Interviewed by Elizabeth Neal
Ryan Rice, a Mohawk of Kahnawake, Quebec, is co-founder of both Nation to Nation, a First Nations art collective, and the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Though originally from Canada, he has curated exhibits in a variety of venues throughout North America and has been the Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe since 2009. An artist himself, he sees his curatorial work as politically important because, as he says, “Indigenous art and artists are still subjected to the peripheries of the mainstream.”
Elizabeth Neal: You have said that your expectations for the First Nations art collective Nation to Nation was “as a catalyst for Indigenous creative expression.” How does creating spaces for art and community inspire artistic output?
Ryan Rice: Community is key to cultural continuity. By including or thinking of aspects of community in arts-related projects, whether they are curatorial or hands-on/participatory, the means of expression can become validated and integral to strengthen links between historical memory and tradition with contemporary constructions and understandings of the beaux-arts and its profound effect of maintaining and expanding knowledge systems.
EN: Beyond educating the public about the effects of the St. Lawrence Seaway on Kahnawake environment and culture, what consequences did you desire or anticipate from your project with Sondra Cross and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, At the Water’s Edge/Project: Seaway? Any specific action from non-Native people?
RR: Nation To Nation was a “local/urban” collective based in Montreal that functioned without and/or beyond boundaries, therefore determined to reach out to native and non-native communities (urban and reserve) to socialize/interact within a creative art-focused milieu. The concept, which was reliant on presenting art within an “event” inclusive of a diverse community, shifted the dominant/hierarchal structures built within an institutional space such as a museum or gallery. The social element of engaging with the creative process – art, performance, music and food – provided a welcoming atmosphere and gave way to a greater emphasis on the interaction with the artwork presented.
Building an audience or community for art and those who appreciate or can learn to appreciate art in all its complexities is just as important to developing the venue or finding that space. Occupying or claiming space in the artistic landscape is critical for native artists, curators, writers etc. to build in order for them to get their work recognized on many levels. Nation To Nation was creating that “space” as a catalyst for Indigenous arts/artists to be present and productive. Nation to Nation invited artists to respond, imagine, and consider themes, concerns etc., that were relevant to their communities, society and themsleves. The formation of native art collectives continue to contribute widely to a native art history and are necessary because many art spaces have institutional limitations and prejudices.
The project Atsa’kta: By The Water’s Edge, was a means to locate, recognize and reclaim the proper place for the Mohawk community named Kahnawake, a Mohawk word which translates to ‘by the river.’ The project considered public space as an interactive environment and a critical juncture to rekindle nostalgia, political action/inaction and Kahnawake’s identity in the face of what was considered a pioneering marvel – the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Atsa’kta: At The Water’s Edge
“On the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence, stands a village real proud of its name…” crooned The Mighty Mohawks, a 4-piece country and western show band led by Kahnawakero:non George Hill. The song stirs echoes of times gone by and memorializes the state of the Mohawk Nation, Kahnawake in its just place. By 1959, Kahnawake faced more than an identity crisis because the shoreline, “by the rapids,” was eradicated forever. The St. Lawrence Seaway, regarded as a modern engineering marvel by Western standards, made way for international shipping possible along long utilized river routes that reach from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior of Turtle Island in the Great Lakes. The construction of the seaway, from 1954 to 1959, reduced Kahnawake’s land base by expropriating 1,262 acres that severed the community’s access to the river. The “SEAWAY” has since become a critical point in Kahnawake’s history as well as a historical symbol that acts as a reminder of an idyllic past, the maintenance of boundaries as well a conduit that encouraged a rise in the political will of the community’s traditionalist and nationalist movement. The late Peter Diome called the construction “usurpation,” “trespassing”, and a violation of treaty rights (Montreal Star, Apr.24/56, 5:1; Montreal Gazette, Jun.2/56,23:5). The international route was a direct attack on the community’s heart, a place where the town gathered to work and play. The Seaway was a serious affront to Kahnawake’s identity and “posed a threat to Kahnawakero:non by tearing through the site of Mohawk economic and cultural activity – the Riverfront.” (Audra Simpson 1996:37). The eradication of the riverside and all it represented created a lasting impression on the community and its collective memory. Our place, “by the rapids,” continues to encompass tradition, identity and a history that still exists and shared in memories.
Atsa’kta: At The Water’s Edge identifies the fifty-year anniversary of the development of the seaway. It can be acknowledged as a catalyst to instill important lessons for future generations on political and cultural relationships and is another milestone to Kahnawake’s complex history. Nation To Nation’s project on public display emphasizes the importance of cultural continuity in relation to the intrusion of St. Lawrence Seaway explored through art, archival materials collaged onto didactic panels, to create visual encounters informed by the curator (Ryan Rice) and artists (Sondra Cross and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito). Such an experience provides insight for a younger generation’s comprehension of the magnitude of the construction/destruction, and allows the older generations collective memory to be experienced.
Visit Sakwannati’s page - http://www.skawennati.com/watersedge/index.html
The project was selected and funded by the local credit union’s (Caisse Populaire Kahnawake) community project fund. The sites (by the water’s edge) were selected because of the history they hold within the community. The first site (panel designed by Sondra Cross) is located at the Onake Canoe Club, adjacent to Johnson’s beach. This site is mostly connected to sport and leisure and is just a shy distance from the seaway. The second site (designed by Skawennati) is located behind the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, just a stones throw away to the seaway, and is a central location to Kahnawake and the seaway’s history.
The sites proved to be strategically successful as they are located in somewhat high-traffic areas and are accessible to both local and non-locals. The goal of the project was to create awareness to Kahnawake’s history by educating younger generations and visitors of this recent event (50 years), and at the same time, reminding others of the central connection Kahnawakeronon still have with the river and seaway.
EN: Your exhibit ANTHEM: Perspectives on Home and Native Land presented Canadian artists’ views and concerns about nationhood. Did you hope that it would resonate widely: with non-Canadians, Euro-Canadians, and First Nations people? Or did you have a target audience in mind?
RR: The exhibition was specific, yet broadly considered, to resonate with people’s perception of nationhood, land, and home. It challenged the colonial project or nation-state’s dominion of conquest and rule. I was interested to know how others beyond the status quo fit into this picture. It included a diverse group of artists, who lay claim to Canada as their home. At the same time, Anthem considered each artists distinct perspective that challenged a narrow and often imposed nationalistic viewpoint of a Canadian citizen through issues related to economics, faith, race, sexuality, territory, belonging, legislation and ownership. The exhibition traveled across Canada to four galleries and was seen by a diverse audience.
Fastwurms (Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse), FLAG, 2007 (detail)
EN: What criteria do you use to select which artists’ work will be most effectively combined for a given exhibit?
RR: The selection of work goes hand in hand with the type of exhibtion/project being developed. Sometimes much is dependent on the space available, whether I’m working with a gallery/musuem or without — a proposal that will lead to an exhibition. In most cases the selection of artists is based on the curatorial premise of the exhibition (concepts, issues raised), or a certain art work that inspires. Once that seed (idea or artwork) is planted, locating artists and negotiating for their loan of art work begins. There really is no linear criteria or checklist I follow - it is all dependent on how artwork supports the construction of concepts. Works are selected that “speak” to the principle of the exhibition and then consideration of how each relate or interact / converse with / against each other within the space.
Aside from selecting works available, an artists’ process, body of work, style, philosophy and intent is sometimes key when considering their work for exhibitions. Artists can be invited to “respond” to the framework of the exhibition or commissioned by creating new work for specific projects. Biography, geography, culture, and gender are considered at times too. The curatorial process is also an editing exercise due to the reality of many circumstances that need to be factored in the bigger picture – space, funding, media/tech requirements, size, conservation, access, loans, shipping/crating etc., however the general intent is shaped around the artwork.
EN: Last summer you gave a lecture at the Denver Botanic Gardens entitled “Site Seen: Native Art in Public Spaces.” Atsa’kta: At the Water’s Edge clearly projected Native art into public space in a highly informative way. What elements do you look for in an exhibition space? Is the community it is located in important? If so, what means do you employ to bring nearby residents into the space?
RR: Location will determine community, and sometimes vice versa. If a project is developed with a specific community in mind, then location is critical and needs to be accessible. If said location/community does not have “space,” then site needs to be determined – is it public or private, established or DYI?
Locating space and sizing out the capacity is crucial to developing exhibitions, however, it is a luxury that is not always a reality. Institutional space (museums and public galleries) have limitations – mandates, programming schedules, interest – and usually, implementing or trying to insert a “native” voice or presence can be a challenge as these instutions also place emphasis on a Western purview/measurement of the arts. Alternative spaces are certainly available but does not necessarily support an exhibitions intent due to the lack of any infrastructure. In our own communities (reserve/reservation), exhibition space and/or support for such space aside from established cultural centers is lacking. Commercial galleries is a whole other beast. The spaces determined for and/or occupied by contemporary native art are limited, yet have the potential to be active and engaging with a wide spectrum of society.
Atsa’kta: At The Water’s Edge
EN: How would you say your background as an artist affects your communications with artists, if at all? Do you see your work as a curator, assembling and managing exhibitions, as an art form in itself?
RR: I consider process and the hands-on experience of art-making as supportive to my curatorial practice. I appreciate how an artist thinks and negotiates and I consider myself a mediator fostering everything between supporting an artists production and up to the presentation. I am open to dialogue and willing to accommodate artists’ ideas, suggestions that will enhance and support the exhibition when in development and need to be able to negotiate and be strategic when making decisions in all aspects of the project. The role of a curator (in my reality and many others) is predominately administrative once the basis of the project/proposal is developed. Multi-tasking and organizing skills are crucial and fluctuate from exhibition to exhibition. I’m not sure if it is an art form in itself but the work certainly is extensively crafted …and you can tell by the outcome. Research and travel (studio visits/lecture etc.) are not always supported but necessary.
EN: You have curated exhibits in both America and Canada. How do the experiences differ? What would you say about the support given to artists, especially Indigenous artists, in both countries, both financially and creatively?
RR: The experience varies and I have been inclusive of artists from both nation-states. I also see the inclusion of global indigenous perspectives important to the development of the field and scholarship. Once you have inserted yourself in the “artistic” community the notion of geographical space collapses. The border (US/Canada) is a contentious space and many do not move across it (psychologically and physically). The role / impact and expectations of an artist and curator needs to constantly shift with the movement of the arts field. The colonial mind is very much alive as we see western artists claim space everywhere…we need to do the same. Locality is important but is also safe – and this often determines an artists’ impact as well as drive.
The US is a politically different place for native people than Canada even though they mirror each other very closely. The imposition of state and ironically oppressive inclusionary inventions of “melting pot” and “multiculturalism” has failed native people. The rejection of such legislation is key to moving forward and staking claim to supporting Native communities and patrimony. The cultural economy in each country is very different, which impacts an artist’s vision and intent.
(EN: Mr. Rice discusses this at greater length in the publication Visiting; a link to a pdf can be found in the “Resources” section at the end of the interview)
EN: What do you hope for the future of contemporary Indigenous art, both short term and long?
RR: Short – support and development of the infrastructure, which will build the foundation for long-term goals/presence through professional development and recognition for Indigenous curators, writers, art historian, arts administrators, preparators, conservators etc…
Dominant institutions representative of native collections and or projects need to recruit, invite, collaborate and support the development of the above. Internships, guest curator contracts, writing contracts etc…(beyond the tokenistic gestures they utilize for themselves.)
Accessibility for documentation and publication – building websites, disseminate and produce catalogues, incorporation of Native art history in curriculum as well as including native artists’ work in the surveys of American/Global art histories.
Long-Term: With the short term goals indicated, we can also build a critical mass and contribute extensively to the collections we do not own as a form of reclamation and scholarship, respect and care. We also need to foster support for artists career through collectors/collections, patronage beyond the anthropologic / ethnographic market, and build gallery/exhibition spaces to allow for experimentation and learning.
EN: In late 2011 you curated a solo exhibition for artist Mark Igloliorte called drift, which, according to Toronto Free Gallery promotional material, explored “an unresolved shift located somewhere between life and death.” How do you approach an exhibit of work centered on personal, spiritual themes rather than historical or national ones, such as ANTHEM: Perspectives on Home and Native Land and At the Water’s Edge? Or are these themes inseparable?
RR: The themes (suicide and isolation) for drift were universal, and I am conscious of this position in my practice. The exhibition framework cited/positioned Mark’s work in relation to a national epidemic of bullying and teenage suicide we witness in popular culture. The “It Gets Better” campaign gained attention to the issue through celebrity, however, the community it affected was limited. Mark’s work allowed me to pursue this situation in another way. His work was personal, yet shareable, respectful and impactful, allowing both of us (Mark and I) to consider and negotiate its presentation.
The premise to my exhibitions may seem restricted to some, but are very much accessible to everyone if they are open-minded and respectful of parallel histories and perspectives. The power of art and expression is what compels my practice, and yes can be inseparable of all facets you indicated.
Artist Mark Igloliorte skating his work - komatik and box before the drift exhibition opening (October 2011) at Toronto Free Gallery, Toronto, Ontario.
EN: 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?
RR: I think this is a communal decision (validation, belonging) as well as specific to a native nation’s political infrastructure / policy on membership. The theories of transnationalism, hybridization, and cosmopolitanism exist and work well for non-natives maneuvering across our territories and occupy our space – metaphorically, and for some opportunities - deceptively. In the face of colonial policies/standard of enrollment, our communities and nation(s) know us and can validate who we are through our relations.
EN: Can you recommend another curator that we should interview for this blog in the future?
RR: Visit the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective website to see members who are active in the field at many levels.
EN: Thank you!
Ryan Rice, a Mohawk of Kahnawake, Quebec is an artist and curator. Rice received a Master of Arts degree in Curatorial Studies from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York, graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and received an Associate of Fine Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has worked for the past 16 years within the museum/art gallery milieu as an educator and curator (assistant, guest, resident, fellow, independent and Chief) at various centres including the Iroquois Indian Museum, Indian Art Centre (INAC), Carleton University Art Gallery and the Walter Phillips Art Gallery. He has published articles in the periodicals – Canadian Art, Spirit, Fuse, Muse and Blackflash. Rice is also a co-founder and former director of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Rice’s exhibitions include ANTHEM: Perspectives on Home and Native Land, Oh So Iroquois, Scout’s Honour, LORE, Hochelaga Revisited and ALTERNATION. In 2009, he joined the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts as Chief Curator.
For further information about Ryan Rice and the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective can be found on the following websites: