Seeking Relation at the Speed of Trust

A Cultivating Kin Conversation
By David Ng and Valerie Sing Turner
Tawatina Bridge Installation. Artist David Garneau.

Tawatina Bridge Installation. Artist David Garneau.

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Valerie Sing Turner (VST): Hi, David!

So…we’ve been tasked with coming up with some kind of chronology of Cultivating Kin’s history of how we got here, to this moment in time where the Cultivating Kin (CK) are preparing to welcome our second cohort of IBPOC artists in residency starting May 2023. But like any movement – and I believe CK is a movement, which, like all movements, takes lessons from and builds upon progressive movements that came before – identifying when exactly a movement starts can be challenging. I mean, people write books and make careers figuring this stuff out! While you and I can both agree on who started this chain of events, without whom CK would not even exist – namely, the indomitable dynamic duo, France Trepanier and Chris Creighton-Kelly, who were instrumental in introducing the core members of CK to each other through their extraordinary Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires initiative – when and how Primary Colours came into being is a whole history unto itself. And how do we pinpoint the exact moment when CK stopped being the “Vancouver chapter” of Primary Colours, and became its own thing? But maybe that’s the point? That the when and how is perhaps not as important or vital as the who? After all, movements are impossible without people, and CK has intentionally made relationality one of the fundamental values of what we do. So maybe we’ll start there – or rather here! Who did you come from, David, in terms of your involvement in Cultivating Kin?

David Ng (DN): Thanks Valerie! This question of “who do I come from” really resonates with me, for a number of reasons, as I think our origin story, and the claiming of our origins and our roots, has particular significance for racialized people on these lands whose narratives of migration are often signified by our roots being “cut off” when we arrive. In other words, we are meant to assimilate into dominant culture and forget about our “past”; and so by asserting our origin stories, this is a way that I’ve been thinking through our conversations around decolonization at Cultivating Kin. I identify as a queer, second generation, Chinese Canadian. My family village is in the Toisan speaking region of Southern China, where most of my mother’s family is from. My father’s side are Chinese descendants from Indonesia that escaped genocide in the 1960s, fleeing to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and eventually migrated to Canada in the 70s.

In 2014, I co-founded an organization named “Love Intersections”, a media arts collective of queer artists of colour, with a mandate to share intersectional and intergenerational stories of queer people of colour in our communities. Love Intersections was started out of a desire to make interventions on systemic racism that we were experiencing as queer people of colour. Through our short documentaries, presentations, exhibitions, writing, and community engaged projects, our intention is to use art to make social change. My art practice that was been developed through our grassroots work at Love Intersections has been deeply informed by genealogies of community engaged art and artists (such as the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, and Theatre for Living), and also through collaborations with many Indigenous artists and activists I’ve met throughout the years.

So, I think I “come to” Cultivating Kin with many aligned threads that flow through my arts practice: a desire to address systemic racism, an intention to transform inequity in the arts, and also to find ways to engage community shifts at a deeper level, beyond tokenistic gestures of representation. To value lived experience and diversity in a real way. How about you Valerie, who do you come from in terms of your involvement with Cultivating Kin?

VST: Hey, we might be related – at least by marriage – as I’m sure I have cousins who are Toisan! I’m actually envious that you know so much of your family’s history. As a third-gen Chinese Canadian whose grandparents immigrated from southern China in the early 1900s to Victoria, BC, I came of age when the forces of assimilation were very strong. I realize now that despite my parents’ efforts, especially their attempts to get me and my siblings to learn Cantonese – from taped lessons and Chinese school (which only lasted a few days), to demands that we speak only Chinese at the dinner table (resulting in some very silent dinners!) – my internalized white supremacy made me very resistant to my Chinese heritage; more than that, I deeply regret that the shame I felt in not being white meant that I was never able to engage in conversation with my grandmothers, never able to ask them about the stories of their lives, and thereby losing a vital connection to my sense of self.

While my older brother seems to know more of our family history, I only know that my paternal grandparents were Hakka, and my maternal grandmother was from a village named Tip Sek. I never met my grandfathers, as they had passed before I was born. Any family history beyond that generation is a big black hole for me – which makes me feel even more fortunate to have forged such a strong connection with Cultivating Kin.

It was Diane Roberts who introduced me to Chris Creighton-Kelly when I was looking for a facilitator to devise some diversity training for the National Council of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association in 2008, when I was an elected member of Equity’s Western Advisory Committee. Then in 2016, I hired Chris to facilitate Redefining Normal, a weekend retreat for 13 IBPOC activist theatre makers (and one token white artist) in Harrison Hotsprings. Chris offered me an incredible deal I couldn’t refuse: both he and France would facilitate for the price of one! It was after that when Chris and France invited me to be a member of one of the roundtables at the Primary Colours “unconference”.

What about you, David? Who do you come from in our Cultivating Kin lineage?

DN: In 2015/16 I was working for Theatre for Living (TfL), which had created šxʷʔam̓ət (home), an audience interactive play about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples that toured across BC and Alberta. Based on the premise of how we can “do” reconciliation, along with addressing questions such as “What does reconciliation look and feel like?”, the play was very well received, and I think its popularity was largely because the content and themes were still (at the time) on the fringes of dominant (non-Indigenous) society.

Margo Kane invited David Diamond (Artistic Director of TfL) to join a panel on reconciliation as a part of the Talking Stick Festival Industry series; but because he was unavailable, he sent me to represent TfL. A few days later, I received an invitation from Chris Creighton-Kelly to the Primary Colours gathering. To be honest, I actually ignored the email for a few days because I thought it was for David Diamond, and since we were in the middle of organizing a huge tour and David gets lots of requests, I didn’t respond to Chris. He even followed up, and I told him “David Diamond is not available”, to which he responded with something to the effect of, “No this email is not for David Diamond, it’s for you!”. So that’s how I ended up at the gathering. The gathering itself was an incredible experience for me.

Over the past 6 years I’ve also reflected on this “lineage” that I am a part of – of IBPOC artists that are invested in interrogating “diversity”, racism and inequity in the arts. Valerie, you have been doing that work in the theatre community in particular, but as well as the arts for a very long time; and so I also see my work through Love Intersections as having been foregrounded by the work of artists like yourself, Diane, Zool Suleman, Haruko Okano, and Margo, amongst many others.

VST: Ok, I’m a bit flustered being considered a member of such illustrious company! But you’ve reminded me that perhaps one of the take-aways from that 2017 gathering that I hadn’t fully appreciated till now is that lineage, like wisdom, isn’t unidirectional.

I remember Chris and France saying that they were calling it an unconference because there would be no expert panels speaking down to the rest of us from their pedestals; instead, everyone was invited because we were all experts in our own particular way – a rather ingenious intergenerational approach to dialogue and knowledge-sharing that honours the battle scars of those who came before us, while acknowledging the value of the perspectives and experiences of younger generations in this work we have chosen to do. I think the thing I loved most about Primary Colours was the opportunity to meet so many incredible and incredibly smart IBPOC artists from across the country and across disciplines – artists I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise, like Farheen HaQ, Zab Maboungou, and the beautiful soul who is no longer with us, Greg Younging. And it was there that I met you for the first time as well, even though we were both working in Vancouver theatre!

I also remember being impressed by the awesomely talented folx who did the simultaneous English-to-French and French-to-English interpretation for the three roundtables, which allowed complex and nuanced conversation in real time among Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui speaking French, Sylvia Hamilton and I responding in English, and Farheen outshining us all as fully bilingual. And of course, the smoked salmon and the fresh-baked BANNOCK at every meal – omg!

DN: Yes! Everything at that “unconference” was thoughtfully put together: from challenging the power dynamics and hierarchy of “panels, plenaries and keynotes”, shifting the layout of the rooms to be concentric circles, to giving every attendee a role to share knowledge. It was a powerful way to do praxis of the themes of the gathering, which were to decolonize the Canadian art system by placing Indigenous arts practices at the centre of the system, led by Indigenous artists, in solidarity with artists of colour: a recognition that we all have a place in undoing white supremacy and colonialism, and transforming our communities towards just futures.

Primary Colours/ Coleurs primaires
Centering Indigenous Art Practices - Chris Creighton-Kelly and France Trepanier in conversation with Zool Suleman.

VST: Speaking of futures, Chris and France thought of that, too! They made space on the final day of the unconference for artists to gather by city, offering each regional group not only the opportunity to connect with each other, but a small budget to seed the development of local special projects. It turned out the Vancouver group was the largest, about 15 people. We had no idea what we were going to do, but of that 15, a dedicated group of 6-8 artists began to meet to figure it out. I remember Savannah Walling hosting one meeting, and Haruko hosting another. Of course, there was always good food, potluck style.

DN: Another aspect of PC/Cp and the events and projects that unfolded afterwards was the synergies that led to the evolution of Cultivating Kin. After the 2017 Lekwungen Gathering, two cohorts of participants were invited to Banff for a 2-week residency to go deeper into the themes that we explored on decolonizing the arts.

“Authorization for the fire: between possession and embodiment
Authorization for the fire: between possession and embodiment. Reflection on a Primary Colours residency By Helena Martin Franco.

VST: Yes! I feel very fortunate to have been one of the 17 artists invited to be a member of the second Banff cohort, because honestly, that experience was a revelation in so many ways. At the check-in on Day 2 following the daily smudging, I was super emotional, I couldn’t stop weeping, and I had no idea why!

It suddenly came to me that I had never been in a space that embraced the entirety of me, and my body was having a hard time coping with the novel feeling of no longer needing to constantly brace myself in anticipation of the unexpected attacks or micro-aggressions I’d become used to as a racialized woman. I recently discovered there’s a term for that constant stress caused by racialization or marginalization: “weathering”.

There were so many highlights: two glorious weeks in beautiful Banff with thought-leaders and artistic Elders such as Margo, Chris, France, Janet Lumb, and Lillian Allen; asking bemused housekeeping for a pair of old sheets we could cut up for a crazy performance art piece cooked up in an hour with Kablusiak; Margo energetically leading a hike around an ice-covered Lake Louise fringed with snow; a magical session in which Casimiro Nhussi and I found ourselves creating movement to the beat of David Garneau and Larissa Lai’s voices as they traded off visceral verses of poetry; joking in our closing circle about feeling like I’d swallowed the red pill, and not wanting to head back into the Matrix – and everyone laughing because they felt exactly the same. This isn’t to say that the real world didn’t infringe upon us – there’s no escaping the institutions and systems of whiteness – but Chris and France had carved out a generous generative space in which we could dig deep into the systemic issues and ourselves, while finding joy in artful comradery and creativity.

Primary colours / couleurs primaires - Banff reflection
Hummingbirds and Sleeping Buffalo. Reflection on a Primary Colours residency By Charles Campbell.

DN: A week before I left for Banff, the City of Vancouver had announced a new program of “Host Your Own Engagement” grants, which were meant for art organizations to conduct community-based consultations on issues of equity in the arts. At the end of my cohort at Banff, we recognized a desire and need to bring what we were exploring at PC/Cp back to community – and so Zool, Haruko, and I essentially wrote the majority of the grant during our last few days at Banff. Once we returned to Vancouver, we booked a meeting with the other Vancouver-based artists who were in the second cohort (which was your cohort!)…and a few months later, we got the news that the grant was successful!

VST: I know for a fact that we drank the same water in Banff, but seriously: there was something about your cohort – particularly you, Haruko, and Zool – that seemed to have consolidated into this undeniable force that has driven our evolution from Primary Colours to Cultivating Kin on this forward momentum.

DN: I love the fact that the two Banff cohorts from Vancouver shared a somewhat similar experience at the residency. The City of Vancouver grant, which Full Circle: First Nations Performance, Love Intersections, Visceral Visions, and Rungh Cultural Society were a part of, allowed us to host two community gatherings, where we heard from participants how issues of systemic racism continue to persist in numerous forms in the art system. Someone from the Vancouver Foundation attended the second consultation, and suggested we apply for their systems change grant. About 30 people attended each session, a mix of Black, Indigenous, and racialized artists, arts administrators, curators and other art workers.

VST: Once again, interrupting to give credit where it’s due: it was you, Haruko, and Zool who jumped through all the Vancouver Foundation application hoops – including a series of mandatory in-person workshops – and coming up with the brilliant idea of a social innovation “lab” to explore a decolonized granting system for IBPOC artists that landed us the 3-year “Test” grant – just before the world shut down in March 2020.
IBPOC Social Innovation Lab – Vancouver Foundation. 2019.

DN: Oh yes and the pandemic…and the global reckoning of racial injustice that also resurfaced after the murder of George Floyd, the surge in anti-Asian racism, and Land Back movements that increased in mainstream discourse. This was a big moment that shifted the way that we started to do our work at Cultivating Kin. We spent a good year online in dialogue about how we would create a “decolonial” arts funding model, and we spent months debating how we could recalibrate a funding system that would intervene on systemic racism. How do we not replicate the foundations of systemic oppressions? It comes down to one of our core inquiries, which was to create an arts funding system that was built upon different values; using the analogy of the table, current “diversity and inclusion” approaches to addressing inequity are invitations for IBPOC artists to have a seat at the table – but it’s one seat, and it isn’t a table or space that we built.

The racial discourse that emerged during and after the pandemic pushed us towards truly imagining different possibilities. I think of all the dialogue that happened during the pandemic: numerous arts organizations in Canada being called to task on their history of entrenched racism, and even funders like the Vancouver Foundation, and the SEARA initiative in Vancouver, going through their own internal reckoning on issues of equity. The funders were now catching up to what we were trying to create (in terms of an anti-racist arts funding model), and so I think this really influenced our work, in trying to develop an arts funding system that was based upon the 5Rs of decolonization (Linda Tuhiwai-Smith): respect, responsibility, relevancy, reciprocity, and relationality.

Mozongi of Zab Maboungou with Elli Miller-Maboungou, Adama Daou, Aboubacar Mané, Gabriella Parson, Karla Etienne, Mithra Rabel, Jennifer Morse, Luis Cabanzo, Raphaëlle Perreault, Le Gesù, November 2015. Photo: Kevin Calixte.
The Great Welcome. Reflection on a Primary Colours residency by Zab Mabougou.

VST: Relationality was really the key concept that gave us the most to chew on during those pandemic convos. We were trying to figure out what relationality meant not only for the funding system we were re-imagining, but for the process of how we developed this system – including how we related to one another as a disparate group of Indigenous, East Asian, and South Asian artists who were, simultaneously, highly conscious of who was missing at our digital table. A lot of those early pandemic meetings were spent inviting more diverse voices to the table, admittedly resulting in a bit of a revolving door as – speaking for myself – it was incredibly challenging to articulate what exactly we were trying to do! I think it also important to acknowledge that when the Vancouver Foundation’s response to the pandemic included not only increased flexibility as to the timeline of our deliverables, but the complete removal of the obligation to submit interim and final reports, there was this novel feeling that we could take all the time we needed to take a deep dive into process – a dive that may have been a bit bewildering for those of us used to focusing primarily on outcomes because of the current system’s scarcity mindset of limited time and resources. The concept of relationality had us deeply questioning the transactional and capitalistic nature of the current system, and how one of the (many) unintended results is the silo-ing and isolation of artists, which has a disproportionate impact on IBPOC artists.

So it’s somewhat ironic that during a time of worldwide enforced isolation, relationality evolved from concept to embodied state for the Cultivating Kin, as we settled into a core group of Margo, Haruko, Zool, Nicole Kelly Westman, Diane, David Garneau, and you and me. And I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but looking back, as the first wave of vaccinations rolled out, it seems to me that the structure of the funding system we ultimately decided to test with our first cohort began to finally take shape as the idea of gathering safely in person once again seemed possible. But then omicron happened…

DN: I think the omicron wave also pushed us towards where we ended up in terms of the concentric mentorship model, where an “Art Cousin” would invite in another Cousin to mentor. I remember specifically a meeting where we were debating affirmative action vs decolonization vs Indigenization, and how we could intervene on systemic issues in the funding system without replicating colonial structures. David Garneau brought up how instead of being focused on the “critique” that underpins decolonization, how we could operate from a different perspective, based on and inspired by Indigenous worldviews. So, while we also work to decolonize and to think carefully through representation in our group and in the two cohorts that we’ve worked with, the approach of Cultivating Kin comes from a place of wanting to fund the artists’ full selves. Rather than funding for production, or creation, the focus is the relationship and serving what the artist needs – and if creative projects come out of it, we can offer resources for their work.

We have had some hard learnings as well through this project; putting together a group of racialized artists from a diversity of cultures means that we are bringing some of our own journey with systemic oppression into the work/space – and this has come to the surface a few times. Operating as an unofficial collective, without a formalized structure (i.e. we have no “director”, we aren’t a legal entity, we don’t have a board or hierarchy), has also offered numerous learnings. The work moves at the pace that the group is able to take the work, and moves at the speed of trust. The first year of organizing mostly over zoom was challenging, and also forced us to go through ebbs and flows of building our own internal capacity and relationships.

Art by Samaqani Cocahq. c. 2017
We Continue to Walk. Reflection on a Primary Colours residency by Samaqani Cocahq.

VST: You’ve reminded me that even within our certainty of what we were not – steering committee, taskforce, executive committee, working group, council – we had a devil of a time figuring out how to refer to ourselves when talking to other artists, and how to explain our positionality without replicating or resorting to the very colonial structures we were trying to subvert! I think at one point, we simply called ourselves the “core group” – though even that didn’t sit well with its implication of the privileged few inside, and everyone else outside. It’s so easy to say what one is not rather than fumble through the potentially fraught, sometimes humorous, and often vulnerable exploration of re-imagining what we could be.

I loved how we traded stories over Zoom about how relationality expressed itself within our respective cultural communities and diasporas – Indigenous, African, East Asian, South Asian, etc.; how the notion of family has traditionally been extended both figuratively and literally beyond bloodlines with the bestowment of Auntie, Uncle, Grandmother, and Grandfather as a status of respect as well as relationality; and how adopted relatives can often provide more meaning and support than blood relatives. We even dissected the concept of nepotism, and how it might be perceived or function (for good and ill) in the model we were developing of extending invitations to four established artists to mentor four younger artists – well before “nepo babies” were becoming a social media thing! I recall mentioning how buoyant I felt the day a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Elder with whom I’d been collaborating greeted me as “Cousin”; and Nicole inspired us to consider the concept of organic growth or cultivation with her beautiful stories about the Indigenous youth she mentored and affectionately dubbed the “Pollinators”, which also surfaced the idea of reinforcing our connection with the natural world. And when we finally landed on “Cultivating Kin”, the word-nerds amongst us were delighted with its elegance of describing not only who we are, but the core of what we’re attempting to do with this initiative. As the great conceptual artist Yoko Ono said, “I thought art was a verb”.

All of this was happening in rapid conjunction with finalizing the structure and participants of our first cohort of eight artists who were to start their six-month residency in January 2022 with a two-day in-person gathering, reconnect at a one-day in-person gathering at the midpoint, and close out with two-day gathering in May. But omicron had other ideas…

Idle No More II. Pastel on paper. 16 x 16 inches. 2013. Artist: David Garneau.
An Uncertain Latitude. Reflection on a Primary Colours by David Garneau.

DN: Yes, omicron. And I know this has been said over and over again in many contexts regarding the pandemic and quarantine, but the in-person connections we wanted to nurture requires in-person connection. Valerie, as we complete this article, we have recently finished the opening gathering of Cohort Two, and I was reflecting on how powerful it was to be in the presence of artists with similar intentions, goals, and concerns about equity, justice, and decolonization in the arts. The energy and ceremony we were able to create in the circle together lays the foundation for the relationships that will hopefully unfold. I am also thinking about what Diane Roberts, who so generously facilitated most of the sessions, stressed to us that creating ceremony can also be done online, as well as in person. This is something that I am sitting with (and that we are in the middle of experiencing), as our mid cohort check-in is scheduled to be over Zoom…that perhaps expanding our imaginations beyond binary thinking of Zoom vs in person gatherings could open up possibilities of thinking about how we might build relationships through Cultivating Kin.

Another learning that I have been thinking about is how we are trying to build relationships away from transactional, performative, or capitalist underpinnings. How we structured introductions and getting to know each other was far, far removed from the “networking” or “get to know the people in the room to see how you can work together” type of implications that we often experience at art conferences. The best way I can describe how it felt, when we were introducing ourselves throughout the two days – because really, it was two full days of introducing ourselves – was how we could get to know each other's stories.

I don’t want to posture that Cultivating Kin has been some sort of glorious success – in fact, I feel we would interrogate “success” as a metric. But I do know, and feel, that what we are trying to create together is opening up new possibilities for addressing justice and equity in the arts.

VST: I, too, have been reflecting a lot on the significant differences between the first cohort’s online opening, and Cohort Two’s start by gathering in person. I think it’s possible to have fulfilling and generative interactions online, as our Cultivating Kin meetings can attest. BUT…it seems to me that the success of online relationship building is entirely dependent upon a strong foundation of in-person grounding or ceremony, with enough space and time for fledgling introductory connections to organically grow camaraderie and trust over the sharing of food, stories, laughter, and vulnerability. I read somewhere that 80% of human communication is non-verbal, i.e. conveyed through body language; so it’s easy to understand how a screen that cuts off more than 90% of the human body is a poor substitute for building a relational foundation. Screen communication is also limited to only one person speaking at a time in order to be heard, while an in-person group can easily accommodate multiple simultaneous interactions that can spark that wondrous quality of joyful spontaneity, which in turn sparks a kind of snowball effect of excitement and intimate understanding. I mean, that moment of “Wait a sec, I think I know you?!” recognition on the first day of Cohort Two, when dancer Juolin Lee bounded up the outdoor deck stairs – those comical few seconds in which our animated faces, hands, and forward-leaning body postures struggled to communicate our friendly but mutual confusion, while our open mouths could only elicit gasps or befuddled uh’s until our racing minds could catch up and our tongues spill out the memories of our first encounter just the week before on an opera post-show talk-back panel – was the start of an emotionally rich connection that I’m sure could never happen on Zoom!

As we embark on this six-month journey with Cohort Two, I’m really excited to see how the learnings we took from Cohort One will enable us to create a stronger and more vital experience for our second group of IBPOC cousins. But more than that, I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone – the Cultivating Kin included – might individually and collectively manifest our goals and values of responsible, respectful, and reciprocal relationality on this journey together, according to the relevance of the here and now. Love and peace, David!

David Ng
David Ng is a queer, feminist, media artist, and co-founder of Love Intersections. His current artistic practices grapple with queer, racialized, and diasporic identity, and how intersectional identities can be expressed through media arts.
Valerie Sing Turner
Valerie Sing Turner is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist who performs, writes, directs, dramaturges, and produces.
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