Not Checking Boxes

Understanding Cultivating Kin on its own terms
By Zool Suleman
Image by Solomon Chiniquay and jaz whitford. Installation image by Michael Love. Artspeak Gallery.
Image by Solomon Chiniquay and jaz whitford. Installation image by Michael Love. Artspeak Gallery.

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This special issue of Rungh Magazine is documenting the work of Cultivating Kin. Over the past few years, all of us involved in Cultivating Kin have been asked about what is that we are involved with, and we have struggled to answer in a short, succinct, grant-writing type format. A “check the box” format that is all to familiar to artists who apply for arts funding. In a sense, Cultivating Kin arose out of a desire to not “check the box”. My approach to describing Cultivating Kin in this article is to focus on certain terms that came to my mind as I reflected upon the Cultivating Kin story: Primary Colours; flux and change; relationships not transactions; historically informed; and documentation.

Primary Colours. Conversations about Cultivating Kin in-variably lead to the historic cultural gathering, not a conference, which took place on Lekwungen territories in September 2017. Conceived and hosted by France Trepanier and Chris Creighton-Kelly, Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires (PC/Cp) was a bringing together of IBPOC identified artists from across the country. As Chris Creighton-Kelly noted:

The fundamental goal of the Gathering was to bring people together – across generations, across racial backgrounds, across regions, across gender fluidities, across the two official languages, across artistic disciplines – to talk about this and to see what new knowledge can be generated that went beyond the "access paradigm" or the "inclusion paradigm". We feel that we are in "the engagement paradigm", that is the idea to bring people together who could really generate new approaches to these conversations.

Rungh was relaunched in 2017 at PC/Cp as a web platform and Rungh became an Incubation Partner committed to centering IBPOC arts practices in Canada’s arts systems. At PC/Cp, some of the creators who would become the Cultivating Kin core group met for the first time, or met again, their paths having crossed over the years. Inspired by PC/Cp, a Vancouver group of PC/Cp artists began to meet informally to build relationships and to discuss the possibility of new approaches to culture making and arts funding.

Flux and Change. The post PC/Cp conversations in the Vancouver group were taking place at a time when funders were hearing the message that traditional funding approaches were no longer sufficient to encompass the broad set of changes which IBPOC artists were seeking. During the 2017-2019 period, the City of Vancouver began on visioning its Culture Plan. The eventual result was Vancouver Culture/Shift 2020-2029. As a part of the consultation process, in 2018 the City of Vancouver funded “Host Your Own Engagement Sessions”. David Ng, Margo Kane, Valerie Sing Turner, Haruko Okano, and I, became the hosts of two sessions: the first at Britannia Community Centre and the second at the studios of Full Circle First Nations Performance.

The title of the first engagement session says it all: “Done with ‘Diversity’: Reframing the future for Indigenous & Racialized Artists in Canada.” The multicultural, diversity paradigm which had framed arts funding in Canada for several decades had been insufficient and unacceptable. It was at the second engagement session that an attendee (Abeer Yusuf) suggested that the Vancouver group apply for a new funding stream at the Vancouver Foundation – a Systems Change Grant. In 2018 the Vancouver Foundation was interested in funding multi year projects that engaged in “disrupting the ways that systems worked” and “arts and culture” was a “sector” which could be funded.

David Ng, Haruko Okano, Margo Kane and I agreed to attend the 2019 workshops deemed necessary by the Vancouver Foundation, in order to apply for the funding. The workshops used the language of “social innovation labs” as a framework within which to operate. At the closing event for the workshops, where participants were invited to “pitch” their ideas, it was obvious that our funding idea, an “IBPOC Social Innovation Lab”, based on a process of group learning and iteration, was a strong contender for funding. Our 2019 application to the Vancouver Foundation for multi-year funding was successful.

The re-examination of culture funding practices by the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Foundation, the Canada Council and other major funders across the country did not arise in a vacuum. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had been ongoing since 2007 and its final report was released in 2015 with 94 “calls to action”. #BlackLivesMatters (BLM) began to trend as a hashtag on social media and gain strength as a movement in 2013 and onwards. White supremacist movements were emboldened with the election of Donald Trump in the USA in 2016. In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5°” warning of a climate apocalypse. By early 2020, the whole world became aware of COVID-19 and the successive waves of the disease fundamentally changed how we lived. Anti-Asian racism grew. All of these changes, and others, occurring on many levels, had, and continue to have, a big impact on the work of Cultivating Kin.

Relationships not transactions. One core idea that is central to Cultivating Kin is that artists need to engage in creating trust through relationships and not engage in the transactional mentality that pervades within Canada’s arts systems. In addition to relationship, the other four R’s of decolonizing work were also a guide in the journey: respect, representation, relevance and responsibility.

Cultivating Kin began, without its present name, as an idea with roots in PC/Cp. From 2017 to now, a period of six years and counting, it is as if there has been an ongoing talking circle with various people coming and going as their energies and spirits permitted. We have built on a foundation of “kinship” and we have continued to cultivate this kinship over the years. For portions of time Mark Igloliorte and Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen were involved and then moved on. Nicole Kelly Westman, David Garneau and Diane Roberts joined the core group and still remain. While the idea of “core” and “periphery” do not do justice to the organic nature of Cultivating Kin, the term does reference a group of people who have joined the journey and are still actively engaged in the journey. As Cultivating Kin moves forward into 2024, the core group might once again change.

In reflecting upon the TRC’s Call to Action #83, David Garneau thinks through his ideas about what Indigenous and non-Indigenous artist collaborations might entail and writes:

True collaboration begins with conciliation. Participants co-conceive the terms, protocols, goals, and meanings that shape the shared action before and while it occurs.

For the above quotation, Garneau footnotes the Towards Braiding work of Elwood Jimmy, Vanessa Andreotti, and Sharon Stein. Several of the people that the Elwood, Vanessa and Sharon acknowledge in the book are, in turn, a part of Cultivating Kin. As becomes evident, the conversations that Cultivating Kin has been hosting are part of a larger set of conversations that stretch not only east, west and north across Canada, but also between the global north and south.

In conceiving its own terms, protocols and goals, Cultivating Kin decided that we wanted to create our own funding mechanism which was not based on “checking boxes”. We wanted to fund collaborations and mentorships founded on trust and which did not embed expectations of “production” at the end of a mentorship. Instead of using a jury of “experts” to determine who received funding, we relied on our own respective knowledges and communities to find mentors, and then asked the mentors to select their mentees. Mentors and mentees were both funded with a monthly artist fee for a period of six months.

The first group in January 2022 included Haruko Okano and Noelle Lee, Sharon Brass and Joleen Mitton, Marianne Nicolson and Lindsey Willie, and Ruby Singh and KeAloha Noelani. The second group in May 2023 included Su-Feh Lee and Juolin Lee, Omari Newton and Synto Derrick, and the continuation of Marianne Nicolson and Lindsey Willie. The learnings from each cohort are shared during group gatherings via online video meetings and in person meetings when possible. The “product” of these mentorships is one of shared knowledge and support within and beyond each pairing, and within and beyond Cultivating Kin. Any art created to be shared with larger audiences may result from the mentorship but is not a goal of the mentorship. Cultivating Kin does not have metrics for assessing mentorships other than what was learned and what could change/shift to make future mentorships more enriching for all the kin involved.

Historically Informed. The artists who are the kin in Cultivating Kin are historically informed with histories covering the past five decades. Our histories of engagement in the Canadian cultural landscape, provide sites of guidance, learning and sharing. We have different understandings and perspectives from across generations, arts practices, geographies, languages and traditions. In my view, it is our individual and collective curiosities grounded in an ethic of respect and learning that have been a key part of Cultivating Kin’s cohesion. Listening to learn, holding silence, comforting when needed, and asking with sensitive intention are some of the skills that we have brought to and shared within Cultivating Kin. This building of community has taken time and the commitment of time to the journey is another learning which has come out of Cultivating Kin. Current funding metrics and cycles do not provide enough time for cultural communities to build and nurture each other. For IBPOC identified communities who have historically been denied funding, the time it takes to build ecosystems of learning, trust and relation is even more important.

Documentation. The documentation of IBPOC cultural histories in Canada is woefully inadequate. As new generations of IBPOC artists emerge, they find few histories of art and culture making Canada that reflect them or their concerns. There are attempts being made to create and resurrect IBPOC histories at a various physical and virtual sites across Canada. At Rungh, exploring and activating our archive as well as carefully documentation of the work we do is a core function. Some of the archives we are working on at Rungh intersect with member of Cultivating Kin such as the Local Colour protests against the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Minquon Panchayat and its challenge to Canada’s artist-run-center movement, the documentation of a boycott against the Open Space gallery, and more. Rungh has also been documenting and activating its own relationship to PC/Cp by commissioning reflections and keeping track of the journey from PC/Cp, to the City of Vancouver Culture Shift process, to the Vancouver Foundation social lab workshops. Rungh’s documentation of Cultivating Kin fits into this multi-year approach of capturing and saving IBPOC cultural histories.

Instead of relying on written reports, Cultivating Kin has chosen to document its process through a series of conversations between Chris Creighton-Kelly and France Trepanier (Decolonizing Funding), Nicole Kelly Westman and David Ng (Trust and Relationships), Valerie Sing Turner and Diane Roberts (Generative Discomfort), David Garneau and Margo Kane (Decolonizing and Returning Ancestral Practices), and Haruko Okano and me (Local Colour Protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery).

In addition to the recorded conversations, Rungh also commissioned David Ng and Valerie Sing Turner to engage in a written exchange to explore their own pathways to Cultivating Kin and to explain, from their own perspectives, some of the core ideas which inform Cultivating Kin. David Garneau’s Tawatinâ Bridge installation images have been utilized as visual markers through out this issue. Solomon Chiniquay was commissioned by Cultivating Kin to photo document two of the in-person gatherings which took place (in 2022 and 2023) and his portraits and more can be found at the Cultivating Kin Initiatives page. Solomon Chiniquay and jaz whitford’s exhibition, Ake Huchimagachach Ena (I’ll see you again mother) Ake Huchimagachach Ade (I’ll see you again father) is featured in this issue’s Artist Run Centre.

Cultivating Kin seeks to be understood on its own terms. We hope that this special issue helps to mark a part of the continuing journey.

Zool Suleman
Zool Suleman is an advocate, writer, journalist, and cultural collaborator.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre