Anishinaabe art-making as falling in love: Reflections on artistic programming for urban Indigenous youth
Christie-Peters, Quill. (2017). Anishinaabe art-making as falling in love: Reflections on artistic programming for urban Indigenous youth. (MA Thesis), University of Victoria.
Ahh, Anishinaabe “art.” The soft blanket that has always kept me warm in the city. Tuning the radio to find the channel where my ancestors sing and laugh. Pulling paint across canvas to create beautiful worlds that glimmer in my eye and reside in my heart. Why do I call it art when it is like breathing, when it is like dreaming, when it is like singing and dancing and simply being?
Anishinaabe art is an expansive and limitless dance between self and world, self and ancestors, self and relations. Through art, we are able to weave our communities within our web of creation in accountable and loving ways, building the worlds we want to exist within. Art is both the root of Anishinaabe governance systems and the branches that reach upwards to touch stars, to house our ancestors and to sing into the great beyond. Within this expansive territory of Anishinaabe artistic practice, I carry forward my own personal relationship to art that is embedded within my experiential knowledge as a cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied Anishinaabekwe artist and scholar who grew up away from my homeland. My exploration of Anishinaabe art always emanates from my own body and heart. In the broadest sense, this paper explores my relationship to artistic practice as an Anishinaabekwe attendant to my personal experiences and knowledges. I place this relationship at the heart of my approach to the development of arts-based programming for urban Indigenous youth.
Throughout this paper, I will discuss my community governance project, a component of my Master’s degree in the Indigenous Governance program. My project involved the creation of the Indigenous Youth Residency program at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an arts-based program for urban Indigenous youth that was approached through my Anishinaabekwe understanding of art-making in the context of settler colonialism and decolonization. Using the term urban can mean a lot of things. In the context of this project, I use the term urban to signify that this work was attendant to the diverse and multifaceted relationships that Indigenous youth have to the territory governed by the One Dish One Spoon Treaty in Tkaronto. Too often, urbanity is conveyed as antithetical to Indigeneity thereby erasing Indigenous presence and governance from urban spaces. Cities are Indigenous territories and urban Indigenous experiences are varied. This project sought to deconstruct the notions of urbanity that convey we are less Indigenous if we live in the city, instead working towards a practice of accountability through art- making that simultaneously strengthens relationships to homeland and the territories we reside on. Through my own understanding of Anishinaabe art as a practice defiant to the colonial compartmentalization of Anishinaabe life/art and Anishinaabe body/land, I disrupt our conceptions of the urban Indigenous through a practice of Anishinaabe art- life-body-homeland that makes spaces for realities of colonial displacement and agentive Indigenous mobilities and that foregrounds nation-to-nation relationships in the city.
It is also important for me to situate my work within an institutional context and in particular, within the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), a major art institution/corporation complex that perpetuates colonial myth-making and that forwards legacies of erasure, misrepresentation and exclusion. Developing and implementing the Indigenous Youth Residency program from within this space was no easy task. My identity as an Anishinaabekwe influenced how my labor and love were taken up within the institution. I will thus explore my experience working at the AGO as an Indigenous woman, both in an attempt to hold the institution accountable while also sharing insights that are hopefully useful to other Indigenous peoples doing important and challenging work within hostile institutional spaces. The last chapter of this paper is a stand-alone piece that explores the detailed methodologies and curriculum that were used during the Indigenous Youth Residency that may be of value to Indigenous communities seeking to engage youth through Indigenous artistic methodologies.
Anishinaabe art spills over boundaries. It oozes and overflows the rigid definitions of the gallery, is unreadable in its complexity, is threatening in its relationality, is deviant in the eyes of colonialism. Anishinaabe art denies containment and definition on all fronts and illuminates how these containerizations are a limb of colonial power. This paper honours the un-definability of Anishinaabe art and as such, I am not interested in prescribing characteristics or aesthetics of what Anishinaabe art can or should be. Rather, I am interested in celebrating how Anishinaabe art can overflow colonial boundaries, how Anishinaabe art creates space for individuality and autonomy and how Anishinaabe art is a radical love-filled practice of kinship that traverses nations, body, homeland and ancestors. Anishinaabe art, amidst its complexities and un- definability, is the creation of loving space for all our relations. My Anishinaabe understanding of art does not mean that I teach Anishinaabe art practices or even mutter the words Anishinaabe art but that I speak from where I come from and what I know and allow others to do the same. In this sense, the Indigenous Youth Residency program was not centered on Anishinaabe teachings but was approached and informed from my own relationship to art as an Anishinaabekwe. The participants of the Indigenous Youth Residency program were not all Anishinaabe nor were the different artists, Elders and knowledge keepers I brought in. In my Anishinaabekwe understanding of art, all of our approaches are valid and valuable and a large component of the program entailed the creation of space for the knowledge of others. The participants of the Indigenous Youth Residency program are my greatest teachers. I am so grateful to be a witness to their collective art practice that spilled over the boundaries of the gallery, exploding past boundaries of body and land, intricately weaving us all together in a radical act of love- filled kinship.
5- Year Old Anishinaabekwe: Born and raised in downtown Toronto. My Anishinaabe father, mobile and transient, shows up on our doorstep twice a year if I’m lucky. He’s tall, brown, has long braids and never seems to age. I don’t resent him yet and am still ecstatic when he shows up, content to roam the streets with him selling his art on the corner of Spadina and Bloor. Our world is bacon and eggs, stories of time travel and the people from the stars, moving, always roaming...
My mother is Scottish, English and Irish. When I am 5 years old, she is only 25 years old, the age at which I now write this paper. Even when I am young, I notice how I am chubby and brown and soft and that she is thin and angular and muscular and beautiful. Swiss Chalet for Christmas dinner is one of my favorite memories. Late hours, long hours, she’s always working to make it work.
My Nanny is the fire. English and Irish with red hair and piercing blue eyes. I am always with her. She is the punched-a-cop-in-the-face woman, pull-you-away-from-cartoons-to- smudge-woman, takes-you-to-Santeria-church-every-week-woman, helps-to-raise-my- brothers woman. Grandpa is close too and lives in our basement. Fiercely Scottish, tough to the bone plumber who carries bathtubs on his back. I watch him drill his thumb half- off and not even flinch. He loves me more than anyone ever has, I think. They both immigrated over to Canada when they were in their 20’s. They go to rallies. Mom and Dad met at a rally for Oka at Queen’s Park.
All the while, I am writing, I am drawing. I am alone often- in more ways than one- and I sit in silence and write poetry about time, fragile time. I carry myself away through the pictures and words that build worlds around me.
Throughout this paper, I share with you some details about myself that are normally considered extraneous to academic writing. I am following in the footsteps of Indigenous feminists who have long advocated for self-location as academic practice. As Métis scholar Zoe Todd (2016) reminds me, in order to ethically position myself within the professional, academic and personal spheres I walk through, it is imperative that I invite you to understand who I am and where I come from. Beyond providing important identity markers that situate my knowledge (that I am cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied Anishinaabekwe with Scottish, Irish and English ancestors), I also share moments, fragments and seeming banalities that I feel are significant to my project and to the transmission of knowledge within this paper. This ongoing genealogy not only situates my knowledge, it also serves to honour my family, friends and ancestors as contributors to this project (Hilden & Lee, 2010, p. 58). Further, I have found that literal and didactic writing has failed me in the context of this project. Attempting to write academically about Anishinaabe art can disrupt the relationality inherent to our art processes (Pedri- Spade, 2014, p.75). Throughout this paper, I thus rely on academic, creative and visual modes of knowledge transmission that better encompass the murkiness (brilliance) of Anishinaabe art-life-body-homeland. I employ my own shapeshifting skills that are necessary to disrupt the supposed dichotomies I embody as Anishinaabe/academic, colonizer/colonized, teacher/student and artist/scholar (Hunt, 2014, p.28).
My practice of self-location is rooted in Anishinaabe protocol and when this practice is situated within the academic realm, it is also an act of sovereignty that celebrates my own experiences as valid sources of knowledge. I bring forward experiential knowledge that includes spiritual, body and land-based knowledges that may be inaccessible and unreadable to some readers by virtue of the relational and consent- based nature of these knowledges. I find that visual representations can serve as the best trickster shapeshifters, allowing some viewers access to certain knowledges while also having the ability to completely obscure and guard other knowledges. Importantly, by bringing forward my intimate experiential knowledge, I am celebrating the knowledges that live within my own body. At the heart of my project was the notion that we carry our homelands and the teachings of our ancestors within our bodies. As such, I rely heavily on invisible citations of body, citations of homeland and citations of ancestors and I have rejected the urge to insert academic citations where they did not truly inform my thinking on that matter. During my undergraduate degree, I was taught to insert citations fruitfully (or it wasn’t academic enough) and through disjunction (no relationship to the work was necessary, just so long as the citation works). This paper employs a relational approach to my practice of citations that demands I have a meaningful relationship either to the author or to the body of work I am citing. Further, I employ my own Indigenous feminist citational politic, one that prioritizes the voices of Indigenous women-identified people, two-spirit, trans and non-binary people whose voices are marginalized within academia and within our communities. On this note, this paper was also written to honour these people. My words are guided from and lovingly echoing back to the Indigenous women and two-spirit people who have already given me so much and to the youth I have been so privileged to learn from. These words are for you and many of them will be lost on others.
18-year old Anishinaabekwe: I am on my own. Made it to Vancouver, far from home but that’s how I wanted it to be. I will spend the next 5 years on Musqueam, Tsleil-Wauthuth and Squamish territories, but I will only really start to understand where I am when I am about 21, when I finally build up the courage to walk into the longhouse at UBC. Current Anishinaabekwe raises her hands high to the Musequam, Tsleil-Wauthuth and Squamish peoples for hosting her as an uninvited guest on their beautiful territory and for guiding her to find some of the most important people in her life.
18-year old Anishinaabekwe meets Taylor. In the coming years they will softly guide each other out of abusive relationships and will lean on each other, require one another, soul mates. Finding refuge in one another, they travel in one long thread that will never break. And then comes Olivia, quiet one who teaches me how to always care for others, how to be the unfaltering one, the one who is already a mother in so many ways. These two know me so well that I learn the hardest lessons from them. They even get to see stone cold Anishinaabekwe weep.
21-year old Anishinaabekwe meets Salia, the weaver of people, the weaver of women. She weaves a disparate group of native women together with threads of love and tears and witnessing. We find that so many of us have white mothers and native dads, broken native dads who perhaps could not love us fully and we laugh and celebrate ourselves that despite it all, we are here.
I meet Keisha, gentle strength, quiet strength, something brewing inside of her. When we look at each other we see it all, when we look at each other we see each other’s ancestors. When we look at each other, our ancestors feast together, share stories and plan the futures that are to be birthed from our friendship.
I meet Caolan, the one who perhaps words fail. He is the center and kwe has never had a center. He initiates the heart-breaking process of kwe coming to love herself. He bathes her body with a cool towel on a hot humid evening and cares for every part, holds her when she needs to pause and weep, collects the water and tears that fall from her body, walks so deliberately out to the river under the moonlight and slowly returns the healing water to the river kwe comes from.
Ultimately, my project arises out of an Indigenous feminist methodology that demands I speak from, and give validity to, my own experiential knowledge. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience as a young urban Anishinaabekwe growing up in Toronto and Fergus and decided to directly speak back to this experience. I thus came to my project through a desire to create a program that would have benefited me as a young kwe who heavily relied on artistic expression as a means of interacting with the world but who never got to access this kind of programming. My experience directly set the parameters of my community governance project. I knew that I had to return to the city of Toronto, that I needed to directly engage with urban Indigenous youth and that my means of doing so would be through artistic practice. After multiple recommendations from friends, I approached Wanda Nanibush, Anishinaabekwe force to be reckoned with, curator and community leader. She was moving into an official role at the AGO and decided to negotiate a place for me within the AGO to do my proposed project. It is important that I situate the beginning of my project with the admittance that I did not intend to do this work from within a large institution but rather ended up at the AGO by virtue of my desire to work with the ever-fierce Wanda Nanibush. In fact, as a young Anishinaabekwe growing up in Toronto, the AGO had never been a welcoming place for me and the first time I stepped foot in the building was for this project. Later in this paper I will discuss my institutional navigations and the necessity to resist the cooptation of my work. The AGO did not seek me out. The Indigenous Youth Residency program at the AGO is attributed to the labour of Indigenous women, and right from the outset we claim our labour fiercely and whole-heartedly.
17-year old Anishinaabekwe: Final year of high school in Fergus, Ontario. There is no one else like me here. I float in a sea of white. I talk to my Dad more now, he even comes to visit. Somewhere along the way, perhaps too young, I have had to carry the painful stories he holds. I know every detail about the residential school, about the theft of his humanity, the theft of his capacity to love, robbed of the ability to simply exist in the world fully. Pain from abandonment shifts to rage, a focused rage. This rage has quietly burned inside of me all throughout high school. In grade 9 art class I finish my first full painting of acrylic, airbrush and string. All of these figures erupting out of a swirling center. In grade 10 history I patiently wait to learn about the residential schools, to have my pain carried by others. It never comes, mentioned in a passing sentence. Nothing of the rape I know of, nothing of the loss, nothing of the starvation and mysterious operation scars. I want to yell out, he was only 8 years old! In grade 12 I create the Aboriginal Club, it is mostly one enthusiastic teacher and myself. My Dad comes to visit and we decide to fill in the gaps that grade 10 history hid. We grow stronger from this.
The Indigenous Youth Residency program hired 6 urban Indigenous youth between the ages of 12- 24 to participate in an 8-week residency program that required us to meet twice a week for two hour sessions. 30 people applied for the residency and I interviewed 24 applicants, selecting 6 youth who ended up being in the age range of 13- 21. Each resident was paid $15.00/ hour and I situated the program as an artist residency that included a collaborative final project that was celebrated in Walker Court and that was exhibited afterwards in the community gallery at the AGO. In this sense, the youth who were hired were delighted to announce that they would be doing a paid artist residency at the ever-exclusive AGO. The theme of the residency was urban Indigenous identities and we worked through a relational curriculum.
Broadly, this paper explores the creation of the Indigenous Youth residency program at the Art Gallery of Ontario. To begin, I would like to elaborate and explore my Anishinaabe approach to art-making that celebrates Anishinaabe art-making as governance and as a rebellious force that denies the compartmentalization of Anishinaabe life/art/body/homeland. Secondly, I would like to explore the false boundary between Anishinaabe body and homeland in the context of urbanity and displacement, working towards an Indigenous conception of belonging premised on an expansive notion of kinship that takes into account the agency of our ancestors. I would like to situate all of this work within the institutional context through a discussion of my experience as an Anishinaabekwe seeking to embody these concepts within programming for urban Native youth in a major art institution. Lastly, I will provide a succinct stand-alone exploration of my methodologies and curriculum that I hope will be useful to others. The teachings from this experience make my heart soar. Chii miigwech to my greatest teachers Aysia Grosbeck, Chasity Morrison, Christian Scriver, Deshaun Whyte, Haley Horton and Mai- Lynn Wong-Pitawanakwat. You are the reason I was able to carry on with this challenging work. It makes my heart so full to know that you are our future.
24- year old Anishinaabekwe: It is my first time spending an extended period in my homeland. Treaty 3 territory is so beautiful and I think about tracing my ancestors’ footsteps. It is the summer before I am to start my project at the AGO. We are meeting my father to go wild ricing. Ron always manages to look exactly the same, brown, tall, long braids. But he is not alone, he has come with a woman named Carol. She is brown, small, sturdy, strong. They speak fluent Anishinaabemowin to each other and I am in awe. We spend days sleeping on my grandmother’s floor near mitaanjigamiing. I marvel at the ways Carol disappears for extended periods of time, returning with medicines. She moves through the world like my father. One day she walks into the woods and comes back with a rock. It is a lightning rock and she tells me how special it is and gifts it to me. Carol gave us many gifts.
Months later, weeks into the Indigenous Youth Residency, the youth and I have gathered to make family trees. We know each other well, we are family by this time and we hold no shame. Young kwe doesn’t know her grandmother well but the name Carol escapes her lips, a similar description. I remember Carol telling me she lost her daughter and young kwe has lost her mother. That feeling as if all of your ancestors have been waiting for the punchline and they now chuckle deep into their bellies. I tell her all of the stories, promise to bring them together. At the end of the program, I give young kwe the lightning rock.