Dylan Robinson – embracing resentment and reconciliation

Dylan Robinson is a Stö:lō scholar and artist based in the First Nations studies program at the University of British Columbia, on unceded Coast Salish territories. His research focuses on Indigenous public arts and performance interventions in Canada, the US, and Australia. 

Witnessing Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Attending Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools over the past three years there have been many times I have felt moved by the strength and resilience of residential school survivors, experienced a heightened sense of community, and felt empathy for survivors and their families. As a Stó:lõ person, I have often witnessed testimony and listened to the “contributions” by government and church officials presented at the TRC events with the sedimented weight of knowing intergenerational loss. Because of this, I have sometimes witnessed, and listened, with resentment. I have experienced resentment at hearing such remarkably consistent experiences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. I have resented the TRC forum itself, where survivors are expected to limit their comments to a contained aspect of colonialism: residential school history. I have resented the “contributions” where institutional officials from the Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Catholic Church have abdicated their responsibility. I have resented offers of Settler-ally friendship, that we are all “part of the same great embrace,” and that Canada would be a better place if every Settler had “a First Nations friend.” (Victoria TRC event, “It Matters to Me” session). As Dene scholar Glen Coulthard notes “…resentment is often cast as the inability to come to grips with history. Resentment indicates an inability to let go….” And yet, “Embracing one’s resentment,” as Coulthard contests,

…is not only an entirely defendable position, but actually a sign of our critical consciousness, of our sense of justice and injustice, and of our awareness of, and unwillingness to reconcile ourselves with the structural and symbolic violence that is still very much a part of our lives. Of course we should resent colonialism, as well as those people and institutions who are willfully complicit in its ongoing reproduction.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk5XNjI2Yao, 33:45)

As part of the TRC proceedings, there is a program of artistic presentations by local performers and musicians, both Aboriginal and Settler Canadian. While the majority of artistic and musical contributions taking place at the TRC have not induced such resentment in me as an audience member, one in particular seared me with its offer of friendship and reconciliation.

The first day of the TRC Victoria regional event in April 2012 concluded with a series of performances reflecting diverse cultural traditions of First Nations across Vancouver Island. A local Victoria choir consisting of Settler Canadian singers also performed – the Gettin’ Higher Choir. They concluded their portion of the evening with a performance of Inuit singer Susan Aglukark’s O Siem, the chorus of which is familiar to many Canadians from its regular presence on easy listening stations across Canada since it rose to #1 in the Canadian adult contemporary charts in 1995:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zZHlA4hPGQ

The lyrics of the chorus, just in case you did not catch them are:

“O Siem, we are all family

O Siem, we’re all the same”

After eight hours of listening to testimony from survivors and intergenerational survivors, I listened to the Gettin’ Higher Choir’s contribution toward reconciliation. The concert was intended to lift peoples’ spirits after hours of intense testimony from residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors, and it may have done so for some. Yet to sing this song after a full day of telling and witnessing residential schools’ overwhelming history of inhumanity felt more than inappropriate. The irony in the choir’s offering, sung with the best of intentions is that the history of abuse and cultural oppression in residential schools was anything but “the same” history as that of Settler Canadians. Canadians were not taken from their parents and beaten when they spoke English, were not forced to do manual labor in order to keep their schools running, were not called “dirty Canadian.” Nor is the present reality of Aboriginal communities – the lack of adequate housing, clean drinking water, and educational opportunities – “the same” as for Settler Canadians based in rural, urban areas elsewhere in Canada. Canadians, for the most part, do not feel shame at being Canadian, or learn to hide their cultural history from their children.

One might argue that hearing the choir’s expression of these lyrics as anything other than an expression of our common humanity is to elide their best intentions. But to look at the faces of the Gettin’ Higher Choir, moreover, was also to see belief in their message. A belief in reconciliation’s friendship, in reconciliation’s great embrace. The choir’s performance, both in message and in its non-representational atmosphere of warmth and enthusiasm, demonstrated a belief that to sing such a message was perhaps enough to make it better, a belief as performance studies scholar Jill Dolan puts it “…that beyond this ‘now’ of material oppression and unequal power relations lives a future that might be different, one whose potential we can feel as we’re seared by the promise of a present that gestures toward a better later.” (Dolan, 7) But best intentions are nowhere near enough. What is needed from Settler Canadians now is dialogue, commitment to future actions, or just simply showing up at TRC gatherings to learn about their country’s less than glorious history and role in cultural genocide – to “kill the Indian in the child.”

Speaking to this lack of public engagement during a TRC community hearing in Nova Scotia, Miqmac survivor Isabelle Knockwood has noted the inequity of what is asked of from survivors and what has been asked of from the non-Aboriginal public. As Knockwood sees it, although those who give expressions of reconciliation often offer apology for their institutions’ roles in the residential schools, such statements do not necessarily evidence the complex emotions of the past in a similar way to those survivors re-telling their experiences. Importantly, in her community hearing testimony Knockwood confronted the difference in emotional labour of witnesses and survivors:

 

 “The church members haven’t told us about their experiences. The pedophiles, the clergy of pedophiles haven’t told us their experiences. The abusers, the ones that punished us so severely, they didn’t tell us how they feel when they were punishing us. The government is not telling us how they felt when they put us on Indian reservations and how happy they were to build Indian residential schools in order to kill the Indian in the child. When are they going to tell us how that felt like?”

(http://www.livestream.com/trc_cvr/video?clipId=pla_eadc323b-6d17-4086-8b20-633cd72f8bb0 , Thu Oct 27 2011 10:03:47 AM, 30:01 – 31:15)

Years after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to residential school survivors, a significant proportion of the non-Native Canadian public remains ignorant that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is ongoing and is meant to include them as witnesses. Through such ignorance Settler Canadians continue to abrogate their responsibility to understand this history as their own. After all, as the fallacious argument would have it, since non-Aboriginal Canadians aren’t themselves the perpetrators of past injustices of the state, why should they make any effort to engage in learning about this history, or to support social change in communities affected by intergenerational trauma. Many of Canada’s non-Native Settler public, like those named by Isabelle Knockwood, remain indifferent toward acknowledging the history of colonization upon which their contemporary privilege rests.

Many First Nations participants who attend the TRC are from my own generation – a generation who did not themselves attend residential schools, but whose parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did. Many from this generation have adopted the term “intergenerational survivor” to acknowledge continuing abuse its impact within our families and communities, and as a way to describe the effects the schools had on the loss of cultural traditions and languages. Although I do not use this term for myself, I feel the intergenerational impacts of residential schools keenly. The time has come, however, to re-direct the term “intergenerational” toward Settler publics. There is a large degree to which Settler attendees at TRC events see their participation in the process as limited to a witnessing of survivors’ testimony alone, to making symbolic gestures, or to offering their friendship. Yet these first steps, however important they may be, limit the extent of Settler responsibility necessary in redress. Moreover, such contributions avoid the crucial step of claiming what I call Settler Canadians’ intergenerational responsibility to lend resources (both individual and institutional) to future change.

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Fiona Foley: Aboriginal art is innately political

20131115-161517.jpgA couple of days ago I had the opportunity to interview somewhat of a childhood hero of mine, Fiona Foley.

Did any of you play “when I grow up I’m gonna be…..”? Well I did and as a Gemini my answer changed a lot and were abit gammin! However there was two constants; artist and storyteller.

Overtime, I realised that to be an Aboriginal artist is to innately be a storyteller, and with that revelation I made steps in becoming an Aboriginal artist by moving off country to study at the College of Fine Arts, Sydney.

It was such an awesome opportunity to spend sometime with Fiona to get her perspective on being a storyteller.

Fiona Foley is a Brisbane-based artist and exhibits regularly in Australia and internationally. She was in London at the same time as me as she had work exhibited at the Royal Academy and at the Ecocentrix Exhibitions. Most importantly she was the Keynote speaker for the Origins First Nations Festival.

Below you will find the little interview I had with Fiona whilst she was in London. She was exhibiting her work in two key exhibitions and presenting a keynote address which I believe is a key indicator of where the Aboriginal Arts industry is now.

How does your current exhibition at the Royal Academy compare to 1994’s Aratjara travelling exhibition curated by Djon Mundine?

The Aratjara Exhibition curated by Djon Mundine in 1994 included over 100 works by contemporary and traditional Aboriginal Artists with many East Coast artists represented such as Fiona and Michael Riley. The exhibition travelled throughout Europe and was taken up by prominent spaces such as Kunstsammlung, Dusseldorf and Hayward Gallery, London.

I asked Fiona how did this experience differ to her current work in the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, London as I was intrigued to see how the differing socio-political environments; the 90’s being the following decade after self-determination and the boom of the red, black and yellow, had impacted upon the exhibiting of Aboriginal artists. I was also interested in the comparison to non-Indigenous and Indigenous curators.

Fiona stated that there was an “explosion” of Aboriginal people in the 90’s and a boom in Aboriginal people creating work, this in conjunction with people like Gary Foley and Lesley Fogarty involved with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board (Australia Council for the Arts) ensured that Aboriginal artists contemporary and traditional had the space and ability to develop and exhibit works internationally and nationally such as Aratjara. Fiona stated in her Keynote address that Aratjara set the benchmark in regards to Aboriginal exhibitions by Aboriginal people and nineteen years on, still has the benchmark still has not been surpassed.

She also noted that despite Aratjara’s critical acclaim internationally; including a significant media presence, the exhibition received little or no coverage within Australia and no galleries explored the opportunities to house the exhibition. Fiona believes it was a shame that it was not picked up back home and believes that the then political environment stifled any possibility to do so.

Fiona also mentioned that during the “Howard” years many Aboriginal artists stifled themselves particularly during the “History Wars” where she believed that many artists censored themselves and their art as many feared not securing funding.

The “History Wars” peaked during Johns Howard’s time as Prime Minister and marks the continual struggle of White Australia’s acknowledgement of Indigenous dispossession and attempted genocide which in turn caused a massive rupture to White Australia’s self-understanding.

How does exhibiting internationally differ from nationally, further yet locally within your own country?

Fiona commented that there is a “historical shackling” when working within Australia and that there is a freedom when exhibiting work internationally as you are not pigeon-holed and you escape the politics.

Internationally, Fiona has produced and exhibited many of her most successful works, such as, HHH and Wild Times Call . Also, she believes developing works internationally loosens the expectation that Aboriginal artists deliver work that comments on the Aboriginal experience and enables artists to deal with universal themes. This is evident in Fiona’s HHH series which was created in the USA and is loaded with connotations on the African American experience with the Klu Klux Klan that universally has impacted upon Black/White issues including Australia.

Locally, Fiona has exhibited locally in her hometown of Hervey Bay and in her home state of Queensland. One of her most prolific and controversial works is Witnessing to Silence (2004) which is a public installation at the Queensland Magistrates Courts.

Fiona also mentioned that there is a lot of pride in exhibiting back home especially from her mob.

Is there any difference between regional and urban Contemporary Aboriginal artists?

Yes, urban Aboriginal artists are immediately assumed to be delivering political art whereas regional art is believed to be more community based and within the context of the market place, expectations are less.

As an urban artist based within Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and other metropolis’ there is an increase of entry points into the national arts industry with a quicker career trajectory internationally. There are a few exceptions such as Karla Dickens and Robert Campbell Junior whom both are regional artists who have received critical acclaim,

There is a struggle for urban artists is to receive recognition for the innate presence of “culture” within their works and their connection to country, this in comparison to the immediate correlations between regional artists and their connection to country and culture shows a huge discrepancy between the expectations of regional and urban Aboriginal artists.

Is Aboriginal art innately political. Is your art deliberately political?

Fiona believes Aboriginal art is innately political.

Arnhem land artists are talking about their country and in turn they are creating their title deed of their country, if you will in western sense.

Urban artists commentary of their Aboriginal experience is innately political however, the market place tries to depoliticise the work, take the politics out.

Fiona believes it is who we are, we are political, its an expression of life, connectedness to family, histories and country and it is neither good or bad thing.

What is it to be an Aboriginal artist today?

As an Aboriginal artist today you have a lot more doors open especially on the East Coast of Australia with better entry points in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Fiona believes Boomali was fundamental in the development of the Contemporary Aboriginal art scene.

Fiona also highlighted once again the better international career trajectory that many Aboriginal contemporary artists experience such as Christian Thompson who is now based in the UK.

After the interview I left feeling pretty incredible. One reason being that I met a childhood hero of mine but more importantly, I just finished having a deadly yarn with a deadly Batjala woman about how incredible Aboriginal artists are. We are powerful storytellers who have a big, big place; not only in the Australian art scene but internationally.

-Gabi