Recognizing ourselves in the other
Exhibition by Sandra Semchuk explores how we discover ourselves in what we don’t always understand
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.”
Sandra Semchuk talks about one of her pieces in advance of Friday’s opening of Love Stories