Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Whess Harman’s Banff studio
Contributor’s note: “In Kind” Negotiations was a residency for indigenous artists that I attended at the Banff Centre. See all three studio visit conversations here.
I met Whess in one of those terrifying circles of new people, where you tell everyone your name and something about yourself. I remember looking around the room and wondering what everyone was like and if we’d all be friends. I quickly learned that Whess lives in Prince George, British Columbia and has an “aggressively affectionate” cat. This November and December, we were both at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada as part of the In Kind Negotiations residency, a six week residency for indigenous artists.
The final night of our residency—before buses and planes would take us all away—Whess was frantically finishing up a book project in the printmaking studio. Whess graciously chatted with me while printing away at an endless stack of pages. Magenta and black slowly built themselves up on a sturdy surface. I had never even seen a silkscreen demonstration, so I was excited to witness printmaking wizardry firsthand.
Whess took on an incredibly ambitious project for their time in Banff: ten editions of a sixteen-page accordion book. As there is no access to printing facilities in Prince George, Whess wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful facilities Banff offers. The book includes an original text along with a variety of personal and found imagery.
LTB: Do you have an ideal audience for your work?
WH: Probably indigenous people worldwide.
Being part of an indigenous residency meant there was a shared understanding of the history and effects of colonialism—others at the residency (myself included) felt relief at not having to explain terrible histories and political sphere around our work. Whess’ text-based work explicitly references indigenous politics with singular statements like “Explorer is a funny word for colonial imperialist” (4th grade history class) and “Don’t call me an Indian if you’re not an N.D.N.” (Defining principles)—statements that are somewhat of a slap in the face.
LTB: And is there anything that are you tired of people asking you about your work?
WH: People have asked, ‘Can you read it for me?’ and ‘Do you think this puts you in a position of power?’
There is a certain resistance to accessibility in the font they had created: the viewer has to work through the letters to piece together these statements. Whess’ work challenges, refusing to be quickly consumed visually. For me, there’s something political in that. Western culture loves to feed upon indigenous tropes in the visual arts, never having to look further than the signifiers they seek out.
There is also a certain privilege and limited access in the finite character of printing editions. I found myself wanting to spend more time with Whess’ work, and so I was excited to hear that Whess plans to make the book available as a PDF online. I’ll be able to do some more decoding of sassy comments. I feel a certain glee in reading them: the statements feel as though I’m eavesdropping over someone’s shoulder.
LTB: You’re working with a traditional and established media with a long history, but one that’s not necessarily part of your family or community’s traditions. What’s that like?
WH: I used to push against formline, but now I would say that I’m coming back to it as a point of reference rather than specializing in it—approaching it as an amateur and accepting it as an influence.
During the BFA program at Emily Carr in Vancouver, Whess discovered the highly technical world of printmaking. Whess is from the Witat (or Carrier) Nation that is indigenous to northern British Columbia, where many artists in the area work traditionally. As my family is also unfamiliar with art school and its culture, I always wonder what someone’s immediate family thinks of the work an artist is making—especially when it comes from a deeply personal place.
Art-making became a place for Whess to manifest big ideas that felt difficult to verbalize. It becomes exhausting to constantly explain the repercussions of colonialism in your community; and Whess’ work becomes a form of text-based political engagements. The prints feel like the retorts we only come up with after the bully has left. These political and visual references to indigeneity also offer access points where Whess’ family can appreciate the work.
Whess developed the font from formline, the traditional artwork found in the Pacific Northwest. Traditional formline is highly encoded and has a meticulous flow. Whess’ foundation in illustration definitely emerges in the font, where language as contemporary text merges with a traditional, visual language. Whess’ words become a swirling story.
LTB: I read a lot of fiction that inserts itself into my practice. In X-marks, Scott Richard Lyons talks about Mr. Spoke and Judy Blume not being indigenous, but that they have become part of his interior landscape. Do you see a connection between fiction and your own work?
WH: There’s definitely a lot of sci fi here in my rambling. There’s Tesla’s death ray, lost sharks are sentient, and me as the ‘interstellar space babe.’
Whess began to work this way after seeing Sunny Assu’s work. Beat Nation also changed how they thought about formline. There Whess found a wide range of highly detailed work that was smart and engaged with indigenous communities. The influence of hip hop on indigenous communities and artwork felt to them like a nod to Afrofuturism. Similarly, Whess’ writing touches upon a blend of eclectic subjects like sci-fi, an identity as a non-binary transgender individual, and mental health.
Politics blend with imaginary blend with personal. Whess hopes that their work can begin conversations about indigenous politics and struggles with mental health. To Whess, art-making is an act of self-care. I love that you can find Whess’ work on Tumblr, which in its very nature mixes everything together. There, Whess has found an incredibly supportive queer community. Taking control of situations, both politically and personally, can be empowering. I find the imaginary space where art happens to be a political challenge to Western cultural expectations.
Whess had taken a seat next to their screen by the end of our conversation. Fortunately, upon checking the time, Whess said everything was right on schedule to finish the book. I was relieved that I had not stolen valuable time from such a beautiful project. I said goodbye to my new friend in the midst of inks, myriad papers, and magical tools.
See more of Whess Harman’s work at whessharman.tumblr.com.