LOUD: In Conversation with Raven Davis
by Charlotte Henay
Raven Davis does the hard work of making futurity and community through their art. Their performance, installation and visual art acts as protest and reverence, asking what we have to honour and to offer, in an ethic of responsibility. They subvert the norm, refusing colonial society’s reverence and memorialization of war, genocide, Indigenous erasure and womxn as commodifiable and disposable. Raven speaks about making work from the now, from a place/space/time of humility – acknowledging our ancestors and our voices as echoes of theirs. We spoke about voice as being so much more than speech, if not sometimes its antithesis. Raven reflects, in their work and in this conversation, on silence as inherent in voice. What is not said speaks as loudly, if not louder than, what is spoken. We’re accountable for what we say, as well as for the repercussions of the silences in which we are complicit. Personal voice articulates an expression of self, and a rejection of homogenizing representations of Indigeneity. Raven’s work is multidisciplinary and multifaceted in its conception, presentation and scope. I read it as connected to relationships of imagining, where critiques of colonial oppressions and constructs give way to re-imagining ourselves and how we relate to each other, all beings and elements in the multiverse. This relational imaginary invites creative world-making in ways, forms and with means we may not yet remember. This is futurity.
Charlotte Henay: I read your work as connected to the relationships of imagining that undergird the politics of art, especially in a matrilineal legacy of survival and expression. What is most important for you in the work that you’re doing now, that you want to have come across?
Raven Davis: Silence requires courage and speaking requires humility. Especially with the complexities of our lives, when we may feel we’ve been both taught and betrayed by the same person or system. In My Mother Gave Me My IMFA – Indigenous Master’s of Fine Arts, I wrote about something I cherish. It was a story in honour of my mother, my first teacher. Our relationship has held so many beautiful and tragic events. As I age, I am learning, understanding and unpacking the fruits and gi s that I want to carry and those I want to let go of. Art can reconcile and heal without words. It’s transformative and humbling, and as a result, some of my work doesn’t leave my studio. I keep it close to me like a treasured childhood diary.
It is important to me that my work reflects the truest feeling I have in my heart at that moment, and the viewer then shares a mutual call-and-response with my work. This invites self-reflection, and a journey to learn more about the society the viewer lives in, or about the Indigenous people they have in their lives. I also realize that critiques of my work may not reflect the intent I had making it. People have different experiences and awareness. As a result, I have to be mindful that my intent and messaging may fall differently on different people – which, for me, is also a beautiful human response and result from making and sharing art.
It is equally important to me that in some of my installations and performances, the viewer becomes a part of the art, as opposed to creating a unidirectional exhibit. For example, I made an installation piece called Child’s Play for Them, Murder for Us. It’s a replica of a beanbag toss that would typically be played at a birthday party. The board has points. Each bag is a representation of the tokenized souvenir dolls representing missing and murdered Indigenous women, children and Two-Spirit (MMIWC2S) people. These dolls, which you can still purchase at gift shops, romanticize and fetishize our culture. Each of these beanbags has an image of the printed souvenirs on them. In the game, each doll represents 10 to 12 Indigenous women. There are 150 bags in the installation. Upon entering the gallery, people are inclined to think this is a game. The board represents the Canadian government, as a parallel for Canada playing games with our lives. People have the option to play the game in the gallery, throwing the lives of MMIWC2S people into the mouth of the Canadian government – a creepy circus clown who is careless with our lives. Deep down, I hope no one actually decides to play, but that is their choice. The intention is to engage the participation of the visitors, invoking a realization of how neglectful the government is in dealing with Indigenous lives, and how “Canadians” show up for Indigenous people.
CH: Voice is not always speech. How do you work with silence in The De-Celebration of Canada?
RD: Sometimes the strongest voices are silent. The strength of the work is what we do, versus what we say. […] If you follow my artwork and my practice, that is my statement, versus an artist statement that I write to try to capture everything I want to say. Conversations with friends, my life outside of the gallery, the life I live, all create my artwork.
CH: Voice can also manifest as a contributing factor in the erasure of Indigeneity. How do you think of political art as prayer, and what Zahir Kolia (2016) refers to as the sacred as a fluid man- ifestation of time? How can art and prayer form the sacred and intervene to subvert oppression beyond colonial, linear (read Gregorian calendar) time?
RD: The prayer bench that was used in my performance for Halifax Mayworks, this spring, is also included in my solo exhibit The De-Celebration of Canada 150 at the Khyber.
It’s facing a 10-foot pure white Canadian flag. The flag is used as a projection screen. It speaks to white supremacy in Canada. I called the installation Whiteness is Civility. It’s what people think is civil; people in church, people who don’t fight, who stay quiet, the government: all are civil. White bodies are civil. Ten white people running down the street, that’s civil. Ten people of colour running down the street, and something is wrong. Civility has a close relationship to Canada 150. The “civil” church was instrumental to Indigenous genocide in Canada. It is instrumental in dealing with the “Indian Problem.”
There is a lot of beauty in spirituality, in praying for people who have experienced trauma. Beauty, strength, resilience come through spirituality. Religion is a tool that has been used to inflict abuse on our people. People generalize, and see spirituality as religion, as harmful, or bad. There’s also a lot of judgment of people who are spiritual, and who pray, especially in the queer community. Spirituality, prayer and ceremony are such a big part of who I am, so ostensibly they’re part of my work.
CH: How does it feel to be so embodied in the work, and vulnerable in performances where your body is on display?
RD: Walking down the street in our bodies is being vulnerable. It’s easy for people to see the vulnerability in the performance. They see the ropes, not seeing the vulnerability of living; surviving the daily threat of racism, police violence, violence from other people in the society, violence as a womon, violence as a Two-Spirit person.
The work disrupts what people are comfortable honouring and marking. In Halifax, canons, monuments and tourist attractions are these markings. Tour buses flock to Citadel Hill, where – as part of the attraction – you can dress up as a British soldier. We don’t go to Germany and dress up as Nazis. Why are we doing that here, where genocide and violence has been, and continues to be, perpetuated on Indigenous bodies every day?
I honour my ancestors, and the past. I stand for the past, in the present, through my work. I stand for a different narrative. I’m on display but I am also privi- leged. I can walk away from this monument. The performances at Mayworks were endurance performances. I stood there with my discomfort, for an hour and 50 minutes. It was two degrees on the Hill. I was wearing a long thin black dress with my shoulders, arms and legs exposed. By the end of the performance, my knuckles and lips were purple from wind and cold exposure. In that small moment, I was honouring my ancestors, those who went through so much more, and who weren’t able to walk away. It’s insignificant in comparison. The government picks these colonial sites to acknowledge and commemorate, while Indigenous peoples continue to go without recognition. It’s shameful. The government pours money into legislation that does not protect Indigenous people and children. This is happening now, today.
CH: Do you choose or create specific pieces for sale to collectors, and others for placement in the colonial archive, as a disruption of the institutional narrative?
RD: When archiving my work, I think about my children. I hope they’ll remember the work and be inspired. I’ve watched my children question things I’ve done, and then a year or two year later, recount the teachings as they have come to understand them. This transfer of knowledge is archival. The “archive” lives through my children’s legacy. This is the way that Indigenous people have transferred information for thousands of years. My greatest achievement is witnessing my children talk about my work, or the topics I address in them. It’s not about whether someone is going to buy my work, but whether my children can speak to what they’ve been taught, and how they’ve obtained that knowledge. It’s important to know that my children, their bodies, their skin, their stories feel represented in galleries that have been predominantly accessed by white bodies.
In a piece entitled Indians Are Tired, c/o Colonial Tire, I reprinted Canadian Tire money. In the centre of the money is an image of [Justin] Trudeau. In our contemporary context, there’s an understanding reconciliation has occurred. It hasn’t. Within our current governmental structures, the harm is ongoing, and has not ended.
CH: How do you prepare for how the work will be received?
RD: All work created for this show should provoke and cre- ate reactions from people used to honouring the military, police and the Canadian government. For example, I recreated a Canadian military jacket as an installation piece for the De-Celebration of Canada 150. Sewn on both arms of the jacket are corporal chevrons and the Canadian flag, which have been placed upside down. Included are gold and blue embroidered patches representing atrocities such as: police and military violence, slavery, genocide and human trafficking, (dis)honour badges of practices that have been enforced by Canadian institutions.
This policing is underwritten by the very clear expectation: don’t mess around with the military, don’t dishonour the flag. Folks don’t see what the military is used for here in Canada. I am not going to shy away from the reasons I made this. Under Bill C51, the Canadian government views this work as terrorism. Anything that goes against the government is open to charges under the terrorism law. I am definitely preparing myself for the di cult conversations, the ones with people who don’t like my work, or take issue with it.
CH: Does the work speak for itself or are there a multiplicity of voices?
RD: The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to check, and to be critical of, my voice. I haven’t attended university; I don’t use academic language to describe what my voice is. I check what I’m saying and learning. I realize now that it’s so easy to make mistakes. There’s something very reflective about wondering, did I walk on this earth and speak good things today? Did I honour myself, life, my voice? If I make something that has nothing to do with politics, with experience, with history, then would I be in it? What about what has happened to my family and ancestors on this land?
I realize that in putting art out into the world, I have no control over how it’s interpreted and where it goes. I feel good when I have the chance to speak to the work directly. That’s where the strength is. Communicating. Once words leave your mouth you have no control over your voice, or how it’s taken up. The work I create comes from a place of voice, and the deepest part of me. The art has left my hands, like voice has left my mouth.