Primary Colours: Preparing a New Generation
by Clayton Windatt
A recent gathering conducted by Primary Colours on Lekwungen Territory, Victoria, BC, gathered various artists; Indigenous artists, Black artists, artists of colour and artists of settler heritage to discuss shared histories of colonialism, race and convention in the arts. This gathering acted as a platform of investigation into exclusionary power dynamics, exploring the constructs of inclusivity, building collective memory and offering tools to those attending, who represented all generations of cultural leaders from diverse and marginalized communities locally, nationally and internationally. Explorations of privilege, abuse, control and ways to circumvent those hazards within institutionalized models served as tools handed from one generation of cultural leaders to the next.
Primary Colours is a major Canada-wide initiative taking form as a multidisciplinary series of actions. The actions, spanning from 2016 to 2018, place Indigenous art practices at the centre of the Canadian art system and assert that art practices by people of colour play critical roles within any system that imagines Canada’s potential futures.
The Primary Colours gathering hosted approximately 90 invited participants, in addition to many coordinators, technicians, curators and various partnering representatives including governmental and foundation representatives. The gathering engaged process-based methodology to explore contemporary issues raised by Black Lives Matter, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Islamophobia, unsettling settlers and the strange occurrence of Canada 150 celebrations as a way of framing critiques of nationhood and cultural policy.
Chris Creighton-Kelly and France Trépanier led the Primary Colours conversations, both embodying a volume of experience within their individual and combined careers dealing with rights, culture and social justice through making. Chris Creighton-Kelly was born in the United Kingdom, of South Asian and British heritage, while France Trépanier is of Kanien’kéha:ka and French ancestry. Both are interdisciplinary artists and writers who work within critical curatorial, community-driven and research-based circles locally and internationally. Their work recognizes and values different bodies of knowledge, making steady progress towards understanding intrinsically, respecting protocols, honouring processes of collaboration and developing trust through transparency.
The four-day gathering continuously challenged the expected “conference” format, making consistent efforts to consider alternative methodologies, including ones set forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and practices rooted around the world. This meant that there would be no keynotes or formalized panel discussions but instead attempts were made to facilitate circles, sharing and informal conversations.
Primary Colours’ breakout sessions empowered artists and curators to actively engage in sharing their stories and practices, opening dialogues for constructive criticism to take place between peers. These conversations led to highly theoretical critiques of colonial institutions and inevitably overarching colonial environments as the established “norms” in which we all exist. Considerations of transformation and change were ever-present, leading to functional recommendations on how actual change could occur. One breakout session entitled “Engaging the Institution” with Tom Hill and Aruna Srivastava brought a group through several different organizations’ histories of transformation over the past 40 years. In each instance, the changes referenced were hard earned and required a great amount of self-sacrifice, but each also effectively became the foundation for new practices at institutions today. In many ways the groundwork set forward by figures such as Tom Hill or Louise Profeit LeBlanc, also present, supported the current climate at the Canada Council for the Arts and the creation of the new Creating Knowing and Sharing department. This gave the circle of people involved a higher level of firsthand knowledge towards leading institutional change and transferring generational knowledge to new leaders to continue advancing an agenda of transformation within the current models of Canadian cultural policy. An interdisciplinary focus has been an important curatorial strategy for many diverse cultural workers creating intergenerational dialogues that ultimately critique institutions to ensure privilege and power remain accountable.
Central to the gathering, the exhibition Deconstructing Comfort opened at Open Space, an artist-run centre in downtown Victoria. This exhibition was an interdisciplinary presentation of seven contemporary Indigenous artists and artists of colour, including Jamelie Hassan, Syrus Marcus Ware, Lisa Myers, Nadia Myre, Haruko Okano, Philip Kevin Paul and Léuli Māzyār Luna‘i Eshrāghi. Deconstructing Comfort was curated by Michelle Jacques, Doug Jarvis and France Trépanier, and all of artists and curators in the exhibition also contributed to the Primary Colours gathering.
Other issues that both Primary Colours and Deconstructing Comfort attempted to address were the constructs of “decolonization” and “indigenization” within Canada. Although many Canadians use these terms interchangeably, and at times they can be used to describe the same action, it is absolutely necessary to emphasize their difference. Wikipedia describes “indigenization” as “the act of making something more native; transformation of some service, idea, etc. to suit a local culture, especially through the use of more Indigenous people in administration, employment, etc.” Wikipedia is referencing the action from a governmental standpoint and what it does not acknowledge, in this definition, is that this act also means the transfer of power to those Indigenous people, not just in administration, but in governance, management and implementation on all levels. The amount that an organization, institution or government becomes Indigenized is self-determined but often leads to a heightened state of communication between both parties, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
Decolonization is the general act of undoing colonialism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “decolonization” as “the withdrawal from its colonies of a colonial power,” meaning when a nation has established and maintained domination over dependent territories or people, the people affected carry the domination and subsequent withdrawal with them. The act of decolonization can be organizationally driven or done on a personal level by dismantling preconceived notions left behind by colonization. It can also be the abandonment of one methodology to embrace another, less colonial way of life. It is not necessarily anchored to an Indigenous body as decolonizing oneself can be an act without Indigenous influence. This is also where many people start confusing the terms “indigenization” and “decolonization.” For a non-Indigenous person, the act of following Indigenous modes of being can be an act of decolonization but it is not an act of indigenization, as you can never change your blood or heritage. Indigenous people need to commit to decolonization as well but decolonization is unique to each individual colonized experience and the response differs each time.
Facilitating modes of communication between cultures is at the core of Primary Colours and the Deconstructing Comfort exhibition. It cannot be epitomized more than in the actions of Léuli Māzyār Luna‘i Eshrāghi, who describes himself as coming from Sāmoan, Persian, German and Chinese ancestries and living as an uninvited guest in unceded Kulin Nation territory. Léuli describes his practice as: “Son travail est axé sur le renouveau cérémonial-politique, les langues, les avenirs incorporés, et les indigénéités locales et diasporiques. His work centres on ceremonial-political renewal, languages, embodied futures, diasporic and local indigeneities.” Language is a vast part of Léuli’s artistic practice and life, and in the work that was part of Deconstructing Comfort entitled tagatanu’u, which means “people of the land / country / village / Indigenous.” In the piece, Léuli speaks in Sāmoan, Hawaiian, Tałtan, Woi Wurrung, Secwepemc, French and English as he emphasizes nuts, medicines and exoticised bodies as commodities simultaneously crushed by missionary body, spirit, sex-shaming and the extraction of labour into tourism, military, security, nuclear testing and plantations. During the performance, he immerses his body in a tub full of water, flowers and nuts in a way that is currently taboo in Sāmoan and other Indigenous cultures, to be in his body in a way that has power over intergenerational trauma and violence.
When gatherings take place – gatherings specifically focused on marginalized groups engaging with one another – there is a fear that the act of the gathering marginalizes those represented further; even the perceived action of segregation can cause further isolation. This is why Primary Colours ensured that many of the major stakeholders in the arts were present to witness the gathering, including the Musagetes Foundation, Department of Canadian Heritage, Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity, BC Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. The presence of these foundations and government agencies at the gathering ensures accountability in the large-scale recommendations for change being made. Those in power often wait until forced to respond either out of distraction, privilege or comfort, but should always feel accountable to the public. Challenging entrenched cultural policies, Primary Colours brought people together to address the urgent need for re-imagined Canadian art systems formed through the collective efforts of cultural leaders in many communities. Assembling this group of thinkers, advocates and activists allowed for an update of the 30+ year conversation that has taken place regarding race, ethnicity, colonialism and diversity in the arts. The resulting intersecting discourses between the many groups represented created consensus in terminology and a new context of expectations for changes in Canada’s future cultural policy.
Representation is never easy when examining the volume of publicly identified groups that are considered to be marginalized people. The idea that any individual can represent an entire population is laughable but making attempts to include many voices, with each bringing their own culture, heritage and perspective, is an act of cultural pluralism that enables relatively successful consensus building related between cultures, especially under the shadow of existing systemic frameworks in Canada. Discussions between marginalized groups outside of the presence of the dominantly “white” majority of arts administrators and government agents often takes on a completely different tone. Conversations that would not have the same critical commentary become heavily analysed as activists within social justice causes begin to share notes and point out areas where improvements could have been made. This also leads to conversations around issues of appropriation between marginalized groups and how all groups operating within the inherently white Canadian art system are inevitably damaged and cause damage to each other through that power.
Our relationships are messy and our identities are complicated but Primary Colours focuses our energies into collective actions. Bringing us all together allows us to find ways to empower one another through acts of collaboration and honest effort towards mutually beneficial goals for all. This also extends to those who may not consider themselves to be part of a marginalized group. Everyone needs to understand that these conversations discuss all people, and that major decisions about the climate of the arts and potential futures for Canada are taking place. This representation is not about displaying the “other” or allowing a spotlight to be shared with the less fortunate. The conversations that have taken place deal with the transfer of power from the existing infrastructures to new leaders. Major paradigm shifts are on the horizon, abandoning the notion of control and beginning leadership through stewardship. They ask us to contextualize language instead of creating new systems of complexity. They allow people to choose how they are identified and how they are discussed. These shifts ask that “empowerment” only be used as a term when power is being maintained or shared and that the “transfer of power” be considered for some situations. And such situations will become more pressing as these new leaders explore how they plan to enact change.