Participants of the Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires (PC/Cp) 2017 Gathering were invited to join the roundtable to discuss a particular question that involved reflecting on their own artistic practices, personal histories and experiences, and dissect the challenges/fractures/progress within the current Canadian art system in order to imagine the future(s) together. Yara El Gladban’s essay which follows was written in response to the roundtable conversation. Both the roundtable video and the essay response originally appeared on the PC/Cp website.
Roundtable: Where Do Artistic Practices Come From?
With Jamelie Hassan, Zab Maboungou, Alvin Tolentino, and Gregory Younging.
Yara El Gladban
We Are the Stories We Tell
What drives us to create? To invent what does not exist, to express the world differently, to embody it in the imagination, or on a stone, or in a song? Where does this desire to imprint creation in the body through dance come from, to paint on a canvas or a wall what we can only try to picture, beyond the visible, beyond the tangible? Where does the urgency come from to give form to this presence, to dialogue with an intuition that inhabits artists while surpassing them? To pursue an infinite quest for something. For some, a quest for transcendence, for others, a quest for tradition, and for others, a quest for communion with nature, with ancestors or simply with oneself.
Where do artistic practices come from? This is the question that was put to the four creators present at the gathering, publisher Gregory Younging, visual artist Jamelie Hassan, philosopher and artist in African dance creation Zab Maboungou, and artist in dance creation Alvin Erasga Tolentino.
“It all started with a story,” said Gregory Younging. A story, a word shared between elders and young people around a fire, around a meal. As if it was always necessary to link experiences, small and large, in a narrative giving meaning to life. To tell something, to express oneself, to let oneself be narrated by life in order to find our place as humans and to bring the wonderful and frightening parts of this world back to our dimension as living and mortal beings. Or better: to rise, to elevate ourselves in our humanity to touch the irreducible part of ourselves.
Younging evokes stories of creation, animal stories, stories of life, death, initiation, and of course stories of colonization and decolonization. So many sources and pools, feeding and pouring into indigenous artistic practices.
These stories of oral tradition continue to exist because they are told, because they are given a voice, because they are given words. Today, Indigenous writers – Tomson Highway, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Lee Maracle, Josephine Bacon and many others – translate stories into poetry, novels and reflections that weave orality into writing and blend past and present. In a landscape still dominated by Western artistic practices, it is these stories that interrupt the hegemonic narrative.
Taboos and Invisible Threads
But what stories are we actually telling? Which ones did we forget about? A basin made of silver and copper, jewel of the “Islamic art” collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It dates from the 13th century. Origin: Syria. The basin belonged to one of Saladin’s descendants.
At first glance, artist Jamelie Hassan thought she was admiring a pool that was used to drink water. However, the illustrations engraved on the basin itself tell another story. One of joy, celebration, dancing, music, horses and saluki dogs (Persian greyhound) mixed with the men and women who are celebrating life. And there in the middle of the party, a drawing representing the pool. The basin inscribed in the basin, as if the craftsmen were seeking to blur the boundary between art and life, to transpose life into the object and the object into life, to translate the ordinary and make it transcend time and centuries. Did they already know that one day this basin would be exceptional? Taboo, even? The image shows the function of the basin to those who, hundreds of years later, would like to reduce it to a purely ornamental object or a common tool: a museum work of art or an oversized bowl of water. However, the basin was not used to pour water, but wine.
Suddenly, what some fundamentalists proclaim taboo in Islam claims a space at the very heart of Muslims’ daily lives. The dogs, are they dirty? No, they were at the party. The wine, prohibited? No, it quenched the thirst of women and men for sharing, for being together.
“Where does art come from if not from the daily practices of celebrating the ordinary?” asks Jamelie Hassan.
Which threads bind us to this basin which, in an atmosphere of rigid identity, seems sadly anachronistic today? Are we the same kind of humans as those who created it? Or have we, homos sapiens technologicus, forever broken with the everyday life of yesteryear and its items?
The copper basin was once lined with silver. Today only a discoloured furrow remains where the silver shone. This marriage of copper and silver, an ancestral metallurgical technique, is the very one that makes it possible to manufacture computers today,” says Jamelie Hassan.
There is what we thought was taboo, and what we thought was obsolete. Art makes artificial ruptures and defined boundaries lie in their essence.
The technology of the basin has led her to think of crafts and metallurgical work. She collaborated with a craftsman in Cairo to create another basin, and asked him to write the name Salman on it, in solidarity with the writer Salman Rushdie whose life was threatened by a fatwa.
It was an opportunity for Jamelie Hassan to also enter into a dialogue with the craftsman who opposed Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and expressed his anger. He also opposed the idea of killing the author based on what he wrote. The dialogue itself was embedded in the work Jamelie Hassan and the craftsman created together.
This experience, like the one with the basin at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, taught her that there is no line or boundary between past and present, between tradition and the contemporary, between what is said and what is not, between technologies of the past and those that exist in our lives today, between stories told and the ones hidden behind images and objects.
Tradition is embedded in the contemporary, the present is also past and future, the ordinary is extraordinary, life is also an artistic creation. And if life and art were one, isn’t art necessarily a commitment?
Presence Rhythms and Algorithms
Commitment it is, right down to the body.
Life passes through art, nourishes it, gives it meaning. It also gives it rhythm, just as art gives life rhythm. If we are stories,” says Zab Maboungou, “we are also rhythms. The rhythm is fundamental. It is at the heart of everything that exists. Rhythm is the foundation of life, of intelligence. Dance is shaped by rhythm, a rhythmic description of presence. Each movement of the body is a recognition of a fundamental presence, with so many specific, concrete beats and articulations that shape us day after day and leave their imprint on the body.” According to Zab Maboungou, we are inhabited by ancestral algorithms.
In some cultures of the body, such as African cultures, the constituent rhythms are accessible and present. Therefore, dancing is everywhere: in the process, the posture, the speech.
The presence of rhythm is such that the category “contemporary dance” becomes almost superfluous, because the rhythms of our presence in the world, of the present itself, are felt, assumed, recognized and experienced everywhere. Humans invent categories for what they can’t quite process, categories to say what’s missing or what they don’t understand. Hence the Western idea, according to Zab Maboungou, of a “contemporary” versus “classical” or “traditional” dance to name the absence of rhythm or access to the fundamental rhythm.
If dance and life are one, there is no need to invent categories. Artistic practices are born from the ability of human beings to identify what it is to be alive. Present.
So how can we bring this presence back? Its rhythm?
Bodies and Processes
A rhythm or articulation in time necessarily involves a process. For Alvin Erasga Tolentino, everything is a process. The body is a process since it is physical, in the way that it changes, transforms, sculpts itself, and ages.
The molecules of our ancestors circulate in our bodies. This transgenerational movement is also both body and process.
To follow Alvin Erasga Tolentino, as artists with multiple identities, migration and exile paths, experiences of uprooting and rooting, is to live the process as existential. For a Canadian dancer of Filipino origin, the body is a necessary medium. Through the dancing body, the process unfolds in its most transcendental and primary form.
Coming to Canada and acknowledging who he is and how he belongs, while thinking about his relationship to his country of origin, is a process.
What is cross-cultural work? And how can we activate these multiple cultures that hide in the body? This was the question that seemed to be asked by the Malong fabric, a traditional fabric of Filipino origin, whose practice and method of manufacture go back centuries.
It was first of all an artifact, a static object in Tolentino’s eyes. He then discovered the history and life behind this fabric. The challenge? To integrate the Malong into his creative process and identity quest. And through this process, honour its history. To bring back to life, to invest in the movement of what he thought was a static object.
The work Tolentino created features two Filipino, and five Canadian dancers who dialogue with the fabric, discovering and manipulating Malong through dance. As a result, the act of choreographing this fabric in Canada, caressing, swaddling these foreign and familiar, but uprooted bodies, becomes a political and ethical act as well. Presented to the Filipino community in Canada, the performance evoked both positive and negative emotions.
For Tolentino, the process of establishing a relationship with the Malong could only continue if he brought the Malong dance back to the Filipino people, to the communities that make it. The process would only be a process if dance can initiate a dialogue with these communities. The experience was rewarding. They were happy that the Malong continued to survive and exist elsewhere, even in the form of a dance.
Creation, Mobility, Lies
For Tolentino, the creative process literally translated into an initiatory journey, notes Zab Maboungou, which allowed him to reconnect with his ancestors, to seek them out at the source, while remaining firmly in the present.
In fact, the four speakers of the gathering had this in common: creative experiences rooted in a context of mobility, displacement, reinterpretation, where time and place are constantly in motion and where the apparently opposing movements of rupture and continuity are rather in symbiosis. And this displacement of bodies, stories, and objects inevitably raises difficult questions.
Where do the objects actually come from: the Malong, the basin, the African masks and sculptures scattered all over the Western museums? How should we handle them? Under what circumstances? The report on the restitution of African objects published by the Senegalese thinker Felwine Sarr and the art historian Bénédicte Savoy in France, and the return of several objects to Benin as a result, illustrate the urgency of thinking about artistic practices and their origins in this context of profoundly unequal mobility. What is the actual mobile capacity?
“Doesn’t the apparent unlimited accessibility of artistic practices also come under historical censorship and lies?” asks Zab Maboungou. Isn’t culture basically a well-done lie? Who in this “borderless” context decides what is worth remembering or forgetting about cultures and traditions? Only creativity can free you from lying.
We have a discourse,” recalls Maboungou, “which claims that the centre is no longer the centre, that we are currently experiencing a multiplication of cultural references. If mobility and speed are great qualities today, can art take the time to reflect on these qualities? To distance oneself from it? Distancing yourself from what is required to achieve it?
Ethics, Politics of Artistic Practices
We have to recognize,” says Younging, “that there was a rift. Indigenous traditions have been interrupted. There was a time when practicing these traditions was illegal in Canada,” he says. In other cases, missionaries have invented traditions that are often caricatured, full of racist clichés and representations, which have been repeated as “authentically” Indigenous.
What effect does this displacement or even diversion of signs, objects, symbols, meaning and values have on Indigenous traditions? Many Indigenous artists express themselves in their creations against colonization. However, is to stop and respond to colonization an act of practicing one’s traditions? Isn’t it on the contrary to continue the alienation, the rupture with traditions? asks Greg Younging. Is there any other way to go about it? Simply continue to practice our traditions?
To make art is to engage in an ethical, almost spiritual process. In indigenous arts, ethics is dictated by traditional laws. However, in a context of colonization, for a long time ethics was limited to safeguarding or packaging in museums, elements of a culture that was considered endangered – the idea of preserving elements of a lost paradise.
What to do with this idea when you are an Indigenous artist? How to create with what is lost and found? In Indigenous artistic practices today, we reinvent ourselves by losing the tradition,” says Greg Younging.
Inventing continuous beginnings and feedback on ourselves is part of the creative process in a colonial or postcolonial context. Artists face the challenge of moving the field of action beyond trauma. This is the challenge of resistance.
Animist thinking might have something to teach us in this regard, suggests Zab Maboungou, as it is a thought that integrates death and life, where death is inscribed in life. Animist thought, rooted in nature, reiterates the continuity of things, of time, of the cycle of life.
And this is a great source of resistance to the idea of a lost paradise. “We must not forget,” recalls Jamelie Hassan, “that racism and the environment have always been linked, hence the importance of continuity with nature and of embedding this continuity in artistic practices as a form of engagement.
Freeing Oneself from Silos
It is also necessary, according to her, to re-establish the relationship between the different experiences of resistance and to draw inspiration from them in our practices. To restore the relationship between art and nature, but also between us, our different histories, legacies, knowledge and methodologies of creation and resistance.
Jamelie Hassan gives as an example her participation in a symposium in the Occupied Territories of Palestine on art and resistance. She insisted that at least one Indigenous artist be part of the Canadian delegation attending the symposium. It was important that, in a meeting on art and resistance taking place in the heart of the Occupied Territories, an Indigenous artist like Wanda Nanibush could tell the story of colonization in Canada and create bonds of solidarity with the Palestinians, to establish the relationship between the different experiences of colonialism.
“New Canadians,” says Jamelie Hassan, “do not know enough about the history of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, which doubles the ignorance of Canadians, who themselves are not sufficiently informed about this history.
The Canadian state, through its cultural policies, tends to keep artistic practices in silos, alienate or separate communities, and create a gap between the claims of artists from diverse backgrounds and those of Indigenous artists when bridges must be built. Engage in dialogue and inspire each other to create a plurality of resistance methodologies.
In any movement, concludes Greg Younging, there are simultaneous progressive and digressive orientations. To the multiculturalist ideology that tends to place cultures in silos, and thus assimilate the experiences and traditions of Indigenous Peoples into a “multi-cultural” confusion, we must contrast the deep desire of Indigenous artists to actively contribute to the weaving of culture.
Founder of the renowned Zab Maboungou / Danse Nyata Nyata Company, artist-choreographer and performer, philosophy professor and author, Zab Maboungou has distinguished herself on all fronts of artistic and cultural action. Through her works and involvement in artistic and cultural development, she has managed to translate and implant another presence and another focus for the imagination. The author of several articles on dance and the book “Heya Danse! Historique, poétique et didactique de la danse africaine” (2005), her reputation as a public speaker and “public intellectual” make her very sought-after wherever there is a meeting between “arts, knowledge and people”. Her original technique of movement, called Loketo, is now a model of its kind.
Alvin Erasga Tolentino
Alvin Erasga Tolentino is an active Asian/Canadian dance artists who continues to reveal, provoke, fascinate and bring a fresh voice to the national and international dance scene. Born in Manila, Philippines, he moved to Canada in 1983. His successful career has garnered him notability and a distinct reputation as an original and unpredictable contemporary performing artist. Tolentino’s dance creations are driven from the need to intricately illustrate the human experience of light and dark and the infinitely complex relationship between nature and humanity. His choreography challenges the exploration of hybridity to reveal the private and public territory, identity, gender and the issues within the traditional and contemporary cross-cultural dialogue.
Gregory Younging was a member of Opsakwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba. Holding a master of arts degree in Northern and Native studies from Carleton University, a master’s degree in Publishing from Simon Fraser University, and a PhD in Educational Studies from UBC, Younging devoted his career to righting history and elevating the cultural contributions of First Nations in Canada through his writing and teaching. Gregory worked for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He served as managing editor of Theytus Books - the first Indigenous-owned publishing house in Canada from 1990 to 2004, before taking on the role of publisher in 2015. In 2007, he joined UBC Okanagan’s department of Community, Culture and Global Studies (CCGS) as an assistant professor, where he was key in the development of the Indigenous Studies program.
Yara El Gladban
A Palestinian novelist and anthropologist, Yara El-Ghadban lives and writes in Montreal. She has published at Mémoire d'encrier three novels, L'ombre de l'olivier (2011), Nour's perfume (2015) and I am Ariel Sharon (2019 Metropolis Blue Festival Diversity Award) published in 2018. Laureate With the 2017 Victor-Martyn-Lynch-Staunton Award from the Canada Council for the Arts, Yara El-Ghadban is also President of the Espace de la Diversité, an organization that fights racism and exclusion through literature.
Jamelie Hassan is a visual artist and activist based in London, Ontario, Canada. Her works are in numerous public collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Museum London, London, Ontario, the Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia and the New Museum, New York, NY. She was awarded the “Canada 125” Medal for outstanding community service (1993), the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, (2001), and an honorary doctorate in visual arts from OCAD University, Toronto (2018). Photo credit: Christopher Drew.