Joi Arcand at Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory
Interview by Eliza Gregory
Joi Arcand has made some really exciting and incredible work recently about the disappearance of First Nations languages, and it was this project—Here On Future Earth—that first drew me to interviewing her. In the photographs that comprise the project, she has been able to layer subtle humor, vernacular imagery, imagination, and lamentation to pose questions about the evolution—and loss—of culture. When I look at photo-based work these days, I am looking for artists who have something important to say with their pictures, and who use pictures as a starting point for engagement with people and ideas, rather than as an end point. Joi Arcand is certainly doing that, and it was a pleasure to speak with her about her trajectory as an artist, the ideas she is passionate about, and her relationship to the people around her.
Amber Motors, from the series Here on Future Earth, 2009, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Eliza Gregory: I’m so excited about you’re Here on Future Earth project. It is so awesome! I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that project here.
First off, has it had the general impact that you wanted it to? How have you been able to gauge that?
Joi Arcand: Here On Future Earth was inspired by my time spent working at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, which represents the 8 First Nations languages that are spoken in the province: Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, Swampy Cree, Dene, Nakawe, Dakota, Lakota, Nakota. I had the privilege of being surrounded by First Nations language specialists and language learning materials every day. Being around people who are speaking their languages everyday and are advocates for their languages inspired me to address this topic in this series. For this project, I worked primarily with Darryl Chamakese who translated all of the words for me. Working on this project led me towards many other people who are working on language revitalization. I’ve received a lot of feedback from people who didn’t know anything about the state of indigenous languages, people who don’t know about the syllabics writing system so I think that the educational impact has been an incredible thing.
Ice Cream Legislature, from the series Here on Future Earth, 2009, Regina, Saskatchewan
EG: It seems to me—as someone whose language is not threatened—that the urgency and the pain of losing a language (or having it be threatened) is something that a lot of people have never considered and may have a hard time understanding. Language has such a profound relationship to culture. I think what’s so powerful about this project is that you illustrate both that relationship, and then what it means to experience this loss of language (and by extension, culture). How does that resonate with the different audiences who are seeing your work?
JA: Language is culture. There are far too many indigenous languages that are either extinct or endangered. Cree has been named one of the three languages that remain ‘viable’ by Statistics Canada; the number of speakers varies from 12,000-75,000. However, I realized that my own inability to speak the language means that in my family, the language is extinct. This realization triggered urgency in me that the time is now to start revitalizing our indigenous languages. So, this journey is a very personal one for me, and if Here On Future Earth educates or informs people about the state of indigenous languages, then I see that as a good thing.
Northern Pawn, South Vietnam from the series Here on Future Earth, 2009, North Battleford, Saskatchewan
EG: And then, how would you like to push this understanding further? What is the next step you want people to take (either intellectually or in terms of action)? Are you making work now that will push people further in this direction?
JA: For me, the next step is to start learning and using the language. That is the bottom line, the next step.
The work I did with Here On Future Earth was completely visual and conceptual – I am excited about making work around language that is more auditory and real. I feel the work did great things to bring awareness to the precarious state of many indigenous languages, but to me the real work is in taking a step further to actually speaking, using, and learning the language – to have it exist in real everyday conversations.
I also wrote an article about another activist who is fighting to save his language, which goes more in-depth into the reasons why our languages are endangered and what we can do about it.
EG: Could you talk a little about the Give Her a Face exhibition? What was the story of those women who died, and do you think the exhibition achieved its goal of making that situation more palpable, relevant and urgent to the broader community?
JA: Give Her A Face was a group exhibition that was comprised of work by Felicia Gay, Chrystal Kruszelnicki, and myself. We created the exhibition while we were students at the University of Saskatchewan with support from PAVED Arts (pavedarts.ca) and grunt gallery (grunt.ca).
Moon Lake #3, from the Moon Lake Series, 2005
Felicia Gay and I collaborated on the Moon Lake series, she came up with the concept and I assisted in several aspects of the production of the project. The photographs that make up the Moon Lake series were partly inspired by the book Just Another Indian, by Warren Goulding. The book brings to light the circumstances surrounding the murders of several indigenous women in Saskatoon in the mid 1990’s and the media indifference and lack of police action that took place then and is still taking place now. There are more than 500 missing Indigenous women in Canada – missing mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, cousins, girlfriends, wives, and friends and this series aimed to give a face to the number.
By A Thread, gallery installation view, Give Her A Face exhibition, 2004
I had a solo piece in the exhibition called By A Thread which is a photographic mixed-media collage/sculpture based on the Starblanket pattern that is prominent in First Nations quilting designs. This piece is made up of black and white portraits of women from my home community of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. The photos were torn into diamond shapes and then sewn back together to form the star. Women are the backbone of our communities and I wanted to demonstrate the strength of women and the bonds of community. This piece added a further personal aspect to the exhibition as it contains portraits of beautiful First Nations women that are important in my life.
The last exhibition of the Give Her A Face exhibition was in 2007 at the Grunt Gallery in Vancouver. At this time the Pickton trial was going on and what we were addressing in the exhibition was very real and palpable in the city at that time – and still is, as the public inquiry examining the role of the Vancouver police and the RCMP and why neither force was able to stop a serial killer, or even acknowledge that one existed, while sex workers were vanishing in the late 1990s and early 2000 is ongoing. I think the impact of what we did at that time, in addressing the silence in the media, was a part of a movement towards creating our own media (as indigenous women) and creating a space where we could talk about the injustice.
In Brunt Magazine in 2007, Nikki Meier wrote, “In this way, these artists truly have gone beyond the book that inspired them in which it was suggested that the best way to reach out and expand the message of the missing Aboriginal women was often limited to postering telephone pole upon telephone pole. While it is no small feat to accomplish what this trio has, it is clearly not impossible. In order to create the change we need to stop the ongoing violence against Aboriginal women, we need to continue paving the way in our own fashion, perhaps fueled by the artistic endeavors of artists like Arcand, Gay and Kruszelnicki.”
EG: What has it been like to be in Vancouver recently? How do you feel your work changing as you’ve gained new perspective on your relationship to home and place?
JA: I am a visitor to Coast Salish Territories/Vancouver. I have been reluctant to let it seep into my art practice because I am a visitor. My work still remains rooted in place, the place I call home–the prairies, the boreal forest–these places are in my bones, in my DNA, in my cellular memory. I feel lucky that I can live and travel to different places and know that I can always return home. I’m sure the influence of Vancouver will show up in my work eventually, as I process what my presence here means. I have met some amazing people here and consider it an extension of home.
Pictures from Dawson, 2011.
EG: And I’d love to hear about your recent residency in Dawson. I’ve looked at your blog, and it sounds like you’ve been really busy! Would you share an anecdote or some thoughts about that experience?
JA: Dawson City is a magical place! I had the opportunity to stay in a 100-year-old (haunted?) house. I had the privilege of space and time to dedicate to my art thanks to the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture artist-in-residence program. I met so many amazing people and was really inspired by the creative community that exists there. If you have a chance to go, you should!
EG: Who are your most important influences so far in your career? Who inspires you?
JA: My grandmothers.
EG: How have your interests evolved since you started making work? How would you describe your approach to being an artist and producing work?
JA: I began making artwork that addressed my identity in my second year of university, which is when I decided to pursue a BFA degree. I decided to focus on photography and printmaking. My first photography projects were in direct response to the images created by photographer Edward S. Curtis in the early 1900s. I reacted to his photographs by creating portraits of my family members. The photos were not technically very successful, but I think they were successful in countering what Curtis had created in his images of the “vanishing Indian.” This first project led me to create images that directly challenged the images of “Indians” in the media, advertising, and pop culture. In many ways, I am still working through these ideas in my current work, but have moved away from directly referencing the work of Curtis – the references will, in a way, always be there as I continue in the photographic medium, but maybe they are more subtle.
My interests fluctuate between digital and analog ways of making art. I have primarily used digital technologies to create my projects and lately I’ve been curious about what I would make without the use of these technologies. I am interested to see what comes of this. For example, I’ve been experimenting with hair embroidery and other more tactile forms of art making.
EG: And this is a question that all the students working on this blog are asking each artist, because it’s amazing to see the way different people approach this issue:
Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
JA: I: I could be labeled that way. I am contemporary. I am a descendant of the Indigenous people of North America, and identify as such. I am an Artist. I am also an artist who is part Plains Cree, part Métis, part German-settler-Canadian and all of this informs my work. What I do as an artist is speak my truth from my experience and my experience is all I know. I am happy being referred to as just an artist, as well.
EG: What do you do in addition to making photo-based art?
JA: I am interested in publishing, art books, zines, collage and making art accessible to everyone. I believe everyone is an artist. When I was in high school, there were no art classes offered, as there were no resources. And when I think back to the art classes that were offered to me in middle school I remember feeling so uninspired and stifled that these classes were mainly used to slack-off. Today, I enjoy being a mentor to young people and exposing them to artists and art forms that make me excited – and that I did not have access to as a young person.
EG: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
JA: Lori Blondeau, Tania Willard, Adrian Stimson, Wally Dion, Michele Mackasey, Erin Konsmo, Jackie Traverse, Marika Swan, Chandra Melting Tallow, KC Adams…..
Joi T. Arcand is a photo-based artist from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan currently residing in Vancouver, British Columbia. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with Great Distinction from the University of Saskatchewan in 2005. She has served as chair of the board of directors for Paved Arts in Saskatoon and was the co-founder of the Red Shift Gallery, a contemporary aboriginal art gallery in Saskatoon.
Her work merges the personal with the political through the use of her own family history in addressing the Canadian aboriginal experience. Drawing from her family narratives, Arcand’s photo work connects memory and landscape with humour and nostalgia, while asking questions about what it means to be a mixed-race aboriginal woman. Her work has been exhibited at Gallery 101 in Ottawa, York Quay Gallery in Toronto, Mendel Art Gallery and Paved Arts in Saskatoon, Grunt Gallery in Vancouver, and published in BlackFlash Magazine.
ARTIST HIGHLIGHTS VANISHING CREE LANGUAGE IN PHOTO SERIES, CAPYI 2009 Magazine Online
Language Warrior, an article written by Joi Arcand
PRAIRIE TO PICTURE : SELF-PORTRAITS OF JACKIE TRAVERSE AND JOI T. ARCAND
by Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, Co-Curator
Felicia Gay, Joi Arcand, Chrystal Kruszelnicki, Give Her a Face, October 27 to December 2, 2006, Brunt Magazine
Exhibition at Harbour Front Centre