strategic way," he says. Cook believes in the importance of leaving something behind as a mark, and that art must be shared with the world.
To him, colonialism is an international issue. We need to "bring ourselves into a future where we are all one," he says.
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