Creating a future

Karolina Bialkowska and Tomas Jonsson


panel 5

The fifth panel of the O k’inādās residency featured presentations by Charles Campbell, Beth LaPensee, Jackson Two Bears, Srimoyee Mitra and Michelle Lavallee. For this panel a new structure was suggested. Circling back to the guiding precept of O’kinādās of walking on the land, the organizers suggested that instead of providing questions, the conversation would start with artists generating questions to ask of each other.

The panelists adapted this form to a conversational orbit exploring themes of the land, body, within and beyond the residency.  A broad general question was proposed: what role do we play in creating a future, and what are the expectations in moving things forward, for selves, audiences, and others?

Charles Campbell began by thinking of his work in relation to the context of Jamaica, where he first started working independently as an artist. Jamaica is a place where it is not easy to hold binaries, black/white, colonial/non-colonial subjectivities. It is also a place where governing structures are maintained by the people who were disadvantaged by them. For him this is a rich place to think through power relations, agency, complicity within a system; how you can impact change and how it is difficult.

Through his work he bounces back and forth between past and present, and projects into possible futures. Understanding possibilities that are created in a moment for a different future, and how these possibilities go awry, collapsing into a sameness.

This is explored through John Canoe, a performed character situated in the moment of emancipation in Jamaica, a period of incredible possibility. This emancipatory moment wasn’t realized but this figure, knowing what could have been, comes to witness what is.

Beth LaPensee is developing games that are representative and made out of Indigenous knowledges. Currently, she is developing a game “ThunderBird Strike.”  a side scrolling shooter, where the titular bird strikes down an assortment of mining trucks. From a commercial standpoint the game is impossible to release outside of the realm of art because of one important detail: you always win.  An imaginary where the gamer always wins does not fit into the colonial capitalist gaming industry.

Beth is interested in stories that dismantle a system, working on projects involving stories of her family, passing these on.  Yet she is always aware of the types of knowledge not safe to share outside. Her anti-colonial approach is to respect the needs of community, unique needs, to protect delicate knowledge.

One year ago, Jackson Two Bears accidentally became a documentary film maker. He was approached by Mohawk poet Janet Rogers to work on a history of indigenous radio. Jackson recalled the importance of CKRZ on his home territory of Oshweken. The radio show was a connection back to heritage, radio waves, to hear voices on land.  While there, they visited Pauline Johnson’s house. Pauline left words and poetry and territory.  The moment profoundly changed his life and practice. Stories written on land were connected back to the ideas in the book God is Red – the differences between western cosmology and tribal spirituality, time as chronological vs space based, dimensional versus spatial.

While here, he has been getting up at 4 in morning, a performance to receive words on land, stories, enact gestures for the sun, welcome words. At first no words came, and he realized what he was really doing was collecting songs of the birds and wind. Using a drum he recorded these songs of the landscape, reflecting about memory and place, asking about what it means to be ‘here’ on Syilx territory, in a specific location, to acknowledge the deeper importance of respect, paying attention.

Srimoyee Mitra began by tracing her journey, from a supportive middle class family living in Mumbai, and coming to the present moment, where she is locating her position and herself as she lives and works on Indigenous lands.

At a young age, she enjoyed hearing stories of how her mother participated in civil disobedience acts, developing an ideal picture of what a freedom struggle would be, yet her mother always seemed unreconciled about this time in her life.

In 1991, India experienced economic liberalization and saw into windows of what it might mean to live in the ‘first world.’. Riots, violence, bloodshed, rape, and turmoil unleashed, and for the first time, stories of what took place during partition.  Those stories were never publicly acknowledged within the subcontinent –stories of civil war, trauma. These stories are necessary to make visible so we can ask questions as to why these violences continue to take place, continue to divide families and communities, 6-7 decades later.

When she moved to Canada as an international student and adapted to first world comforts, friends, daily life experiences, she also became acutely aware of racism and sexism. It became clear that the rhetoric of free-flowing borders, optimism, globalization did not hold, exist, for 3rd world women – existing structures of racism sexism and discrimination continues to divide, alienate. Inform world view. She asks how to develop and understand living and working in this world.

Through her curatorial practice, she thinks through questions of whether indigenous people and immigrants can make frameworks that transcend the oppressor, that allow fluency in each other’s histories.

In a project initiated in 2011 at the Art Gallery of Windsor she began exploring border cultures – what does it mean to be a border city, and how this impacts contemporary culture. The resulting exhibition was a platform to work out these complicated relationships from indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives.

As curator at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, Michelle Lavallee considers ways exhibitions and space can be used for storytelling, knowledge sharing, and community action.  Exhibition development can be used in response to, protest against, and education of, dangerous colonial histories. She works with a goal to change what people know of as ‘the facts’; how policies have been disastrous and how integral to history, economics, politics, and culture the native peoples of this land have been and always will be. Conversations that occur within the gallery suggest that art is a way to talk about difficult issues with empathy; not to shame viewers, but to get people on board.   Indigenous curators can work to point towards what needs to be done, and can think of museums as vehicles for shared dialogue versus a one-dimensional narration by museum experts.

She spoke of the importance of taking time, of not rushing into a new community. What is needed is an understanding of time, commitment that is reciprocal.  It is important to consider what institutions are giving to community – as vehicles for sharing knowledge, for creating trust.


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