Re-centring Knowledge an Interview with Artist and Curator Anique Jordan
by Anique Jordan and Tania Willard
BUSH gallery recently spoke with artist and curator Anique Jordan about her recently curated off-site programming for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibition Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood, and ways in which this programming resonated with ideas we are activating at BUSH gallery.
The Public – Land and Body (West) was a video art exhibition installed inside the Black Creek Community Farm farmhouse in North York. Black Creek Community Farm focuses on improving food security, reducing social isolation and improving employment and education outcomes. The Public used performance, video installation and discussion to explore themes of land and body across two community sites: The Public – Land and Body (West) at Black Creek Community Farm and The Public – Land and Body (East) at Y+ contemporary in Scarborough. At Black Creek Community Farm, the program included work by artists Yu Gu, Lisa Hirmer, Lisa Myers, Ella Cooper and Joshua Vettivelu and panel discussions with Cooper (artist, educator), Erica Violet Lee (writer, blogger) and Sabrina “Butterfly” GoPaul (community activist and journalist) in conversation with curator, Anique Jordan.
TANIA WILLARD: At BUSH gallery we are thinking about creating intentional space for art-making or art-conversation or different things, but not in gallery spaces. Not that it’s meant to be a binary – we love gallery spaces, we want to be in gallery spaces – but part of the impetus for BUSH gallery is finding ourselves always having to move to cities to show in galleries. There are very few that are Indigenous- or people of colour- or Black-led; for this issue of C Magazine, we wanted to play with that idea and do reviews and texts that are more about experiences of art within a community that’s important to you or within a natural outdoor space or that kind of thing, rather than in a typical gallery system.
In thinking about that, I was following the work from the AGO exhibition and had noticed the programming you did at Black Creek Community Farm.
ANIQUE JORDAN: When I first started going to the AGO, only two years ago, I came with family and friends who also had never been there. I remember having conversations with people who didn’t feel like they had the right to interpret what they were seeing. They felt uncomfortable and I felt that with them.
I’ve always been a community worker, and because of working for so many years in my community I always think about a responsibility that I have to return art to the community that informs it. I feel like it’s up to artists and curators, and whomever is in the gallery world, to always be thinking about how the work that we are doing is a reflection of the experiences in the communities that we have come from. And therefore how do we give that back to them, to those spaces. I wanted to be able to do something that was not centred in the downtown core but reached out into the wings of the city, which are the places I grew up in and did all of my community work in – recognizing that these people typically are absent from gallery settings but the experiences that inform our lives in those wings of the city are constantly being leveraged in the gallery. The work is really centred in a public downtown geography. I wanted to privilege the knowledge that came from other sites and say that there are things that we can learn from showing and witnessing work that is coming from those spaces, but also there are things that we can learn just by being in those spaces.
AJ: My background in community work is really embedded in my way of thinking. I am truly indebted to the people, mentors and young people, who have taught me and who I have worked with growing up in Scarborough. I was pushed further to understand and be able to speak about what those experiences meant to me through the work of Quill Christie, an artist and educator, who also worked with me at the AGO. I learned from her the language to speak about what has been so fundamental to my work. She talks about relationships as a core artistic practice – the central role that relationships have in everything that you do. This helped me find the language in designing the work for The Public. I want to make sure that those community folks who taught me so much are centred.
There were a couple of elements that were really significant in The Public on both sides. One was that knowledge was centred on the people from the community, the activism and work that was coming from the community, and the sites that we were working with. That came from a strong partnership with the community members, between organizations – Black Creek Community Farm, Y+ contemporary and the AGO – but more so it came from the relationships that I had built knowing the folks on the ground, who had been doing this work. It was really about recentring the site where knowledge comes from and privileging that as the forefront.
Another element was that the project had to be accessible in many ways. I used my mom and my elder aunt as sort of a barometer – if they can go to a space and feel a visceral response or feel like they are comfortable talking about it or finding their own meaning through it, then I feel like it’s a success. I really thought about the different challenges that they would experience going through institutions as Black people, as women, as elder folk with disabilities, as folks who come from working class backgrounds, and so I wanted to ensure that the art, if it was art that was maybe abstract, or layered and symbolic, they would still have an entry point.
In The Public (West) it was important to have a panel discussion that allowed for the themes in the work at the farmhouse to be brought into a conversational space. That people could talk about it and those who learn differently could have a way of entering it in different forms. What was important to me, in that panel conversation, was that there was somebody there whose work really thought about land, and thought about particularly Canada as a site. It was important that there was an activist from the community or a community worker who was deeply rooted in that community as part of the panel. To bring the artwork into this conversation allowed us to make sense of the things we were talking about – so that we can start to, as a community, think about the ways that we interpret visual language, to understand what we are experiencing now. And while that becomes intuitive for an artist, or for folks who studied art, it’s not necessarily intuitive for many people. It mattered as a political action, in saying that this work comes from you, is informed by you and it is important that we return it to you in a way that we can talk about it. So that was how it was done in The Public (West).
We invited community members who are excluded from so many art spaces, so that they felt like they one-hundred-percent could own this, they do own this, and they could speak about it in a way that makes sense to them. Another important element was that the community that we were investing and embedding ourselves in was completely involved from the very beginning. That meant having conversations about the name, having conversations about the sites, selecting the artists together, selecting the placements of things together, talking about what sort of things would happen in tandem – for example Black Creek Community Farm just recently opened an outdoor pizza oven so we wanted to have fresh pizza with fresh vegetables from their garden, from the farm, to serve to people.
Community members were the first ones hired for anything. In particular, young people as photographers, as distributors of the flyers – we also made sure to print flyers so that we weren’t relying only on online presence, particularly in communities where there are a lot of seniors or people who may not be on the computer all time. So we flyered throughout the entire community. All these people came straight from the community, also as a way to ensure that there was a mix between artists who were in the show paired with artists who have a relationship to the community, currently living in the community or from that community. Having these kinds of components and the deepening of relationships was a really significant part of the work.
All the youth from the Indigenous youth residency, that Quill led and designed, were hired as gallery educators. I did an orientation with the group where we focused on what they thought of the art – what questions, feelings, stories they felt came from it – it was then their interpretation of the work that led visitors through. Making sure to continue to reiterate you are a keeper of knowledge. You can make sense of this. You know things. You bring so much. Together we asked what, for you, is coming from this? What is it that makes sense to you? What would you ask of this? It was really just asking questions of each other so that they had the space to come up with their own language to speak about the artworks. That was one of the most important components to the project, one that no one would have seen. When visitors came to the site, they would be led around by one of these young people. They would be speaking, and it wouldn’t be something I told them as a script. They would be speaking from their own perspectives, from the ways they understand this artwork. This is the way I want to work. I am constantly re-centering where knowledge comes from and affirming that.
That knowledge is often in a cycle, for example presenting the panelists with gifts that came from the farm. On the Black Creek Community Farm they have beehives and they collect honey and so we bought honey from their business to gift to the panelists. Things like that. Constantly recycling and returning resources that we have and thinking about how we can redistribute those resources. And really thinking about what matters, then, in the community as a site of knowledge within their own power.
It was also important to continue to build a relationship between Black, Indigenous and POC communities. That work was really central to how I programmed this. An example is Yu Gu’s work called Interior Migrations (2008). Her work is about migrant workers on the farms in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region. It’s about food and social justice. It’s about migrant labour. Three videos were put in the Black Creek Community Farm kitchen while the kitchen maintained its function. So when the people from the outreach program that the farm runs came, food was prepared in the kitchen right next to the screens with the migrant farmworkers of Gu’s documentary. With that, every action the kitchen became a performance as well.
One of the great things about the installation at Black Creek Community Farm was how children related to the work. I look at large cultural institutions, and when we go into these spaces with children they are taught to obey. They are taught how to follow rules. They are taught how to stop. Not play. Be silent. And I thought about how when we did this program at the farm, they were taught how to be free. How to run. How to touch things. How to eat things that they found. There were children playing with ducks and chicks. Going and sitting down in front of Lisa Myers’ work that was on the balcony. Or going inside to look at the incredible work by Joshua Vettivelu, Lisa Hirmer or Ella Cooper, and this would just happen fluidly throughout. I started seeing how confining an arts institution can be. Why wouldn’t we want it to be a place of freedom? It’s not a space where you can breathe and see a horizon behind the work or feel as though you can remember there is land and communities and neighbourhoods and people surrounding it.
I was thinking about work that has pain in it, not necessarily in a bad way, but work that is showing pain or hurt or difficult times and how you are drawn into that and it surrounds you. And then seeing how different displays of pain felt at the farm, where you could see that things still live even after that or through that. Thinking about Lisa Myers’ work, about her grandfather and the residential school, or seeing a door that’s wide open to the outside right next to Lisa Hirmer’s work that’s about climate change, and knowing that there is a type of agency, even amongst the pain and amongst whatever the work was about.
TW: So the artwork was able to be in relationship with the site, in relationship with the farm.
AJ: That was something that everybody really spoke about. How the farm informed how you understood the work. And the work informed how you understood the farm. And the land that the farm is on. And the community that surrounds the farm. I also thought about it as refusal, as a practice of refusal, where we are going to do this because we are artists and we are people in a community and this is our community space and we don’t need permission to show the work that comes from us. Even within that I also recognized that we were able to do that because there was money backing it. Which is important because artists have to be paid and their labour has to be accounted for.
TW: It’s important. We want to bring the circulation of economy that comes with art practices and the art world back into our communities, instead of always outside of.
AJ: Right. Yeah.
Thinking back to the women in my family – my mom and my aunts. I have always created work for little Black girls. Every time I create an artwork I imagine, or remember how few images that I had or even people to look to. I always want to be that person who, if you look to me and you can see what I’m doing, you can be affirmed and given strength. And now I’ve started looking to my mother and my aunts instead of only to that little girl. My mom is the youngest of 13 children and so people always think my aunts are my grandmothers. They are 70 and 80 years old. I started looking to them because my mom was telling me – you know, I want to understand this art but it feels so complicated.
And so I look to mother and my aunts, because I want them to be able to understand this because they created this. They gave us this and therefore we have a responsibility to make sure that they as elders and that little Black girl, as a child, can enter it. That is something that I felt was successful about this show. It’s not just the farmhouse, it’s everything else that surrounds it – the young people who spent time and took the care to talk to every person who came through because they were proud of it. It was their work and it came from their knowledge. The conversations on the farm were emotional. We talked about fighting, we talked about what community and art; it was a conversation that was so intimate and it was held outside in the sun with the pizza oven and a dog barking. Children were running and playing. Geese in the pen. And flower and corn. And things growing all around us. Having this conversation outside was such a different experience. It created a sense of freedom that was so necessary to come from work, and from our discussions about it. It was a human way to experience art.
Youth from the Indigenous Residency/
Gallery Educators (AGO):
Sabrina “Butterfly” GoPaul
Erica Violet Lee
Lisa Hirmer Lisa Myers
Black Creek Community Farm:
Andrew Hunter, co-curator of Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood
Madelyne Beckles, performance artist and Special Program Assistant, AGO
Quill Christie, Indigenous Youth Arts Residency Coordinator, AGO