In this review/ conversations/ transcript, we wish to speak to both the show and the moment in history that it represents. Each of us has had experiences as a supporter on the front lines of the movement, whether that be at one of the many rallies or occupations that sprang up in the Spring of 2020, as response to the raids that took place on Wet’suwet’en land, or by journeying to those lands ourselves during the Summer of 2020, to deepen both personal relationships and our understanding of our place in relationship to the Indigenous people on whose lands we live; unceded, unasked, and so often disrespected. The piece we’ve created is less of a formal review and more of a reflection, brought to life as conversations between us and Eli Hirtle, Indigenous curator at Open Space, and the person responsible for bringing together the artists who created Land Back.
It is accompanied by two audio tracks of our full conversations, offering an opportunity to engage with this work on a different level, and in the original, dialogue-based format.
In Conversation: Zoe-Blue Coates and Joy Ngenda (November 17, 2020)
ZB: What is Land back?
JN: I think before you can define something like Land Back [the show], you have to have an understanding of who you are. Right? And I think that identity is such a hot topic word right now. How you identify has become such an important factor in the way that you move through the world and the jobs that you get, in the politics that you espouse, and all of these things are really intertwined. But I think that it comes out of a deeper sense of identity than just the common social ones, like, your roots, and your heritage, and the knowledge that you have, of the place that you were born, but also the places that your ancestors came from. And the relationship that you have, to the land that you were living on and the land that you came from, and then also the relationships of Indigenous peoples on the lands that you live on, and the lands that you are indigenous to.
ZBC: I think land back [the movement] definitely goes with identity, as you were saying, and fits in with this idea of justice. And justice with identity is so deeply rooted in our histories and our responsibilities to our ancestors that were wronged. No matter where you are from, I think that land back is something that definitely has a connotation of being used, in so called Canada, with what we saw in Wet’suwet’en, Mi’kma’ki, and Six Nations territories. But that brings about the question: can you only want land back if you are on Turtle Island? Or can you want land back anywhere in the world? And is this you know, a shift towards a global fight against imperialism and colonization, and the sort of capitalism that has come along with those systems? And if so, what does that look like?
JN: Yeah, I think part of it is just introducing a complex narrative to accept that we can't all claim the same history and accept that we haven't all experienced the same struggle. It means pushing back against that social narrative that we're corralled into.
ZBC: Yeah. So, with that, I guess one way that we can push back against that narrative for me, at least is to support the land back movement as an individual, and not necessarily as a black person, but as a black person who has a very specific history on Turtle Island. And as someone who's upholding my family’s values.
ZBC: The more that people do that as individuals, the more we can start to form coalitions based on common experiences, right? The two of us have had a chance to support the land back movement in February 2020 at the British Columbia legislative occupation. And now we’re speaking to the artwork that was developed in response to the land back movement that we've seen this year.
JN: Yeah, the ongoing land back movement, you know, because this isn't just a thing that's going to be done in 2020. I think that land back is such a reimagining of reconciliation. I mean, I really don’t want to say that, but we really grew up in the era of reconciliation. What I mean by that is the Canadian government talked about reconciling with Indigenous people, and building good relationships and honoring treaties, or building new treaties, and agency, you know, and respecting decisions that were made by Indigenous nations. But land back has come along as a reinvigoration of Indigenous politics in Canada or a new way of engagement. Not just by Indigenous peoples, but by the Canadian imagination. By a new generation of people who are coming into their own identities as individuals and citizens of this country, who have a more complex understanding of the ethical implications of our relationship to Indigenous peoples. And what it means for us to live on land that in so many places, was never ceded to Canada. And even in places where it was ceded, it was done through trickery.
ZBC: Totally, let’s look at the lands that we’re on as an example. We're here on Lekwungen territories. If we look at the example of the Douglas treaties, or the Vancouver Island treaties, there have been legal scholars who have said that they were never treaties to begin with. They are a contract. It was supposed to lay the groundwork for relationship building. Not just something that is signed, left, and forgotten. So that ongoing relationship, I think, is a piece that land back touches on, or at least, like, for me, as a black settler, land back brings up the importance of having an ongoing relationship and honoring that relationship and understanding what your responsibilities are. Whereas truth and reconciliation is about making up for a relationship, saying you're sorry, and moving on.
JN: Yeah, or not even moving on just stuffing it in a drawer and pretending it didn't happen.
ZBC: I think that land back is our wildest imaginations of how we can protect ourselves and look after one another.
JN: How we can live in a good way.
Full Audio Conversation:
In Conversation: Zoe-Blue Coates, Eli Hirtle, Joy Ngenda (November 27th at Open Space)
Eli Hirtle: Something that we're doing as a part of this exhibition is each of the artists were commissioned to design a risograph print. We're putting those up in the shop. This isn’t just about their art careers and having a show on their CV, They’ve worked together to produce something that's going to generate funds. Nicole’s [funds are] going to the K’é infoshop in Alberquerque, which has been doing a ton of mutual aid during COVID for Navajo Nation, getting water to elders, and PPE (personal protective equipment) to people. Chandra's [funds are] going to Tiny House Warriors. [Funds from] Whess’s poster and patches are going to Unist’ot’en. And Lacy's [are] going to 1492 Land Back Lane legal funds. That’s a way to work with each of the artists about what Land Back means to them, and where they want the money, what they want to support through this exhibit.
Zoe-Blue Coates: I think something that's really interesting, is the ways that artists often respond to social movements with their creations. Within BIPOC spaces everything that we do always goes back to liberation. At least in my mind, it does within the artist community that I grew up in, it always goes back to liberation. It always goes back to: how is this going to educate people? How is this going to support our communities? So, it's really cool to see that happening.
EH: Yeah, I often get disillusioned with the contemporary art world, and the trappings of that. How the systems that are in place, [… ] public galleries and museums and artists run centers, and art schools and the whole system. There's a competitive nature to it. It's all about like excellence and outperforming one another and how much recognition you get, winning awards. There's all of that stuff. And it's completely at odds in a lot of ways, from activist communities that I was a part of, before coming into this world. That's why I often feel this tension, this push and pull.
Nicole and I were at a beadwork symposium in Winnipeg, when the first occupation was happening. And so, we were like, “What the fuck are we doing here?” And no one's talking about it. It's about beadwork, these designs that come from the land, and no one is talking about what's going on. That's when all the blockades were happening everywhere. And it was just like, fuck, this is the only thing that I'm thinking about.
And this, [Land Back the show] continues that momentum, I hope. I hope it's also in some ways, challenging some of the conventions of how we may do exhibitions. The staggered install was a very deliberate decision. Outside of it being more safe to have each artist come in one at a time, instead of having all of the work, or all of the artists here at the same time. And in my mind as I was thinking it through, not even knowing if we're gonna be able to do it in the fall, in the summer, in the spring. And this way, in my mind we would more authentically replicate the energy and the ebb and flow of bodies and resources in an action like a protest, a blockade, or an occupation. This would also give an opportunity for each artist's work to be showcased individually. To build into something bigger than the individuals and kind of, you know, reflect these communities that we come from and that we represent and that we're a part of.
It was a lot of work. We're trying to organize everything, keep ourselves going for eight weeks. I'm like, what was I thinking? I kind of wish we just did it in an intense week or two weeks? Yeah. But then it would have just been the same.
Joy Ngenda: How do we sustain that forward motion of Land Back? And not just put up one vertical front that never moves? I feel like land back is such a baby movement. You know what I mean? There's so many things that have been going on, like fronts for so long, and land back kind of just shot out of nowhere, earlier this year. And now here we all are. It's become such a rallying cry for so many people in the last ten months. How did it feel to be working with a concept that is still in its infancy and is still becoming itself?
EH: Well, I have been keeping in mind, this is a continuation of hundreds of years of labor in different communities and people, some known, some unknown, some celebrated […], some not at all. Our Elder-In-Residence, Gerry Ambers, has been doing this work for 50 years. And she told me a story about how her and some friends at Sechelt in the late 60s were liberating kids from a residential school. They were asked by the community; they were part of the Red Power movement in Vancouver. And they went and got kids out of school. And she was a part of actions down in Washington State to help get fishing rights, and got that fight going. There's the occupation of Alcatraz Island, there's Wounded Knee, there are dozens and dozens, and this is just thinking of North America, movements, and pivot points where things have happened. And so, I think in the more recent history of Idle No More and Standing Rock [movements]. And how the folks who started Standing Rock, were inspired by what Frida and folks were doing in Wet’suwet’en territory. And then these things feed each other and the energy builds, and we learn from each other. We shared skills when I went to Unistot’en, and there were folks from back east and folks from down south. That action camp was all about skill sharing and teaching one another. And I think that's the context that I place it within as a continuation and the newest iteration of these previous movements. It's totally correct, that land back is still figuring out what it means. How it’s going to mobilize people. And I think within that there's so much possibility in it being reflexive and site specific to whatever community things are happening within. I think maybe Idle No More, it was a little bit more constrained. And also, maybe centralized in a certain way with the four or five founders of Idle No More and this [land back] has such a decentralized feeling to me.
JN: That’s beautiful.