Reflections from Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires

August 14, 2018

Introduction

Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires (PC/Cp) is a national, bilingual, intergenerational 3-year initiative, designed to place Indigenous arts at the centre of the Canadian art system. PC/Cp also asserts that art practices by people of colour play a critical role in imagining Canada’s future(s). In September 2017, PC/Cp hosted a gathering on Lekwungen territory near Victoria, BC. This initiative is co-directed by Chris Creighton-Kelly (left) and France TrĂ©panier (right). In addition to the reflections below, several essays were commissioned and may be read online at Rungh.


Chris: France, you mentioned the other day that the Lekwungen welcoming was an essential part of our gathering. I concurred that we wanted to go beyond a simple land acknowledgement à la “we acknowledge that we are on the territory of
” The “going beyond” is critical so that this now familiar recitation does not simply become de rigueur, or a kind of politically correct, rote formality devoid of any context. Can you elaborate on why we needed to go beyond this formality?

France: Well, for me, the question of the land was central to how we would hold the gathering. That meant honouring the land, its creation stories, and its history. But it also meant recognizing the people of the land—the Lekwungen speaking people—their traditional governance systems, and their powerful protocols.

As an artist and curator of Kanien’kehà:ka and French ancestry, I was acutely aware that you and I were endeavouring to host 130 artists on someone else’s land. So it became imperative to seek the guidance of Lekwungen cultural leaders from the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. We did that, starting 16 months before the event. Thanks to their openness, we were able to develop Indigenous-inspired protocols for the whole gathering. This resulted in a remarkably grounding 3-hour welcome on the first morning.

As we were planning this opening session, I know that you strongly felt the necessity of honouring protocols and ceremonies from different cultures. What were, if any, the challenges of integrating those various elements without disrespecting our Indigenous hosts?

Chris: Yes… its always tricky to give appropriate respect to the land, the people whose territory we are on, and the protocols/ceremonies of their traditions AND to recognize the other artists in the room—Black artists and artists of colour, and also the few artists with settler backgrounds.

Creating space for everyone was inherent in our gathering and the presence of Indigenous elders and artists like Bradley Dick, our cultural carrier and MC, made that easier. I frequently feel the generosity of Indigenous people when I am working with them and it never fails to amaze me. They embraced these artists and the complexity of their artistic visions, their ceremonies, their rituals of welcoming.

The Indigenous artists felt respected, and so in turn, they then respected another group, then another, and another, and so on…it seemed with each cultural welcoming we were building a powerful, collective momentum. When Diane Roberts asked those assembled to “wander” with her and folks accepted to simply sing as they walked in the circle, there were more than a few tears in the room, some from Indigenous eyes.

First Peoples went first, where they belong. No one tried to displace anyone; there was no competition for best welcoming! This 3-hour Indigenous-influenced ceremony worked really well. It grounded all of us on the land, in the place, in jet-lagged bodies.

Yet some of our other plans were a little jagged; you mentioned some artists felt constrained by our discussion topics… how so?

France: From the start, we were committed to designing decolonial methods, even if at times we were uncertain of how to ensure peoples’ buy-in. We focused on reframing the concept of knowledge-sharing by decentering the authority of the “expert.” Participants were also asked to be presenters—“experts”—but without the colonial tools of the trade: no keynotes, no PowerPoint presentations, no panels, no prepared notes. The idea was to pair two artists and ask them to generate and then facilitate a conversation on a specific topic.

As you will remember, for some participants, this process felt uncomfortable. They wanted to know more about precisely how they would be asked to contribute to the conversation.

For this curated event, we spent hours, days, weeks identifying the topics and pairing the right artists who could inspire and guide the exchanges. It was a giant puzzle with over fifty different creation/conversation sessions, each one centering on a specific way of knowledge-sharing: intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual. We chose the topics carefully, inspired by the many consultative conversations in which we had previously engaged in six different regions in 2016. While a majority of participants enthusiastically embraced our “unorthodox,” decolonial methodology for organizing the exchanges, some artists felt uncomfortable with the fact that the topics were imposed.

The other sentiment that was shared by a few people was the difficulty of choosing from all the concurrent sessions. Was the schedule too crowded?

Chris: Depends how you look at, I guess. Some participants were a little distressed, faced with a choice between eight different sessions. Looking back, maybe eight was too many! I would suggest six as a more appropriate choice.

Other folks found the number of choices invigorating, and that selecting was a delight which enhanced the sensation of “abundance” we tried so hard to create with the food, hotel, and many events. Participants could modulate between speaking, feeling, thinking, moving their bodies, listening to an artist talk, or even just walking the land. They felt full.

You are correct to say that a minority of participants felt uncomfortable with no advanced preparation, but this “planned spontaneity” coaxed out improvisational exchanges, which was refreshing! Was it truly decolonizing? I am not sure… but it was a nudge in that direction, encouraging steps that are being taken, however tentatively, throughout the Canadian art system.

We may finally be glimpsing necessary institutional changes on the horizon. Are institutions reformable? Can they really be Indigenized or decolonized? Or are art institutions themselves the problem?

France: You are right to say that this gathering was only an attempt at decolonizing methodologies. When applied to the Canadian art system, terms like decolonization and Indigenization are often misunderstood and misused, not to mention conflated with notions of inclusion. Many of our colleagues would argue that it is impossible to Indigenize institutions—museums, for example—that were an intrinsic part of the colonial project.

Yet, I personally think that these institutions, including universities, must play a critical role in telling all the “truths” about our collective history, while exploring the complexities of who we are and imagining who we can be. Which, in its own way, were the objectives of the Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires gathering. For me, it is also about creating a space for conversations between Indigenous artists and artists of colour imagining what (re)conciliation could look like; about how similar histories of colonization can inform the “Canadian” experience; about the ways in which these “other” stories complexify the Canadian narrative.

Do you feel that these conversations were present throughout the gathering?

Chris: Well, I mostly agree, but sort of disagree with you at the same time! I recognize that we urgently need the “space” to which you refer in order to encourage more conversations among Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour (IBPoC). Too often these dialogues have been mediated by whiteness—for example, Indigenous peoples vs. settlers or Black vs. White discussions about racism. It is as if all conversations need to pass through the dominance of whiteness—of Eurocentricity—in order to be validated. I do agree with you that we need more thoughtful discussions, conversations, meetings, and discourses among IBPoC.

However, I wonder about the phrasing “similar histories of colonization.” As you know, the term “people of colour”—which in the USA includes Indigenous peoples—has been a useful shorthand to describe various folks who live with racism. But this term is clearly inadequate to dig into the particular specificities of colonial stories/scenarios. As you have said many times, this is what Indigenous people on the land called Canada have insisted from the get-go. And now, with the important rise of Black Lives Matter building on decades of Black art practices and insightful scholarship, there is an accurate insistence on seeing “blackness” (for a whole host of reasons including slavery) as a unique, distinct, Afrocentric history within any larger evaluation of the racist, colonial, planet-wide project.

So, yes, the PC/Cp exchanges among us folks who have been the casualties of colonialism are important, generative, and often uncover hidden anecdotal events that are relevant to contemporary Canada. But these exchanges also reveal the stark differences of colonial narratives, the ways in which it is painfully difficult to discuss them, and how necessary it is to approach this delicateness without the cumbersome weight of white fragility.

Hey France, we are approaching our word limit now…any last thoughts?

France: I would like to conclude our banter with a few words about the poly-vocality we have adopted in our reporting. To be consistent with the notion of decentering author(ity), we extended an invitation to all session leaders to write short essays summarizing their personal experience and the conversations they facilitated. This approach allows for multiple, complex, and sometimes contradictory accounts of the exchanges that took place during the 4-day gathering. By respecting, through this series of essays, different points of view, we hope to tell the story of the gathering in a more comprehensive and transparent way.

Nia:wen’ko:wa


Thank you to Shawn Van Sluys (Musagetes/ArtsEverywhere) for graciously inviting these essays to the ArtsEverywhere platform. Thank you to Rachel Collins (ArtsEverywhere) and Breanna Fabbro (PC/Cp) for the complex work involved in making that invitation come to life.

RESPONSES

Maryse Arseneault

Acadia: Indigena

Day 3: September 25, 2017

Like most Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires workshops, the title was chosen ahead of time, no questions asked. This was a problem right from the start, because this statement presupposes that the words Acadia and Indigena can be used interchangeably, as though a sort of reciprocity existed between Acadia and the Mi’kma’ki territory.

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Stéfan St-Laurent

Acadia Indigena

Day 3: September 25, 2017

Often romanticized, Acadian relationships with First Nations in Atlantic Canada are almost non-existent today. Discussions began before our public conversation, with Natalie Sappier Samaqani-Cocahq, and it became apparent quite quickly that Mi’kmaq and First Nations artists on the East coast have been underrepresented on the national scene, and in the art world, and Indigenous art world in general.

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Greg Younging

The Colour of Words

Day 3: September 25, 2017

Traditional Stories are sacred and have Indigenous Laws attached to them. Some Traditional Stories are seasonal (some Cree Stories, for example, can only be told when there is a lot of snow on the ground). Traditional Stories can be clan or family owned. They can also be gendered, ceremonial, and/or require Storyteller training/apprenticeships.

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Guy Sioui Durand

The Colour of Words

Day 3: September 25, 2017

That’s when, as a Wendat from the snowy north, I had a vision of a rainbow. It covered the island of the great black ravens and was made up of the Trickster figures found in tales of the Indigenous people from the Pacific Coast, the Wild North of Sioui, the black South of Saint-Éloi and the bitter Middle East of El Ghabdan.

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David Ng

Community - Ethics - Art

Day 2: September 24, 2017

…whether it is the process in which the art is made, the intention behind the artistic expression, or the motivation and ethics of the artist, the product and arts practice is ultimately contingent on the guidelines dictated by funders. […] If funding for arts could allow space for artists and communities to determine outcomes, the relationship between artists and communities would also be transformed.

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Kathia Rock

What is a Quebec Artist?

Day 2: September 24, 2017

Having been born in Quebec, I’m well placed to talk about language protection. However, I still don’t understand why my native language is excluded or why I’m considered part of the world music scene.

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SaĂŻda Ouchaou-Ozarowski

Muslim Screens

Day 2: September 24, 2017

This session highlighted the double hurdle facing Muslim female artists in Canada, like Nilufer, myself, and others present at PC/Cp. Being an artist is not an easy choice, given potential family disapproval. What’s more, an artist’s perspective on her Muslim and cultural community or the way in which Canadian society views Islam continues to be challenged by prejudices and closed minds.

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Nilufer Rahman

Reflecting on Muslim Screens

Day 2: September 24, 2017

Orientalist narratives about Muslims are alive and well and have continued to flourish in the post 9/11 world. In this context, many Muslims have felt immense pressure to counter Islamophobic rhetoric and discrimination with positive narratives from Muslim voices. However, always being on the defensive and needing to constantly extol the virtues of their faith, Muslims often find themselves burdened with a responsibility much larger than any individual can bear.

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Elwood Jimmy

ColourAbility - Body Rehabilitation

Day 2: September 24, 2017

Embedded within these shifts in “being” regarding care are gestures of radical learning and unlearning that are required from all of us. This sometimes creates tension and pain, but we have to constantly remind ourselves that we are in this together, and that we need to hold a space where learning, unlearning, and radical caring can happen.

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Larissa Lai

CanadAsia

Day 2: September 24, 2017

My own thinking these past few years has been around questions of kinship and relation-building because I’m aware of what a relatively privileged place Asianness occupies within the contemporary and historical global order. When I say “relatively,” I mean that we are still so profoundly subject to racialization and all the violence that can go with that. At the same time, as Asian economic and political power is rising on the global stage, we are newly answerable for Asian imperialisms, especially in Africa and the Americas.

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Janet Lumb

Making Music, Yes

Day 2: September 24, 2017

Flashes from the jam of what I recall, felt, sensed… distortion, poetry, memories, darkness, spirits, sobre, clouded, pure, warm, blue, intuitive, gutsy, bright, energetic, flourishing, flyĂ©e, exciting, boundless, blissful, confirming, touchante, on common ground, chez nous, at ease, inspirational, la magie


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Rodney Saint-Éloi

Cultural Policy?

Day 2: September 24, 2017

We live in a time where culture costs votes, where the word culture is vilified, just like the words thought, solidarity, virtue
 Culture expands horizons and imaginations, whereas politics limits them, narrowing the focus on identities, fears, threats and wars. What meaning does the word culture hold when democratic dialogue is dying?

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Louise Profeit-Leblanc

This is the Story

Day 2: September 24, 2017

A storyteller usually has an initial challenge of creating a suitable environment within the performance space they have been given. It has to be comfortable to both listener and teller and the audience has to be able to see and hear the storyteller clearly. In the classroom provided, I instructed my audience to envision a campfire burning in the centre, thus becoming a beautiful sharing circle of listeners!

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India Rael Young

Understanding : Knowing : Critiquing : New Discourses with Aliya Pabani

Day 2: September 24, 2017

…if knowledge is relational and often obscured by the very mechanisms intended to create knowing, then who has/should have the authority to define what is “new”? Who can be the voice of the critic? […] Our session arrived at no conclusions, but we collectively offered up one means to understanding. That is, through shared experience.

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Peter Morin

A Refraction of Primary Colours

Day 1: September 23, 2017

A roundtable. In the middle of a big room. We were asked to talk about reconciliation. We actually talked about complications. Complications of language and bodies and trust. Half of the bodies seated at the circular table spoke English, the other half spoke French. But the round table was actually the room. Translators were present. Translators were mediating the conversation. One voice was actually two voices. Headsets held onto the two official languages for us.

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Cathi Charles Wherry

Protocols and Transmission of Knowledge

Day 1: September 23, 2017

Transmission of knowledge includes deeper understandings and “ways” that at once guide, emerge from, AND inform the practice. Making a drum is not just making a drum. It also connects to our original languages, stories, songs, dances, identity, and governance models.

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Guy Sioui Durand

Diversity in Québec

Day 1: September 23, 2017

I began by describing the complex nature of cultural diversity in QuĂ©bec, the numerous overlapping cultural territories, and the need to explore them, to go back-and-forth. I am Wendat, and more broadly a member of one of the 10 First Nations in KĂ©beq… As I see it, intercultural borders […] overlap a vast territory unknown to city dwellers. I was happy to talk about it.

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Navarana Igloliorte

Is Cultural Appropriation Knowledge Extraction?

Day 1: September 23, 2017

As I looked around the room I was struck by the beauty of everyone, I felt blessed to be there. I could see that everyone had multitudes of stories to tell and brilliant thoughts to share. As people entered and found places to sit, there was an intensity on their faces of a need to share their voices.

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Rodney Saint-Éloi

Out of Africa

Day 1: September 23, 2017

In the Americas, Haiti was the largest trading post on the slave route and my story begins here. This is perhaps what drives me to travel all over Africa. That is, to truly understand Africa, to get back to Mother Earth, find my lost body, my soul, and immerse myself in my roots. Colonization robbed me of my history and of my very being. This is why I need to return to this mythical place and embrace these landscapes, to heal myself of the violent history that has divided the world into two opposing camps: the conquerors and the conquered.

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Anna Binta Diallo

The Language of the Other

Day 1: September 23, 2017

Who is the Other and what language do they speak? …many saw the [PC/Cp] gathering as the beginning of a conversation that must be continued at all costs. We concluded that we need to share information and facilitate dialogue among all these artists from every corner of the country. Everyone present shared the desire to see this kind of initiative repeated in the near future, so that we can continue to talk to each other and better understand the language of the Other.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections from Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires

  1. It’s been awhile since the Victoria gathering and as I read through the thoughtful feedback from all these participants I realize that one of the deepest residues of colonialism for myself was the need to survive violence. Part of that is the difficulty in remembering, a kind of deer in the headlights effect. I notice myself now clenching my lips between my teeth. It is only now that I understand that it came from my mother warning me never to speak Japanese outside of the home
.and so I didn’t think I ever spoke Japanese until someone who babysat me as a young child told me “Of course you did” . The deep sustained psychological/emotional damage colonialism has on the targeted peoples needs to be better understood by ourselves and then understood by the broader population so that we all regain what we’ve lost as caring humans. Thankyou France and Chris now you’ve done it. ha ha

  2. Dear you all,
    WoW!!
    Touching, honoring, honored, deep, interior questing, awe, inspiring, awakening, capturing, humbling, respecting, revealing, overwhelming gratitude, thanks, impacting constantly with flashes, moments, images, sensations knocking me. Primary Colors in Victoria and Banff was, is, continues to be incredible, overwhelming, face slapping, intense.

    My skin, patience is thin. I am easily enraged, screaming and tearful when I talk. The injustices, inequities, inhumane wrongs are everywhere, every day on the city streets. I know my emotions are repercussions of the intent unconscious intuitive researching discoveries with you through Primary Colors. I know my coming of age to 65 are accumulating decades of immense experiential frames, contexts, pictures, positioning, stances. I fight. I believe. I struggle. I share.

    Much appreciation. acknowledgement. gratitude. respect.

    affection hugs kisses les bises Love Janet

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