Art as Intervention in a Time of Reconciliation [by Tasha Henry]

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[Ed. note]  The following post is a report by educator Tasha Henry, discussing a recent partnership between the Art Gallery of Victoria, and students in three schools.   The work here, which was done with Grade 3 and 4 students, is a very interesting model of the kind of work one might consider when thinking about Art as intervention in the TRC Calls to Action (and indeed, art as intervention within a law school context).   We thought folks would find it thought-provoking (and a bit inspiring!) Here, then, is  the post by Tasha [and she has permission from the students and families to use the photos appearing in this post]

 

Taking a place at the table:

Art as Intervention in a Time of Reconciliation

By Tasha Henry

In collaboration with several artists of a recent exhibit at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, entitled “It’s in the Making”, Selkirk Montessori students, were initiated into the world of art installation with contemporary artists who challenge the notion of art as product. The students met with Nicholas Galanin, Tlingit/Aleut artist and Cedric, Nate and Jim Bomford while they constructed their installations in the gallery. The grade 3-4 students interviewed the artists with questions such as:

  • “Why is art installation important?
  • When do you know when your art is finished?
  • How is art an intervention?”

The students then attempted their own installation work in the gallery mansion as a response to their ongoing work with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Calls to Action”.

IMG_5782Art installation as social intervention felt like the appropriate vehicle to explore the children’s emerging awareness and questions around the devastating history of Residential Schooling in Canada. As teachers, we are in the unique position to respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action in ways that model sensitive and historically respectful approaches to Canada’s shameful investment in Residential Schooling. Rather than approach this work as a prescriptive curriculum, we approached the concept of reconciliation as a process of responding to the ongoing impacts of colonialism on Indigenous communities. It was important to us that the children’s work around redress be responsive, multi-voiced and open ended.

To prepare for the day of the installation, for months, the children studied and learned from the Lkwungen First Peoples’ history and the traditional territories on which our school stands, known today as the Esquimalt and Songees Nations. The children were honoured to receive teachings by such highly esteemed and beloved artists and elders such as Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw), Butch Dick (Songhees), Monique Gray Smith (Lakota/Cree), and Ron George, Heredity Chief Tsaskiy (Wet’suwet’en).

They studied the cultural traditions of the Coast Salish First Peoples by attempting artistic forms such as beading, sewing button “blankets” on felt, and by constructing their own cardboard “cedar bentwood boxes”. They expanded their learning to conceptual art by analyzing the work of two contemporary Tlingit artists, Nicholas Galanin and Blake Lepine. The students were also introduced to the history of Residential Schooling through Nicola Campbell and Kim La Fave’s acclaimed children’s books, Shi-Shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe.

IMG_5635 2The students were then given a white ceramic plate (bought from The Salvation Army) where they created their own free hand drawings using only red and black Sharpie markers. On the day of the installation, the students brought their ceramic white plates with their drawings carefully illustrated through a mix of personal designs and traditionally influenced images.

IMG_5636With the guidance of elder and artist, Butch Dick, the children were taught the importance of ceremony and the symbolism of laying a table in the Songhees tradition. They were asked to place their plates in the dining room area in a spot that meant something to them in relation to their understanding of the history of Residential Schooling in Canada.

With reverent gestures and words, the students spoke to their installation choices. They had been particularly struck by the descriptions of malnourishment from the testimonies of Residential School Survivors. Many of the children hid their plates under the large oak table, or under the chairs to represent the starvation of Indigenous children while at school. As the installation took its living form, the children chose to turn the chairs on their side, and to cluster their plates in the corners of the room to represent the upheaval of home and culture due to mandated schooling for Indigenous children.

IMG_5678Shion: “We put our plate above the fireplace so that people could remember the children that didn’t get to have these plates in Residential School. The fireplace is a symbol of First Nations hope”

James: “I put my plate away from everyone else’s because people were trying to destroy their culture and keep it away from them. Our plate represents the culture that was taken away from the kids.”

Maciah: “We put our plate on a shelf on a smaller table because maybe not all kids got to sit at the table and maybe had to sit on the floor. It was meaningful because we are bringing back the memory of First Nations kids who were forced to go to Residential Schools.”

IMG_5749 2By inserting their voices through the act of installation the students experienced a powerful social intervention. They were called to speak to their intentions to disturb the establishment of the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, on their own terms, in their own words. As Layla, a grade 3 student said, “When I made the drawing I felt I was learning about the culture and also doing something kind for the children by drawing their designs”. The children realized quickly that their art work was not for them; it was not a product to take home or display on the wall. As Adison said, “I like that some people learned that not everything is for yourself you have to make things for others, as well and learn about other cultures”.

In the collective experience of installing their art work as a social intervention, witnessed by their teachers and Butch Dick, who himself is a Survivor of Residential Schooling, the children experienced the importance of standing up for those who have been silenced. Jamie, a new student from Japan, reflected on the experience with poignant simplicity, “the kids couldn’t see their parents for a long time. So, we honour them.”.

After the children installed their work and spoke to their choices, we circled the installation and read this quote out loud:

IMG_5780 2“We are thankful for these and all the good things of life. We recognize that they are part of our common heritage and come to us through the efforts of our brothers and sisters the world over. What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all. To this end, may we take our place in the world’s work and the world’s struggle.” (J.S. Woodsworth)

When teaching a response to the Calls to Action, we can only hope that we are able to model what social justice learning looks like within the various institutions that frame social thought. This is not work that can rely on detached lessons within the confines of a classroom. The work of reconciliation must be work with the First Peoples of the land from which we learn, through meaningful, conscious and open ended forms that refrain from a settler agenda, or desired outcome. By precisely not desiring an outcome or a finished product, the children’s temporary installation became a visual testament to the missing and unaccounted for children due to Residential Schooling. On that day, it wasn’t our words that filled the space, it was the sound of children moving with intention, fuelled by a quiet collective heat burning within each of them, to seek retribution for children they had never met. Their innate desire for reparation permeated the space, and moved them to set a place at the table for the Indigenous children who were not permitted their rightful place in Canadian society.

Photo credits:  Tasha Henry

[Ed. Note:] A truncated version of this discussion can be found on the Victoria Art Gallery’s website (http://emagazine.aggv.ca/partner-school-inquiry/)

 

 

Tips for Organizing Reconciliation Events

Tasha Henry (who wrote the post on “Art as Intervention“) sent an additional note pointing to a toolkit resource they had found especially helpful for teachers and professionals trying to organize reconciliation events.  She noted the following tips:

  • Ensure that the location is culturally safe and accessible to everyone invited.
  • Ensure proper acknowledgement of the territory at the start of the event.
  • Where possible, invite an Elder to open the event with a blessing and invite them to give you direction and advice to ensure proper protocol is being followed. Be sure to find out how best to honour their time and contribution.
  • Where possible, explore ways to incorporate Indigenous cultural practices into the event in a respectful manner, such as singing and drumming by Indigenous community members. Make sure to honour this contribution.
  • Approach guests/speakers as early as possible, and ensure that all aspects of the event including honorariums are clearly communicated in writing.
  • Arrange for food and drinks. Sharing food is an essential part of the event.
  • Where possible, invite participants across sectors and cultures (e.g. multicultural organizations, Indigenous organizations, faith based organizations, the justice system, restorative justice groups, Ministry of Children and Family Development, First Nations Court workers, social service workers, counsellors, health care professional, women’s organizations, child and family services etc.)
  • This discussion may be triggering to some participants, so make sure that supports and opportunities for debriefing are available on-site.
  • Consider funding costs to cover transportation for guest speakers if required.

(Reference: Eguchi, L., Riley, J., Nelson, N., Adonri, Q., & Trotter, S. (2016). Towards a New Relationship: Tool Kit for Reconciliation/Decolonization of Social Work Practice at the Individual, Workplace, and Community Level. Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from: http://www.bcasw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Reconciliation-Toolkit-Final_May-11.pdf

 

Going Home Star

going home star

 

I saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star on Saturday night in Victoria.  (Read a review here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/rwb-s-going-home-star-truth-and-reconciliation-is-inspired-and-inspiring-1.2785096).  It is an extraordinary piece of art and emotion, a choreographed telling of the legacy of residential schools in Canada, danced by by Canada’s pre-eminent ballet company.

As with most moments of art and law, I left the Royal Theatre with my heart and brain on fire, and wishing that we had had the opportunity to teach this performance in the law school classroom.  Or, alternatively, to have transformed the theatre into a place of learning for all our students. Thinking about this performance as a jurisprudential text brings many of the conversations we have been having about TRC Calls to Action 27, 28 and 50 to mind.  Some thoughts.

First, it reminds me of some of the dangers and concerns of creating mandatory course offerings.  I bought the tickets as a gift for someone close to me, someone who ultimately couldn’t come.  As a settler, I can often lose sight of the embodiment of colonialism, no matter how much I try to keep that present.  My friend carries the imprints of intergenerational trauma on her body.  And while lots of people around us commented on how much she would have loved the performance, her inability to be there wasn’t at all about whether she would have appreciated the art or not.  Even in the face of extraordinary beauty, the vestiges of colonialism can cause unthinkable pain.

Second, it reminds me that experiential education matters.  The performance itself, the ballet, the stage, the costuming, the dancing, was exquisite.  But the experience was also the drummers and their humour, the words of the Artistic Director and the audience response to the acknowledgement of the territories, the words of Grand Chief Cook about his own experience as a residential school survivor reading words from his grand-daugher’s IPad, the recognition of the survivors in the room and of the community that had paid for those tickets, the reminder that if we needed to stand up and leave the performance at any moment, content or otherwise, not only was that fine, but that there would be people to talk to.  It was feeling the Royal Theatre on its feet at the end.  The ballet was beautiful, but the layers of bark and sap and sinew that surrounded it made it living.

Third, there were elements in the performance, like points of law in a legal decision, that were jarring.  It was a constant sensory onslaught of mind, body and spirit.  The music, the throat singing and the spoken word offered affect to the story being told through movement.  The set and the use of the visual was engaging and provocative.  It made me care for the actors in the story, protagonists and villains, but it also made me worry about the context and the hurdles and obstacles presented there.  And I left thinking about representation, about synchronicity, about who keeps stories and who tells them.  I would love to think that when I teach a class I can do all of those things for my students who I know to be a mix of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

I know this ballet is near the end of its run.  I hope that others fortunate as I was to see it, will write about it, and what it offers those of us working to create a #ReconciliationSyllabus and more resources for an adequate response to the TRC in Canadian law schools.  I am very grateful and inspired to try to do more within our classrooms, wherever they may be, on this and the other pressing issues of our time.