Interview by Sharita Towne
Daina Warren is a curator based in Winnipeg, Canada. She is currently Co- Director at Urban Shaman Gallery. One of the things that most struck me about Daina, and inspired me to reach out to her was the range of artists and shows she has put together, and her keen sense of description and introspection when delving into these works. Furthermore, she has accomplished all of this at a relatively young age! I figured there was a thing or two I could learn from Ms. Warren, and was honored she agreed to this interview.
Sharita Towne: Thank you for taking the time to do an interview with us. I want to start off by getting to know a bit about where you’re from, your family, and community. Has anyone in your family been an inspiration in your pursuing art?
Daina Warren: I am from the Montana Cree Nation located in Hobbema, Alberta. Many people in my family state that they are not artists per se (and I have the amazing situation of two families, my birth Native family and my adopted white family). But it’s because of them that I always felt their support and energy to take on a career in the arts. In my white family, my mother and father are really remarkable at designing and renovating houses; one of my brothers is a musician, and there are contemporary dancers and other musicians in the extended family. In my Native family, my birth mother and grandmother are both exceptional traditional beaders. They have made almost all of the regalia for the immediate family of my brothers, sisters, and cousins on the rez.
ST: You studied Studio Arts, and now it seems much of your creativity is channeled into your curatorial practices. When did you first get into curating?
DW: My first curatorial project was actually at Emily Carr University of Art & Design (back then it was known as Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design) while I was pursuing a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree for my own Visual Arts practice. I curated our student exhibition titled, Deconstructing the FirstNationsAboriginalNativeIndian in 2000. However, it was soon after I finished at ECUAD that I started working with grunt gallery, in that they hired me as a curatorial resident through Canada Council’s program, Grants to Aboriginal Curators for Residencies in the Visual Arts, and I worked with them from 2000 – 2001. I was then hired on permanently as curator and administrator. My curatorial experience developed because of the projects and people I met through grunt.
Kevin McKenzie, 426 Hemi, from “Don’t Stop Me Now,” curated by Daina Warren
ST: How would you categorize your curatorial practices? Or rather, do you have particular interests, or goals in mind?
DW: I would say my curatorial practice is categorized as Contemporary Aboriginal Art, although I think it should be viewed as a Contemporary Arts curator. However, I have always had a vested interest in curating Aboriginal art and artists. Working with Indigenous artists will always be on the forefront of my research for curatorial exhibitions. But I try to take on as many projects that include Indigenous and non- Indigenous artists. As for practices that I have always personally been drawn to included installation and sculpture works, but also performance art is another practice I learned quite a bit about, and once again, this was due to my curatorial experience at grunt gallery. For now my 3-5 year plan is to work with Urban Shaman and keep developing it into Canada’s leading Aboriginal Artist-Run Centre locally, nationally, and internationally. I definitely have some big plans for the gallery. After that, not exactly sure but I would eventually like to get back to Alberta as that is my home province, and there is a lot of work I would like to do around my family’s history, and possibly a PHD, but that is still a long way off yet.
Homepage to Traveling On our Breath, http://www.firstvisionart.com/daina/
ST: What do you find most challenging about your work as a curator?
DW: Critical and Curatorial writing is always a challenge for me, but the longer I have worked in the art system, it has been getting easier to try to explain ideas and concepts about artworks on paper. One thing that is the best challenge about the curatorial job is that there are no two similar projects, and it does take a lot of thinking on the spot to produce, install, or exhibit a project. A curator definitely has to be resourceful, and to quote Tom Hill, “Believe in the integrity of the artwork,” hearing and knowing that fact always helps me sustain mental energy for the production of a project.
ST: What have been some of your most memorable artist/curator collaborations?
Portage 007, Terrance Houle & Trevor Freeman
DW: Most of the exhibitions are quite memorable for different reasons. But definitely some of the craziest, or the ones that had me the most nervous, were some of the performance art projects. One particular example is Terrance Houle’s and Trevor Freeman’s project, Portage 007, where we guerilla styled their performance piece of portaging a canoe throughout the downtown area of Vancouver. We made our way from Portside Park in Coal Harbour over to Water Street, then down Robson Street to the Vancouver Art Gallery, then over again to Pacific Boulevard and walked around to Science World in the False Creek area. On top of it all, we managed to not get into any trouble with storeowners, the general public, or the police. Actually the police blocked off a street for us to cross. The police officer just drove up, he didn’t even get out of the car to ask us what we were up to, and once we were finished crossing, he drove off.
ST: How do you define Contemporary Native American/First Nations Art? Does Contemporary Native art need to be defined differently from mainstream art?
DW: Contemporary Native art shouldn’t have to be defined differently from mainstream art but at the moment there is still a relative lack of Aboriginal arts programming by institutions and art organizations. So until there is more general programming I believe there still exists a need to single out Indigenous artists and their projects so that both artists and curators are noticed for the work they do and have more opportunity to exhibit their projects. As for my own definition of Native art, that is quite hard to define, and I hope it never gets easy because that would mean that Native artists have been relegated to one category of definition or art making production. However, something interesting for me occurred lately, a collective I am currently working with is programming an art event, and while brainstorming our ideas, a particular concept emerged, a Cree language aesthetic. This term we came up with is quite exciting for me. What is a Cree language aesthetic? I would say the same for a Native aesthetic, most artworks that I have programmed have some aspect or the project is influenced by the individual’s cultural background and practices, so that is what a Native or Indigenous aesthetic means for me.
ST: There are many museums, galleries, grants, and residencies that require documentation of ancestry or tribal enrollment in order to apply or show in their programs. What are your thoughts on using the blood quantum system as a means to determine indigenous identity? Do you think there is a better system that could be used? What are some of the pros and cons when using the government standards for tribal enrollment?
DW: This is an interesting discussion because I just had this same situation brought up to me a couple of weeks ago in that at Universities in Canada, Aboriginal students have the option of declaring their identity. I had the same thing happen to me when I attended both Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and the University of British Columbia. In the past, I have declared my Cree background on my applications, though the first time I did, I wasn’t sure if I was credible as I am adopted by a non-Native family and at the time had just gotten my First Nations status registration. I didn’t want to be taking away resources from Aboriginal students who might have more need or be deserving of some special status at the educational institutes I had attended. Little did I know I was exactly the type of student they wanted to count as who was attending their schools. In Canada, we don’t really have to show our blood quantum on applications, we can just declare ourselves as First Nation’s background and that is usually enough for the funders or organizations. I am all for artists and students using whatever means and resources to further their careers. There are a lot of special options open to artists and curators in Canada, specialized programming and monies that non-Native arts community can’t access, and that does cause some envy amongst our non-Native colleagues, but for so long there was never much access for First Nations artists and curators to be part of the larger arts environment. It is about time we have some special opportunities to really exemplify the ideas and projects that we are currently interested in creating and producing.
ST: You work in one of only three Indigenous run galleries in Canada. Can you talk a bit about the curatorial climate, so to speak, of Contemporary Art in Canada?
DW: The curatorial climate is quite interesting in Canada, I have to apologize beforehand to other countries, but I think that because we can access specialized government arts grants, artists and especially Indigenous artists are supported to create their artwork and tend to be quite innovative with their ideas and practices.
For example the performance art practice is quite prevalent within Canadian arts programming. We have special programs and grants from Canada Council, which offers residencies to work with art institutions, programs like these offer first hand experience in the curatorial practice and has launched many careers. And this especially so with Artist-run centre culture, many emerging artists begin their careers through the smaller arts institutions.
ST: What is your approach to working with multiple audiences (cultural, generational, etc.) and whom do you consider your primary audience?
Rebecca Belmore - Rebecca Belmore, online curatorial project, hosted by grunt gallery, Vancouver, BC, www.rebeccabelmore.com
DW: I don’t have a definitive approach but one such project that I had to really work with a varied audience was during my exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Canada (Feb 2010 to July 2011). However, the NGC has certain standards about how to present information on artworks, and I followed their formats for didactic and publicity materials. Usually, I tend toward a more personal and one-on-on approaches when trying to engage an audience. My curatorial talks are more personable rather then using heady art lingo that tends to lose people if they don’t have that language to understand the artwork. I consider my primary audience both the arts communities that I work within, and the outlying public that has some connection to those locales, e.g. grunt gallery’s community in Vancouver, British Columbia; the NGC’s art community and the Ottawa public, and now Urban Shaman’s membership and Winnipeg, Manitoba. However, I do hope to engage a national and international audience in the works that I have produced over the years.
ST: What do you consider most important when writing curatorial statements? I have read some of your statements, and I find that “Postscript 18 - A Container for New Life and Death” is a good example of how attentive and poetic you can be in your inspection of Contemporary Aboriginal Art. What do you consider most important when pulling together the words to speak about these works of art?
DW: That particular writing is quite funny and now having not read it in quite some time I want to edit it like mad. But I did try at the time to be a little more poetic than usual, and yet I have a feeling that wasn’t quite what Artspeak was looking for. But I had fun thinking about that project, it was hard to not be poetic with her piece, it was very ethereal. Like I mentioned previously it took a long time for me to excel at writing but entering into my Master program really helped me formulate and research my own writing. Some of the pieces that I am really happy with are the pieces in which I have a long history of knowing an artist’s work, for example, Terrance Houle and the piece I wrote for his video project that we installed at Galerie SAW Gallery during the Art Star 4 Video Art Biennial: Friend or Foe Ottawa. But I also really enjoy the process of co-writing, specifically my essay that I co-wrote with Carla Taunton for our curatorial performance art project titled, Acting Out, Claiming Space for Modern Fuel in Kingston, Ontario last year, February 2011.
ST: You are Co-Director at Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg. What recent works and approaches in presenting them (artworks) to the public do you find particularly fresh and exciting at Urban Shaman Gallery? What are you working on now?
Above works left to right: “Shaman Rider” by Norval Morriseau; “Fertility Totem” by Joseph Sanchez; “Thunderbird Woman” by Daphne Odjig; “Flack” by Jackson Beardy and Jakie Travers. Photo posted with permission from Amber-Dawn Bear Robe and Daina Warren
DW: I just started working at Urban Shaman last summer; I have just hit the six-month mark starting this February. I think what’s really fresh and exciting for me is that I now have the chance to become a director of a gallery. I have usually been the assistant to the director in most respects, and I am really excited to start implementing my own programming and projects. I have now worked in artist run centre culture for almost twelve years now, but this is an amazing opportunity that I am very happy about, plus Winnipeg is now a major contender in the national arts and cultural arena of Canada, I heard its number 2 next to Vancouver. The community here is very prolific in their art production too, which makes for an interesting and vibrant community. I am currently working on executing the programming that my co-Director Amber-Dawn Bear Robe has programmed. Urban is seriously booked until April 2014, and we are constantly getting project proposals, which is amazing and disappointing as we have to turn a lot of projects away at the moment. But that 2014 date will come around fast, so I am already researching the next three years of programming right now (Canada Council requests that organizations program three years into the future, the reasoning for this is based on multi-year funding, once your approved your approved for three years.)
ST: Can you recommend another curator that we should interview for this blog in the future?
Video Still, Dana Claxton, here eyes have seen many worlds, 2005. From “Cosmologies: anything that exists has a beginning” curated by Daina Warren
DW: Other curators who I am sure you probably already have in your sights would be Candice Hopkins, Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, Lori Blondeau, Dana Claxton, Leanne L’Hirondelle, Michelle Lavallee, Terrance Houle, Ryan Rice, and Tania Willard.
Daina Warren is from the Montana Slavey Cree nation, in Hobbema, Alberta. She graduated from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design finishing her BFA with two majors, sculpture and painting. After graduating from ECIAD, an internship with the grunt gallery, offered her the opportunity to participate in the Canada Council’s “Assistance to Aboriginal Curators for Residencies in the Visual Arts.” Since completing this residency she has acquired the position of curator and administrator at the grunt gallery and has curated many projects and exhibitions both in part with the gallery and with the outlying Vancouver arts community.
http://www.rebeccabelmore.com/essays.html http://www.firstvisionart.com/daina/index.html http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/exhibitions/current/details/don-t-stop-me-now-2493 http://www.modernfuel.org/art/programming/event/470 http://www.ahva.ubc.ca/eventsDetails.cfm?EventID=776&EventTypeNumID=5 http://artengine.ca/community/calendar-event-en.php?id=3066 http://indianacts.gruntarchives.org/essay-sequential-indianacts-daina-warren.html