On 11 June 2008 I watched the live coverage of the Canadian government’s apology to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples of Canada at the Alternator Gallery for Contemporary Art in Kelowna, Territory of the Syilx Nation, in British Columbia. The atmosphere was charged with emotions and anticipation as I was seated amid national and international Indigenous and non-Indigenous media artists, filmmakers, cultural workers, curators, and policy-makers. That afternoon I felt as though I had witnessed a landmark moment in Canadian history. In particular, the piercing words by the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Beverly Jacobs, stayed with me. As she accepted Prime Minister Harper’s apology, Jacobs responded with a candid question: “What is it that this government is going to do in future to help our people?”1 Jacobs’s frankness elucidated the innate dilemma of the rhetoric of moving on and bridging cultural gaps that surrounded the apology in Canada.2 She held not only the Canadian government, but also the entire polity accountable for the intergenerational losses suffered by the First Peoples. I understood Jacobs’s question as a public examination of the government’s intentions: was the government prepared to go beyond a simplistic model of apology and forgiveness to one where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also set forth a process of transformation that engaged in a fundamental critique of colonialism in Canada?3 I found it curious that the multicultural reality of Canadian society was left out of the apology. Instead it was framed as a simple binary relationship between European settlers (the perpetrators) apologizing and seeking forgiveness for their actions in the past from the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples (the victims). While the mandate of the reconciliation process emphasized the intergenerational trauma experienced by Indian residential school Survivors and their families,4 it minimized the collective responsibility of non-Indigenous people in Canada, whose foundations are also intrinsically linked to the Crown. Thus, by excluding more recent and multiracial immigrant perspectives from the apology, the government situated the need for initiating the truth and reconciliation process simply to deal with its actions in the past. It glossed over the systemic colonial barriers that still limit the scope for developing cross-cultural dialogues and collaborations among Indigenous, non-Indigenous, and immigrant communities and reinforce the disconnections and nonchalant attitudes of the general public.
Back at the Alternator Gallery, the mood was dramatically different. A diverse community of artists, practitioners, scholars, and organizations had all gathered there for a four-day national conference and festival of the Independent Media Arts Alliance. Entitled “On Common Ground,”5 the conference paid tribute to the history of Indigenous media art practices in Canada. The conference showcased the range, diversity, and complexity within contemporary Indigenous media art practices and highlighted the importance of these contributions to contemporary Canadian media and visual art. The panel discussions and social events surrounding the symposium facilitated formal and informal opportunities to learn, discuss, and exchange ideas, strategies, and conversations on issues relevant to media art practice in Canada from an Indigenous framework. The mobilization of cross-cultural perspectives on media art practices fostered mutual respect and empathy. What the government had failed to facilitate institutionally was happening on a small-scale and grassroots level. It reinforced my belief in the potential of contemporary art to bypass the complacency of bureaucracy and established structures of discrimination. The potential of cultural production to innovate, heal, and develop alternate sites of agency and collectivity changed my understanding of its necessity irrevocably. It led me to a profound realization of my intergenerational responsibility as a young artist, writer, and curator. “On Common Ground” imagined a different Canadian society, one in which the fraught and unequal distribution of systemic advantages and disadvantages among the settler, immigrant, and Indigenous communities was examined critically and its implications were reckoned with by a broad audience. As a recent migrant from India, this conference opened my eyes to the complexities and differences of the experiences of colonialism and marginalization experienced between a person of Indigenous backgrounds and myself, even though we shared the same name—“Indian.” It forced me to re-evaluate my role in Canadian society located between dominant Euro-American and Indigenous cultures. Do immigrants perpetuate the brutal legacy of colonialism established by European settlers when we migrate to Canada? Can Indigenous communities and immigrants work towards a framework of decolonization that transforms the social, political, and cultural landscape and empowers us to coexist peacefully along with the dominant cultures with dignity and mutual respect?
South Asians and First Peoples epitomize the complexities of coexistence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada. As two communities that share the same name, their histories and experiences of “Indianness” differ widely. “Indian” is a loaded term in Canada, as it is linked inextricably to the harmful crimes committed by the colonial regime to assimilate and alienate the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canada with the establishment of the Ministry of Indian Affairs, Indian Residential Schools in 1860, and finally the Indian Act in 1876. The systemic socio-economic barriers and intergenerational loss and displacement of cultures, communities, and identities are still pervasive within contemporary Canadian society today. South Asians migrated to Canada since the early twentieth century as British colonial subjects before India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh had emerged as sovereign states. They also bore the consequences of cultural and intergenerational loss, fragmentation, and marginalization in a fundamentally colonial and racist society. Over the years, the immigration policy in Canada has expanded dramatically and is reflected in the multicultural reality of urban centres. According to Statistics Canada, South Asians constitute the largest immigrant group. While the presence of the South Asian demographic has been largely accepted in the mainstream popular culture, in our post-9/11 world of tight border security and suspicion, and of economic, war, and environmental refugees, poor immigrants continue to face discrimination on racial and socio-economic grounds if they get in. There are parallels as well as differences then that exist between the ideas and experiences of displacement and marginalization, home, belonging, cultural traditions, and continuity that shape the contemporary experience of South Asian migrants and the First Peoples of Canada. Yet I was surprised to find very limited scopes of interactivity or knowledge exchange between immigrant and Indigenous communities and negligible government infrastructure that facilitated such processes. Consequently, I found myself thinking about the possibility of building intercultural dialogues based on the impacts of colonialism and discrimination between both communities. Inspired by the gathering in Kelowna, I wondered if it was possible to develop events to raise awareness and build solidarity, trust, and empathy towards one another.
In 2009 I had the opportunity to curate an exhibition at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant, located next to the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and home to a burgeoning South Asian community. Encouraged by my taste of an alternate society, one that was conscious and engaged, based on Indigenous cultural values and principles at the On Common Ground conference, I hoped this experience would inform my curatorial practice. I developed a thematic framework for the exhibition that was relevant to the history, culture, and demographic of the city and explored the possibilities of building mutual understanding, trust, and solidarity through cross-cultural dialogues between South Asian immigrants and the First Peoples in Canada.
When I started working on this exhibition I did not know much about the complex histories of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. I was uncomfortable speaking about the project, and, in particular, I struggled to use appropriate language that was bereft of jargon or rhetoric. Much of my research and what I learned took place through informal and lengthy conversations with the artists who participated in Crossing Lines: An Intercultural Dialogue.6 As I learned about the history of Brantford and Six Nations from different Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, I worked through my discomfort of being an outsider and unaware to develop a deeper understanding of Canadian history. The eventual exhibition examined the issues of connection and disconnection and sites of intersection and divergence that exist between the so-named “Indian” communities in Canada. I invited eight artists from different Indigenous and South Asian backgrounds to explore the possibility of developing cross-cultural dialogues by examining ideas of loss and displacement from their diverse experiences. In the next section I will discuss the artworks made by each of the artists and their strategies for building cross-cultural dialogues.
When Indian filmmaker Ali Kazimi and Iroquois photographer Jeff Thomas started working on Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeff Thomas in 1997, photography was the common language between them. In the film, Kazimi takes the viewer on an intimate journey through Jeff Thomas’s art practice while using an autobiographical approach that reveals Kazimi’s personal history as a South Asian immigrant. Most enlightening is Kazimi’s candid narration of his own misconceptions when he had started working on the film, as it opens up the relatively unexamined space of dialogue between an immigrant and First Nations artist. Their collaboration addresses the limitations of language and stereotypical representations that frames the presence (and absence) of the First Peoples’ and immigrants’ experiences in the master narrative of Canadian history. After visiting the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory with Thomas, Kazimi notes that while his prior assumptions were unsettled after going to the reserve, he found startling economic disparity and disillusionment. Kazimi acknowledges that his conversations with Thomas enabled him to develop a deeper understanding and respect of the context of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit experiences. Meanwhile, Thomas’s ongoing engagement with the work of Edward Curtis, the twentieth century photographer and filmmaker whose artistic legacy forms the premise of the film, sets a precedent of critical inquiry into the canons of Canadian history. Kazimi and Thomas’s dialogic approach creates a framework for questioning the existing paradigms of looking and thinking about personal histories. Together, they develop a sensitive portrayal of the contradictions of “Indianness” through the personal lens of Kazimi’s diasporic history and Thomas’s body of work.7 Shooting Indians is an award-winning Canadian documentary film that challenges established forms and mediums of representing immigrant and First Peoples’ cultures. While Canada’s cultural landscape has changed dramatically since Kazimi and Jeff started working on the film in 1984, the issues of stereotypes, systemic erasure, and disconnection are still relevant.
Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeff Thomas helped me understand the strategy of developing cross-cultural dialogues as a process of building trust and mutual respect. It formed the touchstone for this exhibition. As a next-generation immigrant and cultural practitioner, I felt that it was important to highlight and revisit the discussion started by the duo in this exhibition. In fact, the dialogic approach developed by the artists through the development of the film also formed one of the core principles of Thomas’s photographic practice.
Crossing Lines showcases a new work from Thomas’s landmark, ongoing series of photographs entitled A Conversation with Edward S. Curtis, in which he re-contextualizes images from Curtis’s 20-volume study of “The North American Indian”8 in a contemporary context. Entitled A Conversation with Edward S. Curtis, #7 Medicine Crow Wearing a Hawk Hide Headdress (Crow Nation c. 1908) (2009), Thomas assembles a triptych of three photographs: two historical portraits by Curtis of Medicine Crow dressed in ornate jewelry and a hawk carcass on his head, shot from different angles (profile and frontal view), which flank a recent photograph of a hawk taken by Thomas at a bird sanctuary in Coaldale, Alberta. The hawk hide headdress references the Indigenous practices of revering animals for their special traits. The hawk symbolizes qualities that the bird is known for such as swiftness, agility, and precise eyesight, all of which are extremely valuable to a hunter and warrior such as Medicine Crow. Curtis’s photographs seem to capture the sitter’s pride in his cultural heritage in the slightly raised bridge of his nose in the profile photograph and the clarity of his direct gaze in the frontal portrait. By placing the recent photograph of the hawk in the centre, Thomas’s triptych can be read to symbolize the importance and necessity of Indigenous knowledge systems to sustain our degraded environment today. Medicine Crow also symbolizes the continuity of the various streams of Indigenous knowledge that are part of our everyday lives and constitute our contemporary culture. By projecting Kazimi’s film in the same room, directly across from Thomas’s 16-foot-long photographic print in the gallery, I wished to address the ongoing importance of their cross-cultural dialogue in contemporary visual art discourse today.
A different form of dialogue occurs in Afshin Matlabi’s drawing Natives, where the artist explores, from an immigrant perspective, the absence of Indigenous knowledge and subjectivities in dominant cultural history. Approaching these gaps through the lens of (mis-)representing Indigenous and immigrant people in popular culture, Matlabi portrays two figures holding specific gestures that draw the viewer’s attention into the work. The figure on the right-hand side of the drawing is shown with one arm above her head holding a pose from the Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam, where stylized hand gestures or mudras constitute an integral part of the dance vocabulary. By portraying the figure without her traditional costume, Matlabi resists the viewer’s easy categorization and simplistic conclusions about the dancer’s cultural identity. The figure beside her holds an open-handed gesture, which can be understood as a symbol of friendship and peace among some First Peoples. It can also be read as a universal signal to stop, perhaps alluding to the marginalization of both immigrant and Indigenous communities by the patronizing gaze of the dominant culture. The title of the work Natives also refers to the common and disparate histories and intergenerational traumas of colonization experienced by South Asian and Indigenous communities. Using pencil and ink on paper, Matlabi fills the background of his large-scale drawing with countless, multidirectional strokes. In particular, the erratic, bold flow of the strokes between the figures draws the viewer’s attention, as they seem to break the linear flow of colour in the rest of the drawing. I understand these multidirectional strokes to symbolize a need to disturb the established ideas and assumptions shaping South Asian and Indigenous identities and cultures in the dominant narrative. The distance between the figures, holding specific and seemingly disconnected poses, can be understood as the artist’s attempt to acknowledge the complexities surrounding Indigenous and migrant relations in Canada. Meanwhile, reflecting upon the brutal historical similarities of exoticization and fetishization of Indigenous and South Asian cultures by the colonial gaze, Matlabi’s foregrounding of the figure referencing an Indigenous gesture demonstrates his plea to reframe the dominant cultural narrative from an Indigenous framework.
Reframing the gaze is also central to Ojibway artist Bonnie Devine, who explores the intricacies of the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities metaphorically. New Earth Braid is made up of reeds gathered from the banks of the Grand River in Six Nations and the outskirts of Brantford, which are used to create a 12-foot-long braid that represents the oral histories, cultures, and traditions of the First Peoples that are woven into the land. Through these simple reeds, Devine references the undocumented histories of Indigenous knowledge systems and the First Peoples’ spirit of collaboration that has enabled migrants and settlers to survive and thrive in a foreign land. In contemporary society, the gesture of braiding signifies various traditions associated with women’s work such as basket weaving, an Elder braiding a child’s hair, and the adolescent practice of making friendship bands. In my conversations with the artist, I have learned that Devine also associates the New Earth Braid with the Council of Three Fires and her cultural heritage regarding the work as embodying values of diligence, compassion, and courage as the basis for cross-cultural discussions to succeed.
Roy Caussy examines the multiple and incomplete narratives that make up the canonical accounts of Canadian history. He creates rubbings of three plaques that commemorate three of the most significant moments of Brantford’s history: The Haldimand Proclamation of 1784, The Mohawk Institute Residential School that was established in 1831 and closed in the 1970, and the founding of the town of Brantford in 1877. Each plaque presents a distinctly different perspective and approach of the history and culture of the region. By bringing them together within one gallery, Caussy simply elucidates the socio-economic, cultural, and political disparities that persist within contemporary Canadian culture. He juxtaposes these deep-rooted chasms with a melodic sound installation, in which he has recorded voices of strangers he has encountered on the streets of Brantford, to develop a resonant harmony that is made up of multiple voices and programmed to play every seven minutes. Every time the sound piece is turned on, it fills the gallery with a sense of familiarity and intimacy. In Three-part Harmony (2009), Caussy highlights the severe need to reinvent and rework the simplistic dominant discourse that perpetuates the alienation and marginalization of Indigenous people and newcomers in the mainstream.
Ottawa-based Ehren Bear Witness Thomas subverts the colonizing master narratives in popular culture in his invigorating videowork Strange Homelands: Part Two. Reflecting on the narcissism and the disconnection of our over-saturated consumer culture with multiple histories and paradigms of viewing, listening, and understanding, Thomas layers and samples personal footage with scenes from Hollywood films, Disney cartoons, pop music, and video games. He challenges linear and polarizing frameworks in the mainstream through his dynamic media art practice, based on his personal Indigenous subjectivities. Thomas’s video emanates a sense of urgency to refute totalizing narratives and to shift the accepted master narrative of North American history and culture to one that is based on ideologies of social justice, freedom, and peace.
Meanwhile, Yudi Sewraj of Guyanese and South Asian heritage expands on the notions of loss, displacement, and doubt in the dominant cultural history in his video installation Nineteen Seventy-Eight (2009). The installation is made up of three major components: two sets of videos, one playing on old-school TV monitors and the other projected on the wall, placed on opposite sides of an opaque wooden crate and making it impossible for the viewer to experience the entire installation at once. Nineteen Seventy-Eight draws attention to the spatial and temporal elements of the work, opening it up to multiple subjectivities and responses. There are peepholes on different sides of the crate that enable the audience to look inside and find an abandoned couch. The videos, which display a running loop of found household objects being destroyed and swept away, seem to draw parallels with the loss of multiple narratives and histories that have been erased by the master narrative. In the video projection, Sewraj inverts the viewer’s gaze onto himself, as he performs in it. Using a mimetic strategy to critique accepted paradigms and practices of everyday life, a sense of discomfort and alienation is palpable in Sewraj’s absurd attempts to replicate the mundane actions of an old man that plays on a monitor inside the video. The video within a video further breaks down any sense of origin or authenticity that might legitimize the prevailing colonial master narrative that has repeatedly led to the violent intergenerational losses of language, culture, and traditions suffered by immigrant and Indigenous populations.
The experience of loss and dislocation also informs Ohsweken artist Greg Staats’s ongoing series of black and white photographs entitled Animose. Staats embarked upon this series in 1996, a decade after he moved to Toronto, as a way of coping with the loss of his sense of belonging. The etymology of the word Animose comes from anima, meaning “breath” or “discreet presence,” which personifies Staats’s exploration of discarded objects through his photographs. By privileging their presence in the urban-scape through his photographs, this series provides an alternate understanding of Canadian cities and lifestyles that links his personal experiences with found and forgotten objects he encounters on the street, bus stops, and parks. Some examples include: two carpets lying on the curb, a mound of dirt heaped on the sidewalk and street, a chair sitting across a log camouflaged between tree trunks, and two bundles of sticks flung out on the street. Each of these photographs exude a strong presence and balance in their new settings. The photographs embody the serenity and vitality of oral traditions and knowledge systems that have been intrinsic to the development of Canadian culture. They also symbolize the importance of acknowledging the presence of oral traditions, ceremonies, and symbols of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures and experiences in Canada as the first steps toward building cross-cultural dialogues and trust with immigrant and settler communities.
Steps toward the future
In her analysis of the current reconciliation discourse, researcher and scholar Paulette Regan has said, “we remain stuck in a mindset of denial and guilt about past wrongs in which we problematize and pathologize Indigenous peoples, seeking legal and bureaucratic solutions to a long list of ‘Indian problems’ and ‘historical’ ‘claims.’ In doing so, we deflect attention away from the ‘Settler problem,’ [and] our own complicity in maintaining the colonial status quo.”9 Critiquing the biases latent in the institutionalized structures of cross-cultural interactivity, Regan holds the willingness of non-Indigenous communities to engage with the narratives revealed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission equally responsible in developing an effective framework that builds awareness and destabilizes the colonial mindset of the dominant culture. Cross-cultural dialogues can provide a common space for self-reflexivity, listening, and learning from the multiple histories, experiences, and narratives that remain unheard of in the mainstream. Through his series of photographic works, Greg Staats acknowledges that these Indigenous subjectivities must be the starting point of any form of cross-cultural dialogue. The dialogic approach, facilitated at the small-scale and grassroots level, becomes crucial in overcoming the government’s superficial apology that has failed to acknowledge the devastating impact of past injustices that continue into the present. For newcomers to Canada, in particular, such opportunities can facilitate an effective way in understanding the complexities of Canadian histories, which will lead to nuanced ways of engaging with contemporary Canadian culture.
Altogether, the artworks exhibited in Crossing Lines: An Intercultural Dialogue attempt to disturb the dominant cultural history that “‘misrecognizes’ and disrespects [and denies] the oral histories, cultures, and legal traditions of Indigenous peoples.”10 Emerging from a minoritarian perspective, immigrant and Indigenous subjectivities of the artists are based on notions of loss and displacement, which form the starting point for building cross-cultural dialogues through the exhibition. Such a perspective challenges the colonial mindset and hegemonic narratives of a national history that legitimize the disparities and socio-economic privileges that exist between Indigenous, immigrant, and settler communities. Exploring the possibility of dialogues also provides artists (and myself) with an opportunity to re-imagine contemporary Canadian society based on ideas of collectivity, community, and mutual respect.
In retrospect, Crossing Lines: An Intercultural Dialogue was an enlightening experiment, a meaningful exercise, and the beginning of my exploration on the strategies of learning through dialogue and collaboration. In the process I learned about my own discomfort while working on and researching the concepts for this exhibition, with a heightened awareness of my limited knowledge of the complex histories, narratives, and traditions of diverse Indigenous communities and nations. I realized that my role and responsibility as a recent immigrant in Canada was in a constant state of flux, as it shifted between being a beneficiary, thus perpetrator, of the colonial socio-economic privileges of the dominant framework—benefiting from incentives provided to middle-class and educated immigrants for instance—on the one hand, and on the other, being vulnerable to the discriminatory and unquestionable laws of the same structures. I learned how to speak from my position of knowing and not knowing with humility and honesty as I engaged in dialogues with the accomplished and emerging artists in the exhibitions, many of whom had a strong grasp of creating collaborative and collective strategies to develop mutual trust and respect. This exhibition, in its small-scale and localized context, sought to build an ethos of communication that recognized the struggles within Indigenous and immigrant communities and to build solidarity on a personal and human level.
Srimoyee Mitra is a performance artist, curator, and writer. She completed her M.A. in Art History at York University, Toronto, in 2008. Since then she developed a multidisciplinary installation entitled Let’s Talk, Get to Know Each Other Better, We Are All Human (2008–2009) in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Youth Council. Her performance Becoming a Canadian Citizen at the AGO and Thinking About Contemporary Art premiered at the Extra-Curricular: Between Art and Pedagogy (February 2010) conference at the University of Toronto and has been included at the Shift: Dialogues on migration in contemporary art symposium (April 2011), McKenzie Art Gallery, Regina. Her performances have been featured in venues as diverse as Carla Garnet Project in NightLight, Nuit Blanche (Lansdowne) in 2007, and Toronto Free Broadcasting (September 2009) curated by Maiko Tanaka and Chris Lee. Her recent curatorial projects include Crossing Lines: An Intercultural Dialogue (29 November 2009–23 January 2010) at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant, Brantford, and Reply All (May 2008), an online collaborative project commissioned by SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) and Art Metropole. Srimoyee has worked as a writer for publications including Time Out Mumbai, Art India, and The Indian Express newspaper in India. Since 2008, she has been working as the Programming Co-ordinator at SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) in Toronto, where she currently lives and works. ↩
- Jacobs, B. (2008:6857). Canada. Parliament. House of Commons Debates (Hansard). 39th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol. 142, No. 110 (June 11, 2008). Ottawa, ON: Public Works and Government Services Canada. Retrieved 7 December 2010 from: http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=39&Ses=2&DocId=3568890. ↩
- Clark, T. and R. de Costa (2009). A Tale of Two Apologies. Canada Watch. Fall 2009:36–37,40. Retrieved 8 December 2010 from: http://www.yorku.ca/robarts/projects/canada-watch/ ↩
- Regan, Paulette (2007). An apology feast in Hazelton: Indian residential schools, reconciliation, and making space for Indigenous legal traditions. In Law Commission of Canada (ed.). Indigenous Legal Traditions. Vancouver, BC:UBC Press: 40–76. ↩
- de Costa, Ravi (2009). Truth, Reconciliation and the Politics of Community: The Politics of Community and Identity: Learning from one another. University of Ottawa (May 20–22, 2009). Retrieved 25 November 2010 from: http://www.sciencessociales.uottawa.ca/communities09/en/discussion.as ↩
- The On Common Ground conference took place between 10–15 June 2008, and was organized in partnership with the Ullus Collective, an Indigenous Media Arts Collective from the region, and the Alternator gallery in Kelowna, BC. ↩
- Crossing Lines: An Intercultural Dialogue was co-presented by SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) and the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant from 29 November 2009–22 January 2010. The exhibition took place at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant in Brantford, Ontario. ↩
- Francis, Margot (2002). Reading the autoethnographic perspectives of Indians ‘Shooting Indians.’ Topia 7:5–26. Francis first attributes the term “Indianness” on p. 11. For further discussion on this term see: Lyman, Christopher (1982). The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of lndians by Edward Curtis. New York, NY: Pantheon Books in association with the Smithsonian Institution Press. ↩
- Thomas’s research at the National Archives revealed that when Curtis made these portraits, most of the First Peoples had lost their traditional livelihoods of hunting and fishing. Many were even banned from practising their songs, dances, and carrying out cultural practices. So, when Curtis took these photos, it gave the sitters an opportunity to dress in their cultural heritage that was being denied them by the colonial regime. ↩
- Regan (2007:44) (reference in original removed). ↩
- Regan, Paulette (2007:43). ↩