TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson moderates a panel of cultural provocateurs speaking on Art & Reconciliation.
“It’s time for the rest of Canada to do the heavy lifting” ~ I Lost My Talk composer John Estacio
On Thursday, January 14 the National Arts Centre hosted a panel discussion on ART & RECONCILIATION prior to the opening night of I Lost My Talk, a performance inspired by the poetry of Mi’kmaq elder and poet Rita Joe. The response to this event was tremendous. Hundreds of people swelled up the stairs from the lobby where the 100 Years of Loss exhibit on the impact of Residential Schools is installed until the end of this week. The event also drew political support. In attendance was the Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, the Governor General’s wife Sharon Johnston, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde and former Prime Minister The Right Honourable Joe Clark. I Lost My Talk was a commission by Clark’s family for his 75th birthday. A moving and lovely gift that we all got a chance to participate in and benefit from.
Canadian writer Joseph Boyden speaks on his commission to write the libretto for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star.
It’s encouraging to see a National cultural institution take such a leadership role in implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. It’s also poignantly symbolic to have a National cultural institution recognize, in the present moment, a fact that history has tried to obscure. Both the panel and the performance of I Lost My Talk opened with the National Arts Centre acknowledging that “we are on UNCEDED Algonquin territory.”
On the panel, along with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden and John Estacio, the composer for the musical score of I Lost My Talk, was Rachel Maza, “acclaimed Australian theatre director of Jack Charles V The Crown.” I had the opportunity to attend this incredible play that delved into the impact of assimilation policies on Indigenous people in Australia. Over the course of 75 minutes Jack charmed us with his beautiful way of presenting his biography – a life full of identity confusion and much loss but also an amazing amount of grace due to Jack’s own incredible resilience. I left with many mixed emotions. Find out more about the play…
Jack Charles receives a standing ovation at the closing of his performance of Jack Charles V The Crown at the NAC.
Going Home Star opens this week in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre.
“Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation is the brilliant result of a star-studded collaboration between the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden, acclaimed choreographer Mark Godden, and renowned Canadian composer Christos Hatzis. Going Home Star was ten years in the making, first envisioned by late Cree elder/activist Mary Richard and RWB Artistic Director André Lewis. Searing and sensitive, this powerfully emotional classical ballet is the deeply resonant love story of Annie and Gordon, a pair of contemporary Aboriginal young people coming to terms with a souldestroying past. Hatzis’s multi-layered score incorporates music by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq (winner of the 2014 Polaris Music Prize), Steve Wood, and the Northern Cree Singers.” Read more…
The creative team and performers of Going Home Star speak at the NAC about the ballet during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering in May/June 2015
Also, this weekend at the NAC is Innu author, composer and singer Florent Vollant performing on Saturday, January 30.
“born in Labrador in 1959 and grew up on a reserve named Maliotenam, east of Sept-Îles. He began his musical career in the middle of the 80s and helped to create the Festival Innu Nikamu, which, since its founding, has brought together many musicians and singers from various Amerindian nations.”read more…
Evergreen Cityworks campaign gets Canada talking about city building.
Since April a dialogue on city building has been quickly connecting cities across the nation. The goal, utilizing data collected from round tables hosted in urban centres, is to “build a vision and action plan to make Canadian cities healthy and exciting places to live, work and play.” I got involved because I believe in the power of gathering in small circles. When we come together with a spirit of openness ready to dream about a different kind of future anything becomes possible.
Often the discussion of city building revolves around practical issues like infrastructure and public transportation. My goal, in convening several intimate round table conversations in Ottawa for the #WeAreCities campaign, was to expand the discussion to consider what it means to build cities that offer respectful, safe and celebratory places for everyone.
“Create a big vision for your city and tell us about it” was one of the exercises each group was given. The round table at Carleton University Art Gallery was stacked with PhD students from Cultural Mediations all working in the space of decolonization / indigenization so naturally the visions encompassed ways to nurture a vibrant Indigenous presence in Ottawa. This city has a large urban Aboriginal community and for many the presence of First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders gathering in Ottawa to work in law, policy, and culture gives the city a richer dimension. The round table also included PhD student Kanatase Horn (PhD Candidate in Legal Studies) along with Wahsontiio Cross (PhD Candidate in Cultural Mediations). Their vision was to have Ottawa renamed by the Algonquin people from this area. Here Kanatase reflects further on what that vision could mean.
Change the name change the relationship
“Decolonizing and Indigenizing urban spaces is often met with a certain amount of resistance. In a country that has a difficult time balancing individual rights while simultaneously ‘celebrating’ pluralism, it’s to be expected. The atmosphere is tense to say the least. However, this tension should not prevent us from exploring the possibility of decolonizing urban spaces, since considering Canada’s history of colonization, as well as ongoing settler colonial processes of assimilation and erasure, Canada needs to change. Urban spaces provide fundamental locations for that change.
When Indigenous people move to urban areas from their home communities, they usually face economic and social oppression, racism, and increased exposure to police, as well as the criminal justice system as a whole. Rather than the consequence of individual choices however, such negative experiences should be understood as the result of larger structural realities anchored in settler colonialism. And this is why Decolonizing and Indigenizing the urban space, especially in the Nation’s Capital, is important to support and be a part of if you desire to live in a just society for all.
Simply put, these types of actions can initiate the changes necessary to turn Canada from a settler colonial society into a genuine post-colonial nation. It should not, however, be seen as a project that is inherently political. Instead, it should be seen as a project that takes place at every level of society, where there is room and space for everyone to participate. One example of an action with deep symbolic meaning would be the changing of the name of the city of Ottawa to an Algonquin word chosen by the Algonquin people from the unceded territory that Ottawa is located on. Such an action could initiate the kind of social and cultural changes that would make urban spaces more welcoming spaces for Indigenous people as well as Non-Indigenous people since the act of Decolonizing and Indigenizing does not mean prioritizing Indigenous people over others. These types of actions mean placing priority on relationships with each other and the land.
Decolonizing and Indigenizing urban spaces like Ottawa means recognizing that we exist on the land together – land that is the traditional territory of the Algonquin people. While changing the name would be a symbolic gesture, its potential for social and cultural transformation in the hearts and minds of citizens is huge! It would mean going back and trying to adjust our lives so that it reflects the vision that Indigenous people held when they invited settlers to live on their lands with them. This is not about producing exclusions or apartheid like living conditions. Rather, it means living on the land, even in an urban space, in such a way that our traditional hosts would deem appropriate and respectful to all of those around us.”
Is this even possible?
Name changing may seem like a complicated, seemingly impossible task but my co-facilitator Manjit Basi of Citizens Academy was quick to point that India went through it’s own process of name changing that started early in the pre-colonial era after independence. In 1956 the state of Travancore-Cochin was changed to Kerala and then more recently Bombay to Mumbai (1995), Calcutta to Kolkata (2001) and Mysore to Mysuru (2014) proving it can be done without unravelling a country.
There is no reason that we can’t do the same and the participants of this We Are Cities’ round table have proposed an action that could create a lasting legacy that speaks to reconciliation.
Creative Time presents “A Subtlety” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I make a scattered dash to get to the Kara Walker exhibit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hot day, with an intense late-spring / almost-summer sun blasting me and the pavement I am pounding. I get lost then located. I turn the corner to see the longest lineup I have seen for art in sometime.
Kara Walker. A big sign makes it clear this is an event!
“At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”
Once inside the Domino Sugar compound there is a long march into the factory where another blast of heat hits you. This time it’s combined with a sweet smell.
The immediate feeling is of being overwhelmed. The scene is fantastic! Honey coloured light dappling a cement floor textured by the wear and tear of once busy workers. More texture on the rusted out walls that offer a palette of cobalt blues and deep muscovado browns. Beyond the crowds, at the far end of the factory, this gorgeous, towering, powder-white statue rises up – intense with her omnipresent stare.
But then your eyes adjust to the dim warehouse light and your nose notices that the once inviting smell has turned into a toxic sweetness. The scent becomes more rank as you move closer to the sugar sphinx. It mixes with dust and hot human sweat. It doesn’t smell good and the scene that at first seemed stunning loses its charm as you notice you are surrounded by statues of small children, barefooted and barely clothed, standing so they reach slightly above the level of your heart. They each hold a gathering basket. Although they are fixed in their location they seem to multiply and move because as groups of sightseers wander off another child emerges through the dusty light.
It is these children that become the most haunting part of this installation. Constructed from resin and covered in molasses, their bodies leak onto the concrete floor leaving a puddle of black gummy moisture that traps your feet. The dark slick reflects back the faces of the meandering masses that approach the bodies like they are curios.
They are fascinating. Their technical production makes them close to life-like despite the fact that their heads loom too large on their spindly frames. Some even seem to smile but you can’t be sure if it is the case because their face may have shifted as the molasses melts.
The crowd bends to see them face to face, the crowd comes close to touching, but only the little ones, without socialized inhibition, reach out. As they do their parents snap photos, telling them to hold still and smile.
What becomes even more curious then the sugar statues is how the crowd reacts. Met with the visual reminder of the slave trade people pose with the sugar babies flashing a tourist’s grin.
When confronted with the sweetness of life gone sour what should be our appropriate response?
I wonder why they smile in a scene that, if you pause for a moment to think of the reasons Kara Walker’s sugar mammy and molasses children have been constructed in this space, is distressing. At the edge of the East River, for over 150 years, the Domino Sugar building was used as a processing plant for the imported cane that came to America from the colonies. Blood sugar – a term used to demonstrate how the sugar trade was bound to the slave trade yet the crowds want to be memorialized with the look of pleasure on their face.
It’s not that the crowds seem unsympathetic to the histories Kara references. Racially mixed (albeit predominately white), I am sure the majority are aware of what they are witnessing.
So how do we commemorate our experiences with art that is meant to be challenging? As we ram head on into the digital (sur)realities of the 21st Century have we stopped to think about our decorum when we bear witness to problematic subject matter? Have we been educated on how to be critical; have we considered how to be respectful?
Historically cameras were restricted in art spaces but now, often, they are allowed. With a population that is snap happy and needing to share they were there what does this mean for the way we now interact with art?
Are we in the actual moment or does the camera mitigate us from needing to be fully present in those times when we are confronted with difficult realities, realities that may even challenge our lifestyle choices?
We are primed from a small age how to interact with a camera. Like the parents instructing their curious kids, we are told to ‘smile’. Should there be times when we ask ourselves, is our documentation appropriate? Could there be a better way for us to use this ubiquitous technology we have access to?
Upon entering the exhibit a sign reads “Please do not touch the artwork but do share pictures on social media” and the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino supplied.
As I write, the trending content for this tag is Jay-Z, Beyoncé and their baby daughter Blue. They have been spotted on a Father’s Day outing to the Brooklyn location.
Besides Beyoncé (and the occasional off-colour comment alluding to the Sphinx’s sexualized nudity), the tweets are mostly of people expressing how impressed they are by the artist’s work but the opportunity for a more expansive discussion, even if only in 140 characters is missed.
People seem willing to participate in the spectacle but are they willing to participate in active change?
This sweet stuff is serious stuff.
Kara Walker’s work is not just a memorial to a past travesty. Everyone’s sweet tooth is still sucking bodies into modern slavery and bonded labour. The syrup that drips from the statues of the children is like a living organism that marks the space in real time. The legacy of the sugar trade is in our present moment. When the Domino Sugar Factory is finally demolished, clearing way for condos, what will have changed?
Social media exposes where we are at culturally. The evidence left behind by hashtags demonstrates that there is much work to be done around how best to digest what we should find distasteful.
Inside our pockets are powerful tools. Technology has given us the means to not only discuss our reactions beyond our immediate circle but also archive them for a future population of new users. We each have the capacity to participate in building extensive and transformational legacies around the art that impacts us.
When the molasses evaporates and powdery dust swept away what remains?
Hopefully an expansive documentation of how people were deeply moved by the work and a record of thoughtful interactions in 140 characters or less.
“Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world—and now even in outer space. Our work is guided by three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.” Read more on Creative Time…
The exhibition continues through until July 6, 2014.
“Midway through Candide, Voltaire’s famously naive protagonist enters Dutch-controlled 18th-century Suriname, where he encounters “a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.”
“Good God!” exclaims Candide, who proceeds to ask the man why he’s in such terrible shape.
“When we work at the sugar-canes,” the man answers, “and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.”
“White sugar has always been for rich people. White sugar has always been guest sugar, company sugar, sugar for public display. Parlor sugar…
…It takes bones to get sugar white. Thousands of pounds of cow bones burned to bone char are used to bleach sugar in processing plants. My Hindu parents, for whom beef was the ultimate taboo, did not know this when they proudly displayed white sugar lumps in their silver sugar bowl…
…Some of us take our sweet dirty. Extracted. Not poured.”
“The overwhelming whiteness of viewers isn’t unique to Walker’s exhibit. There are more than 17,500 museums in the United States that are visited by 850 million people annually, the vast majority of whom are white. Art, particularly when it’s commissioned and it’s covered in important publications like the New York Times, is often seen as the exclusive domain of white folks. Museums, dating back to their modern origins in the 18th century, were usually built by wealthy white patrons and enjoyed by middle and upper class European families. In the American context, they served a specific purpose for opening up and exploring a new continent, according to Ford Bell, head of the American Alliance of Museums who was quoted by NPR in 2008. People of color — their customs, their cultures and, in the infamous case of Sara Baartman, their bodies — were usually the object of those white gazes. But in recent years, as the country’s demographics have shifted in favor of a so-called majority-minority, the art world has made great strides in featuring the work of artists of color. It’s hard to imagine any work by an artist like Walker or Carrie Mae Weems, at the Guggenheim 50 years ago.”
“…Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”
And sadly, she is correct. While few appear to have responded to the work with charges of indecency, some visitors have been unable to stop themselves from mocking and sexualizing the work, uploading photos pretending to cup its breasts or tongue its buttocks. This gross behavior has, understandably, struck a nerve with feminists and racial equality activists alike. Yesha Callahan of The Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.”
“Timeraiser is a volunteer matching fair, a silent art auction, and a night out on the town. The big Timeraiser twist is rather than bid money on artwork, participants bid volunteer hours.
Throughout the evening, participants meet with various non-profit organizations in the room to find available volunteer opportunities that meet their needs. Once matches are made, the bidding can begin. Winning bidders have 12 months to complete their pledge in order to bring the artwork home as a reminder of their goodwill”