Rec­og­niz­ing our­selves in the other

Ex­hi­bi­tion by San­dra Sem­chuk ex­plores how we dis­cover our­selves in what we don’t al­ways un­der­stand

Prince Albert Daily Herald - - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - PETER LOZINSKI

San­dra Sem­chuk has spent her ca­reer try­ing to un­der­stand how we con­nect with other.

The Ukrainian pho­tog­ra­pher in­tro­duced her ex­hi­bi­tion, Love Sto­ries, at the Mann Gallery’s open­ing re­cep­tion Fri­day night. The ex­hi­bi­tion con­sists of four larger pieces each ex­plor­ing our re­la­tion­ship with First Nations peo­ple through her re­la­tion­ship with her Rock Cree hus­band James Ni­cholas.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is pre­sented in part­ner­ship with the In­dige­nous Peo­ples Artist Col­lec­tive

Sem­chuk spoke at length about how that re­la­tion­ship in­formed her life and how it in­forms her work. Prior to the Fri­day open­ing, Sem­chuk took the Her­ald through her work, and through dif­fer­ent stages of her life. Through those stages she has learned much about her­self and Canada’s re­la­tion­ship with its In­dige­nous peo­ples.

Sem­chuk’s tour started with a se­ries of four pho­tos of her hus­band tend­ing to the land in the same way his Cree an­ces­tors would have farmed by hand. It fea­tures text from the North Bat­tle­ford News Op­ti­mist news­pa­per from the late 1800s, as well as a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Sem­chuk and her hus­band.

“I’m im­pressed when you act like me,” reads the one line of text – San­dra’s line.

“Then act like me then,” James replied, and the text reads on the far end of the piece.

“I’m play­ing with my own re­la­tion­ship with my hus­band as an ar­tic­u­la­tion of those struc­tures of col­o­niza­tion in Canada. That call for ne­go­ti­a­tion of iden­tity,” Sem­chuk said.

“If I gen­uinely rec­og­nize some­thing about you, that ac­ti­vated iden­tity in a re­ally pos­i­tive way. If in our di­a­logue, there’s non-recog­ni­tion, then there’s a down­ward spi­ral. This work is very much about iden­tity.”

That is­sue of iden­tity and of rec­og­niz­ing the other car­ries through­out Sem­chuk’s ex­hi­bi­tion. An­other piece fea­tures two stark black and white pho­tos, again with text. The im­ages show an older, white man, Sem­chuk’s un­cle, pour­ing her hus­band James a cup of cof­fee.

“You will wel­come us here,” the first photo says.

“We make our­selves the gen­er­ous ones,” the sec­ond one fin­ishes.

For Sem­chuk, the piece is about the jour­ney her and James went on to move out of de­nial, and her even­tual dis­cov­ery of the Cree un­der­stand­ing of gen­eros­ity.

“James was my col­lab­o­ra­tor and my teacher,” Sem­chuk said.

“We taught each other be­cause I’m still very much in de­nial about the kind of covert, sys­temic racism I am a part of be­cause of my en­ti­tle­ments. But he was also mov­ing out of de­nial of what was done to his fam­ily and his na­tion, as a re­sult of go­ing to res­i­den­tial school. It was very hard. We were help­ing each other in de­nial.”

Sem­chuk de­scribed the mo­ment, which was not posed, but caught spon­ta­neously, of the two older men com­ing to an un­der­stand­ing, and a hand­shake. Her un­cle grasp­ing James’ hand in a Ukrainian hand­shake, James grasp­ing his in a Cree hand­shake, both from a cul­tural back­ground of gen­eros­ity

“It’s an amal­gam be­tween the hand­shakes. It’s a sim­ple cup of cof­fee, but what it’s bring­ing out is very deeply cul­tural.”

The text, though, comes from a mo­ment in 2006 when Sem­chuk was meet­ing with an el­der on Water­hen re­serve.

“He was talk­ing about how gen­eros­ity is the ba­sis of Cree cul­ture. I thought of how we (set­tlers) kind of turned things up­side down to make it seem like we were the gen­er­ous ones,” Sem­chuk said.

“For me, it was one of those aha mo­ments that re­ally hurt your heart.”

Sem­chuk turned to her hus­band, and asked how she could thank the el­der for shar­ing their land in the Cree lan­guage. James got an­gry.

“He said ‘you don’t un­der­stand, shar­ing is the law. The land owns it­self,’” Sem­chuk re­called.

“It’s that larger sense of the nat­u­ral world, all of the plants the flora, the fauna, the wa­ter, the sky —ev­ery­thing is equal.”

The les­son was one of many learned by Sem­chuk as she sought to un­der­stand the world of her hus­band. As she learned, and as she rec­og­nized the other, her iden­tity grew. She made a lot of mis­takes, and con­tin­ues to. But it’s all a part of that learn­ing process.

“As an artist, we strug­gle to learn. It’s about try­ing to learn. For me, it has been in con­ver­sa­tion. I do a lot of dumb things. I get peo­ple mad at me, ” she said.

“Change oc­curs by hav­ing that will­ing­ness to put your­self in that risk-tak­ing place where you say, I don’t know. I don’t like to think of my­self as a per­pe­tra­tor. I like to see my­self as a good woman. I would even pre­fer to think of my­self as a vic­tim as a Ukrainian. But both po­si­tions have a kind of moral su­pe­ri­or­ity. I’m mo­rally su­pe­rior if I’m a vic­tim and I’m mo­rally su­pe­rior if I’m en­ti­tled. We have to set that aside.”

For Sem­chuk, it’s only through those in­tensely per­sonal, dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions that we can ever hope to achieve true rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

“That’s the big step. How do we rec­og­nize each other. That’s a deep process. It’s not some­thing on the sur­face. Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, if and when and how it can oc­cur, it may take cen­turies. It will hap­pen in the per­sonal,” she said.

“Then it will move from the per­sonal, to the so­ci­etal, to the on­to­log­i­cal. It takes learn­ing from one an­other. It takes be­ing wil­ing to learn from one an­other, and be­ing will­ing to make mis­takes, to get lam­basted.

“For me to be­come a part of that Cree world has been very mov­ing. That kind of beauty of James’ fam­ily has been a very ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s why we call it Love Sto­ried. Be­cause I was brought into the fam­ily and I was al­lowed to share very pro­foundly in their lives. That’s ben a priv­i­lege.”

PETER LOZINSKI/DAILY HER­ALD

San­dra Sem­chuk talks about one of her pieces in ad­vance of Fri­day’s open­ing of Love Sto­ries

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