In my upcoming report on the arts of the Yukon (Autumn/Fall Issue, Art North, September 2019), I wrote: “During my last residencies in Svalbard, where no Indigenous peoples ever lived, I felt liberated from the obligations of a Eurasian-descended settler. This time, my first visit to the Canadian North, I was aware of participating anew in Canada’s settlement. This all to hold present an awareness of the problematic history of exploitation in Canada, while I mull about romantic ideals of the north and the particular ideologies of untouched hinterland that have been so effectively mythologized in the country by national identity campaigns and the endlessly sublime paintings of the Group of Seven.”
I recently spent a long weekend in the easternmost Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, on assignment for Art North to prepare a report about the 2nd Bonavista Biennale (August 17 – September 15th, 2019). The Biennale, “an exhibition of contemporary artwork by Indigenous, Canadian and International artists, situated in outport communities along the rugged North Atlantic coastline,” ambitiously presents works by over twenty artists responding to twenty-one unique sites around the coast. It is an expansive program that deals with a plurality of histories and identities within the context of Newfoundland’s strategic location, historically, on the easternmost edge of the continent, and its continuing economic recovery after the collapse of the cod fishery in the last half of the twentieth century. I drove over 150 scenic kilometres to visit the sites while continuing to chew on these questions of the history of Canadian settlement.
Bonavista is known as the site of John Cabot’s landing in North America. He was commissioned by King Henry VII of England. The Newfoundland and Labrador official web page foregrounds, in big bold letters, the phrase “Where John Cabot first discovered North America in 1497.”
We all know this is not true. Right? We all know, by now, that this mythology is an act of disappearing all the people who were already living here for millennia, right? It’s important that the reader, now, understand that the official government stories continue to perpetuate such lies, just one of many along with injustices of displacement, cultural genocide, police brutality, murder, and dozens of northern communities experiencing ongoing HIV and other health crises, including Indigenous children killing themselves!... and no clean drinking water in many northern communities… right now.
This is the context
Since earlier this year when I began to work with Art North as a Contributing Editor (North America), I have been very conscious of having a platform through which I could create exposure for Canadian artists. I have not set out to write art reviews, but to synthesise my experiences of the places I am writing about, for an International readership, in service of Canadian arts communities, events, and experiences.
These days, this necessarily entails not ignoring the powerful groundswell in the visibility and cultural activities of Indigenous contemporary art and artists over the past several years. It also entails developing a willingness to write about topics I am not particularly trained in or feel confident about discussing on a public platform; in other words, a willingness towards the risk-taking required of conciliatory discourse.
Three moments punctuate this groundswell. Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 saw a huge influx of federal and provincial funding to support Indigenous arts in Canada. 2015 saw the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s multi-year inquiry into the impacts of the residential schools program that operated for decades in Canada, through which 150,000 children, or more, were taken from their families and Christianised in a federal campaign to eradicate Indigenous cultures. Finally, the TRC published its Calls to Action, aimed to begin to redress the residential school program legacy, and advance reconciliation.
The Calls to Action are addressed to government, education, and church institutions, that is to say, the institutions of both police and state ideological practices, if I can use such familiar language. The Calls are clear and specific, and those of us in the Canadian art world who are involved with communities and institutions not addressed are variously trying to do the work of figuring out how to respond as well.
As a professional artist with an independent practice and career, I care about building trust with colleagues who are Indigenous.
As the Chair of the board of directors for a not-for-profit, government-funded, artist-run-centre, I am conscious and cautious about how to help lead our organisation around honest and respectful practices that do not sum up to checking a requisite box for the purpose of grant acquisition. We are tackling these goals, learning as we go how to be a good partner to local organisations devoted to Indigenous arts, when we could so easily not try, or make mistakes that could have far-reaching consequences for individuals and arts organisations across the country.
As a university Professor with a full-time post at a Canadian university with a campus ‘Indigenization’ strategic plan, I am encouraged to be mindful of the needs of Indigenous students on campus. The strategic plan goals are directed towards governance, hiring, community engagement, research, and student support practices. Yet, each time I re-read the document I find it difficult to find clear guidance as a teacher of visual and media arts.
I care about the historical and current injustices inflicted on Indigenous peoples and other minority communities. I am also smart enough to be able to sometimes recognise or learn about some of the problems of responses, whether made in earnest, or by rote, whether they be paying lip service or as a means of virtue signalling.
Government, educational, arts, and cultural communities in Canada have for a few years now taken up the practice of preceding opening remarks at public events and meetings with what is known as a Land Acknowledgement — a verbal declaration of recognition of the first peoples in these places, including naming these peoples and places. Mixed feelings (and here) about land acknowledgements prevail.
On the one hand, it is too easy to pay lip service through a twenty-second statement than to actually do social justice work. On the other hand, land acknowledgments can be an important first step in generating insight into where Canada came from, and what it has displaced. I appreciate these as an opportunity to, at the very least, for the first time in my life, hear and learn the names of peoples and places that I ought to have learned in primary school.
For those of us who care about human justice, for those of us in Canada willing to call ourselves 'Settlers'—this is a hotly political term right now—the hard work is about finding ways to acknowledge, to recognise, to make room for, to de-colonize or to reconcile, without telling stories that are not ours to tell; without relying so heavily on oppressed peoples to be educators; to be willing to learn how to have and grow to lead these conversations; and to learn from the mistakes we are sure to make in the process.
For my Winter Issue report about the Bonavista Biennale I will try to suss out the vital seriousness and importance of some of the artists’ works and the co-curators’ successes in juxtaposing challenging art and ideas that can be generative of important dialogues across identities, practices, histories, and stories.
But right now I am diverted by the failures of the programmed panel discussion held during the opening weekend of the Biennale. I am not sure I have the fortitude, or the skill, or the humility, or the generosity to write effectively about this.
The panel, entitled Intersections, was devised as a discussion of Newfoundland’s connectivity to the global world. It seemed clear to me that the discussion would not be a light one, given the locale and nature of the practices of the artist panelists.
Mi’kmaq visual artist Jordon Bennett uses “painting, sculpture, video, installation and sound to explore land, language, the act of visiting, familial histories, and challenging colonial perceptions of indigenous histories and presence…” Camille Turner’s bio describes her as “…an explorer of race, space, home and belonging.” The framework for her multimedia art installations is the Afronautic Research lab, “a reading room in which participants encounter buried histories.” For her Biennale work, Turner focused her attention on the nineteen slave ships that were built in Newfoundland in the late eighteenth century.
The panel moderator was David Liss, the stylish, partying, sometimes golden boy curator of the Toronto art scene. He is white, male, and middle-aged, which I note if only to highlight just how effectively he managed to reinforce the stereotypes and accusations often made against people who fit this description. In Bonavista Liss embodied a critique recently levelled at him by Momus founder Sky Goodden in her review of the grand re-opening exhibition at MoCA Toronto, where Liss has been long-time Director and/or Curator. When describing his approach to “hot-button political subjects,” Goodden describes Liss as doing so “with little regard for how these subjects might coalesce.”
There was a moment early in Liss’s opening remarks when the panel felt doomed. Reading from prepared notes, it became clear he had not learned (or tried to learn) how to pronounce Ktaqmkuk – the Mi’kmaq word for the place called Newfoundland. This became a spectacle of call-and-response as Bennett interjected with the correct pronunciation. For what it is worth, it took me two minutes to find a reliable source for Mi’kmaq place names, with translations and phonetic pronunciations, here.
We’ve seen the articles about how to be good allies on our social media pages (please do an Internet search for these, there are just too many to cite). These offer a starting point for those of us who want to try: Listen. Believe. Manage white guilt. Recognise personal biases and work against them. Speak up when people behave badly. Stop expecting the oppressed to shoulder the constant burden of having to be educators.
At the Bonavista Biennale panel discussion, I think all the mistakes were made: mistakes made by virtue of being human and feeling things deeply; mistakes by people who just don’t understand, as well as mistakes by people who are earnestly, though slowly, learning how to have these conversations.
I’m treading cautiously, here. In the past days I’ve had conversations with several colleagues who also attended the panel and become aware of just how varied the experiences and perceptions have been of the same event.
the discussion of local business practices with the third panelist (a white entrepreneur in Bonavista building a cosmetics company using local and natural products) seemed insensitive in the context of how past practices of exploration and economic development included slavery, human displacement, and cultural loss;
the moderator’s inability to direct the discussion in a sensitive and savvy manner, with no awareness or preparation made to be able to synthesise the multiple viewpoints of the panelists within the context of the panel theme (Intersections);
the moderator’s taking safety in having very long exchanges about entrepreneurialism with the only white panelist (who was thrown so unfairly into a dragon’s den) to the exclusion of the Indigenous and Black panelists, who, as both artists and small-business operators, could also speak to entrepreneurialism;
the virtue signaling of some audience members (I had NO idea, thank you for teaching me!, or statements to the effect of not all white people);
the explicit demand of one attendee that the minority artists should educate us white people (groans, hollers of ‘no!’, tears, shame and embarrassment), in spite of the fact that in his remarks Bennett had already expressed a desire to see a future where he isn’t expected to educate, but can, rather, have conversations;
my own mistake in expressing my difficulty in listening to the local panelist say he “wants to make products that people want to buy” in light of the fact that, you know, people were once products that people wanted to buy… and then my asking the Indigenous and Black panelists to respond instead of charging the moderator with stepping up to address the nuances and complexities of the subject, in context;
the emotional call-and-response between one of the exhibiting artists not on the panel and the attendees, of the pronunciation of Ktaqmkuk;
the point where some of the panelists explicitly refused to respond to some questions (which has been widely interpreted as either grandstanding, shock, or a self-aware and sophisticated refusal to speak to a proverbial brick wall)
the heartfelt but too-late attempt by co-curator Matthew Hills to provide some context and demand some respect and sensitivity.
the decades-long practiced and even-tempered remarks by one of the few people in the room who has devoted his life to the study of the history of the “experiences and fate of the African diaspora”.
While some expressed the idea that these should have been two separate panels: one that might address regional economic development in the decades-long aftermath of the collapse of the cod fishery in Newfoundland; and one that might address the themes of the history of European Colonial expansion and its legacies, I disagree. These conversations must come together.
We, all of us, cannot remain safely in protective bubbles where our views are merely confirmed. Some felt that this was the wrong place and wrong time to discuss such issues, but isn’t this exactly the right time and place? People, all of us, need to learn how to listen harder, believe more, check ourselves and our egos, and learn from our missteps when we do fuck up…. And we will fuck up.
Possibly the biggest mistake made was in the curators’ organising of the panel: David Liss was not a capable moderator, and they — as curatorial professionals and colleagues who are, clearly, committed to doing the work of social justice within the framework of their roles as leaders in Canadian art communities — they might have anticipated the potential risks and vulnerabilities that could arise given the panel theme and the choice of panelists. I think that this mistake was borne out of a naive hope or imagination that everyone is doing the work of social justice, and in the same ways… a naivete I suppose I share, from the safety of my own protective bubble of like-minded people (or, of people who I think are like-minded).
Though many were hurt by this experience, this was a valuable mistake to have made; it offers important lessons with which to move forward. I regret that the panel was shut down when it was: maybe one day we will be able to collectively take a break and some deep breaths and re-convene after such breakdowns in ways that can feel more positively productive.