Spi­ralling into a Deeper Level of Con­nec­tion

Leanne Be­tasamosake Simp­son and Jar­rett Martineau dis­cuss the power of In­dige­nous self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the im­por­tance of de­fy­ing cat­e­go­riza­tion

Canadian Art - - Contents -

On the power of In­dige­nous self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the im­por­tance of de­fy­ing cat­e­go­riza­tion

Leanne Be­tasamosake Simp­son in con­ver­sa­tion with Jar­rett Martineau

In Septem­ber 2016, Leanne Be­tasamosake Simp­son re­leased her sec­ond full-length al­bum, f(l)ight, shortly af­ter the launch of Jar­rett Martineau’s new In­dige­nous mu­sic la­bel, RPM Records. The fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tors and long­time friends re­cently in­ter­viewed one an­other, con­vers­ing openly about cre­ative kin­ship, defin­ing In­dige­nous art, de­fy­ing colo­nial cat­e­go­riza­tion and the nu­ances of re­fusal.

Leanne Be­tasamosake Simp­son: Of­ten­times when I’m writ­ing a book or mak­ing a record, once the ac­tual mak­ing part is over the magic is over for me. The slug­ging around and get­ting peo­ple in­ter­ested in it is some­thing that kills the part of me that can cre­ate. With RPM it was a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Pick­ing al­bum art wasn’t just a mat­ter of find­ing a vis­ual im­age that em­bod­ies what I was do­ing on the record. It in­volved meet­ing a vis­ual artist and work­ing with their ex­pe­ri­ence of the record to come up with their own artis­tic vis­ual in­ter­pre­ta­tion of my work. An­other vis­ual com­po­nent of this record has been the videos. There’s a se­ries of five or six videos, some of which have been re­leased and some of which are forth­com­ing. For the most part, I com­mis­sioned emerg­ing In­dige­nous film­mak­ers, like Amos Scott, Amanda Strong and Elle-máijá Tailfeathers, to do a film in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the tracks. With the videos we’ve built up a layer of vis­ual depth to the al­bum, and spi­ralled into a deeper level of con­nec­tion with au­di­ences and the In­dige­nous artists.

Jar­rett Martineau: Let’s talk about the po­si­tion­ing of the work. I’ve seen your abil­ity to re­ally move be­tween many dif­fer­ent au­di­ences and spheres of in­flu­ence, and be con­sis­tent in your voice and vi­sion as you’ve moved through those spa­ces. In­dige­nous art tends to fall within a fairly cir­cum­scribed set of pa­ram­e­ters around what is con­sid­ered to be in line with what­ever that is, or

ABOVE AND OP­PO­SITE: Stills from Amos Scott’s 2015 video for Leanne Be­tasamosake Simp­son’s “This Ac­ci­dent of Be­ing Lost”

I think that re­fusal, the idea of gen­er­at­ing an In­dige­nous space and hold­ing the space, is crit­i­cal, not just in the mak­ing process but in the shar­ing process.

what­ever is con­sid­ered to be de­viant from or de­fy­ing those ex­pec­ta­tions. We’ve talked about these very nar­row cat­e­gories peo­ple want to im­pose on your al­bum and work. Is it a spo­ken-word record? If it isn’t a spo­ken­word record and it’s some­thing else, this “some­thing else” needs to be squarely de­fined. Do you feel like that’s part of your com­mit­ment: to re­sist that level of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion and to refuse that or­der­ing or cat­e­go­riza­tion of the work based on these very nar­row or cir­cum­scribed cat­e­gories?

LBS: I think this is an ex­tremely lucky gen­er­a­tion, be­cause we’ve had a few gen­er­a­tions of In­dige­nous artists go through the colo­nial arts sys­tem now, and fig­ure out how to nav­i­gate those sys­tems through cod­ing, lay­er­ing and re­fus­ing. I’ve been able to be sur­rounded and in­flu­enced by these rad­i­cal and bril­liant In­dige­nous artists that don’t ask per­mis­sion, that by na­ture refuse colo­nial recog­ni­tion, and gen­er­ate through their prac­tice, their per­for­mance and the cre­ation of their work this al­ter­na­tive. I think I’ve learned a lot from watch­ing them in terms of in­ser­tion and in­ter­ven­tion—how ev­ery­thing you do, and the way that you do it, is an op­por­tu­nity to be an in­ter­ven­tion: the­o­ret­i­cally, ar­tis­ti­cally and po­lit­i­cally. I find that a pow­er­ful way of be­ing in the world, and one that aligns with my an­ces­tors and our prac­tices of mak­ing and cre­at­ing. So when I watch peo­ple like Re­becca Bel­more, I don’t even watch her work— I ex­pe­ri­ence it. There’s such a beau­ti­ful re­fusal in her work. I think the same thing about Duane Lin­klater and Tanya Lukin Lin­klater, and their work around chal­leng­ing what it means to be in the gallery space. I think there’s mul­ti­ple sites and mul­ti­ple it­er­a­tions of In­dige­nous artists and In­dige­nous peo­ple do­ing this work. Part of it is very de­lib­er­ate and strate­gic, but part of it is very nat­u­rally how I am in this world. I feel like the base of my prac­tice—whether it’s aca­demic, po­lit­i­cal, writ­ing or mu­si­cal—is the base of my life, which is this re­la­tion­ship I have to my land, to my an­ces­tors, and to my lan­guage and cer­e­mony. And fig­ur­ing out how to best am­plify, af­firm and em­body that and cre­ate that world for my­self to live in.

JM: Why do you think non-in­dige­nous peo­ple are so in­vested in defin­ing what counts as In­dige­nous work?

LBS: Be­cause I think there is power in nam­ing. There is power in nam­ing what is and what isn’t. It’s the same rea­son why they’re so in­vested in nam­ing who is In­dige­nous and who isn’t; what is In­dige­nous land and what isn’t. So, I think it’s a manifestation of set­tler-colo­nial­ism, het­eropa­tri­archy and white supremacy. To re­strict and con­trol our in­ter­ven­tions and bril­liance. I don’t think that non-in­dige­nous peo­ple, Canada or the state ac­tu­ally get to de­fine what’s In­dige­nous art or not. I think In­dige­nous artists get to de­fine that, and they have, in a re­ally con­sis­tent, bril­liant way for hun­dreds of years now. I think that re­fusal, the idea of gen­er­at­ing an In­dige­nous space and hold­ing the space, is crit­i­cal, not just in the mak­ing process but in the shar­ing process. I re­ally love it when In­dige­nous writ­ers talk to me about my work, In­dige­nous cu­ra­tors cu­rate me or I get to per­form in an In­dige­nous space with lots of In­dige­nous peo­ple in the au­di­ence. I think those kinds of con­ver­sa­tions and con­nec­tions then add depth and con­ver­sa­tion to the work. I think that then pro­duces a con­ver­sa­tion through self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion where these con­ver­sa­tions are pre­sented to Cana­di­ans and to non-in­dige­nous peo­ple on our own terms. When we do that—when we have those in­tel­li­gent, eth­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal, artis­tic dis­cus­sions about our

work—it re­ally de­cen­tres white­ness. In­stead of dumb­ing our work down for the masses, it el­e­vates the whole thing up.

JM: I’m all for ad­vo­cat­ing for and am­pli­fy­ing those spa­ces where that kind of en­counter is pos­si­ble. I feel like our un­apolo­getic cre­ative self-ex­pres­sion is one of the most pow­er­ful gifts we have as In­dige­nous peo­ple, and some­thing that needs to be cel­e­brated at ev­ery place that we can. And for­ti­fied, not just cel­e­brated, be­cause cel­e­bra­tion im­plies this fait ac­com­pli— some­thing that’s al­ready achieved. That’s been a big part of my own vi­sion for what I hope that RPM can be—to build those sup­port struc­tures for artists in our com­mu­nity that oth­er­wise may not have ac­cess to that. It’s all re­la­tion­ship and com­mu­nity build­ing for me. We’re claim­ing the space that has been de­nied to us. I have no prob­lem ad­vo­cat­ing for that space to be claimed by the artists that we work with. In and through the con­fig­u­ra­tion that is RPM is one space to do it, and there’s many oth­ers. I feel like that’s part of the op­por­tu­nity here. Part of our job at RPM, or part of my work, I think, is also about putting [In­dige­nous artists] squarely in front of peo­ple who oth­er­wise wouldn’t even know about them. And if that’s with an artist they’ve never heard of, then the work is around an in­tro­duc­tion. If that’s with an artist they have some fa­mil­iar­ity with, then it’s about show­ing that work and that artist in a new light. I feel like maybe that’s the mo­ment that I’m try­ing to seize upon right now—to ac­tu­ally see the work rep­re­sented from a place of strength. LBS: I think it’s more than just con­nect­ing non-in­dige­nous peo­ple to our In­dige­nous art and In­dige­nous mu­sic. It’s also about teach­ing them how to con­nect by shat­ter­ing these kinds of stereo­types, and talk­ing about our work in a way that’s mean­ing­ful to us. I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant that there’s this com­mu­nity of In­dige­nous writ­ers, In­dige­nous cu­ra­tors and now a la­bel. I think In­dige­nous pub­lish­ers have been do­ing this for years and years— help­ing us frame our work and talk­ing about it in a way that is truth­ful and mean­ing­ful to In­dige­nous peo­ple, not just re­cy­cling these tired old stereo­types of what In­dige­nous peo­ple are and what our art looks like and sounds like.

JM: Mov­ing into the future, I feel like the chal­lenge is go­ing to be around en­act­ing. The chal­lenge is around how we are able to mo­bi­lize these acts of in­ter­ven­tion or re­fusal, both of cat­e­go­riza­tion and at the level of the kind of work that’s be­ing made, and at the same time be sup­ported in that by or­ga­ni­za­tions, fund­ing bod­ies and re­sources that are out­side our com­mu­nity. At the level of struc­tural sup­port, us try­ing to make it within the mu­sic in­dus­try as a mu­sic com­pany, or even work­ing broadly in In­dige­nous me­dia in this coun­try, still re­quires that sim­i­lar kind of in­ter­ven­tion at the in­dus­try level.

We’re work­ing on those mul­ti­ple fronts si­mul­ta­ne­ously and it’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing for me to see how that shakes out. Peo­ple don’t al­ways want to give money to things that refuse them the very ex­pec­ta­tions that they have about In­dige­nous peo­ples and their art. ■

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