An Interview with Tania Willard

Tomas Jonsson

tania willard

I had the opportunity to speak to Tania Willard regarding her time at the O k’inādās residency, and her new work and research, which was presented at a Bush Gallery screening at the end of the residency.

Tomas: I thought we could start by getting your reflections on the residency, as it’s unfolded so far for you.

Tania: For me I’m always happy to have a chance to come into these residencies. I find, because I have to travel to get to where there’s large congregations of artists or curators or projects, or infrastructures and resources, It’s always such a pleasure to have this kind of energy, and people coming together in proximity to where I can access, it’s always amazing.  I’m definitely a slow starter in the residency, because I can only commit a few days, I can’t stay the whole time, I have some other projects on the go, the least of which is finishing my house, dry-walling, doing things like that.  I have had a delay in this project, because I had lost the film I was supposed to be working with. The film itself has this habit of disappearing, but I found it just the other day, and I was able to access a projector here to work with. It’s just fantastic, because what would take me a while to decide ‘can I buy a projector? If I do can I return it after? Should I invest in one?” this conversation doesn’t have to happen, I can just focus on the project.

Tomas: What is the video?

Tania: The video is a silent film from 1928, it’s from a series of films that Harlan Ingersol Smith, an anthropologist who worked for the what was then the Canadian Museum of History, now the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and before that the Canadian Museum of Man, and before that the Mines Museum. He was trained by Franz Boaz as an anthropologist and he worked in the North Pacific Jessop exhibition in the late 1890s. This was an anthropological and ethnographic survey coming in through the coast and up into the interior of BC. He had this interesting background. He worked up in my territory at that period, and he took a series of plaster life casts of people, which were used in ethnographic study. He also did some very inconsiderate work in terms of taking burial artifacts and bones that were shared with museums.  And then he took a position in the museum and later on in the 1920s he made a series of films, often revisiting the sites he went back to, in the Jessop exhibition, and he goes back and develops this series of educational films that are screened at his education lectures to children, at the museum. They’re silent films, hand titled by him, interestingly. The one I’m working on is the Shuswap Indians of West British Columbia. There’s about 10 of them, and they’re very fraught and problematic, but represent the very early ethnographic film work in BC.  What I’m interested in is the very moment that they are happening.  There’s this amazing photo that I’m going to get permission to show as part of the project, of one of the children’s lectures, which were very popular. They’d be screened to these auditoriums full of kids. But of course in the late 1920s, that’s when a law was passed that made it mandatory for native kids to go to residential school. So you have this very strange dynamic, where these wildly popular films which are othering and distancing indigenous children, are shown to other children, and yet the very kinds of cultural elements in the films that are enacted are actually punishable and erasable by residential school.

Harland also authored books like The Prehistoric Canadian Art where he makes the case for Native design in nation building, so he was a major kind of nationalist in terms of a time when people were trying to build identity and Canadian institutions. I’m looking at his own history, in doing that I was trying to source some of the original plaster casts, because I find them quite curious. I happened upon a different set of plaster casts, that represent interior chiefs, petitioning for land rights in 1916, and they were all life cast and photographed when they visited Ottawa. They went to petition and go to Parliament, but the centre block of Parliament had burnt, so it was actually relocated to the museum area.

I’m looking at all this research and distilling it by looking at the raw materials of plaster, being selenite crystals, and thinking about the way the film is being shown, and absorbed. I’m looking at several documentary images. One is of the children in the auditorium, all facing the screening. The other image is of residential school children being loaded into the back of a pick-up to be taken to school.  The other is of selenite crystals in a Roman Catholic church, called St Sabina in Rome. Selenite is a gypsum crystal, gypsum being the main ingredient in plaster. The windows in that church are actually made of selenite.  It’s a transparent type of gypsum which is a ubiquitous material, in terms of the gallery, in the walls of that kind of space. So I’m looking at the raw materials, as a research lens, and the dynamic of what was happening with nation building, with indigenous identities, who’s consuming that.  And in some way attempting to gel it all by August 7 (laughs).

It’s part of a larger project, my piece in a project called #callresponse which Tara Hogue and Maria Hupfeld are working on along with myself, and we’re curating several other artists, Ursula Johnson, Christi Belcourt and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathroy, who are all artists who are responding to ideas of… reconciliation is a problematic term for me, but we use it because we have this language where we know what we are talking about. Our project that looks at that, and looks at how native women artists in particular are navigating some of those ideas. The project will be at Grunt Gallery in October. 

Tomas: I’m also thinking of the work that you had at Presentation House [Nanitch: Early Photographs of British Columbia from the Langmann Collection], looking at that same era, and the material archive.  I wonder if there are some parallels to this work?

Tania: For sure, that was such a wild project to work on, it was actually really challenging at times.  It paralleled a lot of the research I was interested in, and doing at the time.  We didn’t have any Jessop expedition material, but exactly, material from that time. The imaging of Indian graveyards and Indian burials were very prevalent in that period. I had been interested in that and I had pulled all that out, and I got quite a reaction from the institution, who were concerned about how I was using the material. All I did was intuitively find the material, and there was some consideration of protocol and community consultation. These images have been on the antiques market for I don’t know how long. I don’t know who bought and sold them, I don’t know how they came into this collection. The consultation should have happened in the 1890s (laughing). There’s only so much I can do in 2016. 

I’m really drawn to understanding why we are at the point we are. And what kind of forces have been in play, and personalities and image making and shaping.

Tomas: I think that was touched on a bit at yesterday’s panel, both Oliva [Whetung] and Mark [Igloliorte] mentioned this idea of radical empathy, if we could go back could another relationship have been possible? And what would that have looked like?  I don’t know if it is in a sense an attempt to imagine that relationship? Or to realign it?

Tania: Yeah, I don’t know myself, either. I grew up in a time when you go to the museum and its mostly settler history that you see, and in my lifetime there’s been a difference.  Many people have worked to make sure that indigenous story, narrative, history, is in some ways present within that, to varying degrees of success. The institution still has this way of presenting itself but I’m interested in having a voice or locating other ways of seeing that time period. What photography, documentary or institutional frameworks do is cements things; ‘this is how it was’, and you can dress up in the same hat, pretend you’re in that time. In many ways it’s very difficult to distill a different dynamic time in that moment, and I’m always trying to have some understanding of how that’s effecting us. 

The film has become an entryway to all these other points, largely revolved around Harland Smith’s book, and tied to anthropological and enthnographic interest.  I work Peter Morin and Gabe Hill in the collective New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society. It’s directly drawing from the pre-existing charitable organization The Indian Art and Welfare Society. Smith similarly argued for Native forms of Art and design and ways to address not only of nation building, identity building for Canada, but also as an avenue for appreciation. They literally meant welfare in terms of building economies for native people. It’s all couched in these difficult entanglements, it’s all very paternalistic; ‘we’re going to help you, and shape native art into something that is somehow more valuable than it already is in your community’. My work is always about finding a way to understand that.

The films aren’t that well known.  Why I say that the film has a habit of appearing and disappearing, is that the actual original, or one of the originals, was lost in the 1967 NFB offsite storage fire, so it’s gone, along with a number other materials. That’s why I think about documentary, that period, that time is interesting to me. I do a series of sun prints as part of Bush Gallery, thinking about natural kinds of systems and ways, the project is called Only Available Light, because I think about the light that Smith captured in that moment, and everything else that is simultaneously affected by that moment. Now, what had been fixed onto that film is gone now, that light’s not there now, but in some way, in this process of looking through these crystals and reimagining the film and thinking about the relationships. The other part of the project is to add sound in some way, because they’re silent films. It becomes about that reimaging.

It’s interesting, because you can look to many different artists and critical thinkers and curators looking at ethnographic film, there’s discussion of Nanook of the North, or Edward Curtis’ film, Land of the War Canoes. There’s something I’m looking at in Smith’s work; his films were not overly romanticized, they’re done in this different kind of way. When I had access to the museum, I copied all of his notes, and he had constructed the edits on paper. He had a formula, looking at landscape and nature, and then certain kinds of things like clothing, religion. I just received an article today that was from a group of two writers who wrote about the films, his educational series for children.  He does focus quite a bit on children, native children, in his silent films. But I consider this treatment, and then who gets to see the final film, who gets to be in that auditorium? it’s definitely not those that are in the film.

Tomas: What’s the reaction been to this work? With the Langmann exhibition, how have the discussions gone? I thought that storymancy approach was an interesting way to have a discussion around, opening that up a bit.

Tania: The storymancy approach is something that Peter and I did at the Bush Gallery site, so there are these threads that tie all the work together.  The use of crystals is kind of a divining technique, like storymancy is.  The crystals are selenite, being the raw material of gypsum, but it has some interesting properties as well, one being new age, it’s supposed to give clarity of thought, and a new understanding, also, I don’t know if you’ve seen those crystal caves in Mexico, those are all gypsum crystals.  Plaster also has exothermic qualities, so it heats up and will actually dissolve in hot water it’s a really interesting material. And so ‘benign’, as we see it in all these walls around us…

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