indigenous

Dressing Sami

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Carola Grahn's Banff studio

Above: Vidderna ropa [Expanses(,) cry out] sound installation recording from open studios at the Banff Centre

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 remember Carola introducing herself to the circle of new Banff residents. I was taking note of who would be part of our residency, “In Kind” Negotiations. Carola had flown in from Stockholm, Sweden, and (unlike me) seemed unfazed at the prospect of winter in Banff. I tried to imagine the climate of Sweden and compared it to Banff’s and wondered if all of Carola’s sweaters were as cool as the black one she wore that day. (Because in Sweden, you’d have to have cool sweaters, right?)

Carola kindly took time to talk to me about her work during our limited time at the Banff Centre. I especially appreciated her shared words, because she mentioned to me how tired she was from constantly translating her thoughts from Swedish to English for us. She and I sat around some coffee near the end of the residency.

Carola shared about being Sami. The Sami people are indigenous to the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Before meeting Carola, I did not know very much about the Sami people; and it was a privilege to learn about their politics, traditions, and contemporary lives firsthand from Carola—instead of sorting through society’s prejudices and misrepresentations.

Carola kindly took time to talk to me about her work during our limited time at the Banff Centre. I especially appreciated her shared words, because she mentioned to me how tired she was from constantly translating her thoughts from Swedish to English for us. She and I sat around some coffee near the end of the residency.

Carola shared about being Sami. The Sami people are indigenous to the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Before meeting Carola, I did not know very much about the Sami people; and it was a privilege to learn about their politics, traditions, and contemporary lives firsthand from Carola—instead of sorting through society’s prejudices and misrepresentations.

Snow installation at the Banff Centre

Snow installation at the Banff Centre

LTB: Your father is Sami, and your mother is not. Do you identify then as only Sami?

CG: I don’t like the idea of being “half.” I have decided that I am both, both Swedish and Sami.

There’s something partial or lacking in being “half.” It feels exclusionary and like a loss for me to tell people that I’m “half” Navajo—why do people question how “much” I am when I tell them I’m Navajo? Fully claiming an identity has been an important step for Carola personally and in her art practice, though she says she was late in taking back her Sami identity. Carola is extremely involved with her community and serves as the chair of the Sami association in Stockholm. Like her community, Carola is dealing with what it means to be a contemporary Sami person. She describes wearing Sami clothing with jeans—which was once somewhat controversial. While in Banff, she facilitated a time for the women of our residency to talk about how we describe our own identities. Carola’s work seems to demand questions about the hierarchies of power in these identities as both an indigenous individual and as a woman. The viewer is confronted with very direct questions or statements. I appreciate the abrupt nature of her work: I find myself mentally stammering, trying to find answers, and wondering through these questions for myself.

Installation of raku mountains and photographs at open studios in Banff

Installation of raku mountains and photographs at open studios in Banff

Photograph of the mountains at open studios in Banff

Photograph of the mountains at open studios in Banff

Leah Thomason Bromberg: How did you find art?

Carola Grahn: It always felt like it was there. My art is like how I played when I was little: out in the woods or so. My friends and I would plan and create plays together.

Carola continues to work in a project-based manner like her childhood playtime, and her work is where she is mentally. I found myself also indulging in the landscape while in Banff, and Carola’s work has a sense of being a part of her surroundings and the psychology of the individual within it.

I asked her if the landscape in Banff felt differently than in Sweden, and Carola shared that mostly all mountains feel like home to her. During open studios, Carola had an installation of two photographs of the mountains in Banff accompanied by raku mountains that she made in the Banff Centre’s ceramics studio. I could sense her presence in the photographs and the raku pieces. The photographs captured a certain ephemerality that happens in the fog of memory and history. As for the raku pieces, I remember her offhandedly mentioning in the workshop that she had made mountains; but I found a certain freedom and definite quality in them. They have the same bravado as her text installations—planted in front of you, being what they are.

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out]  ,   outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out]outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

LTB: I feel like that’s something we’ve been talking about here in Banff: how these larger histories affect our own personal lives and communities.

CG: It’s been a place for safe conversations here.

Safe conversations are challenging to find. Carola shares a story about visiting her cousins’ reindeer herds. The Sami people are known for their nomadic herding of reindeer, a way of life still practiced. Carola had planned to drive north from Stockholm for the visit, and an acquaintance messaged her to ask if he could come along to photograph the reindeer. Immediately Carola felt anxiety that someone (whom she didn’t know very well) would want to invade a special area for her as a Sami person.

Carola and I shared feeling protective over these sorts of things, protecting the personal, and trying to choose carefully what becomes public. Carola’s work comes from a very personal place, and she has had to learn when to keep things for herself. It struck us both that with indigenous people, these larger histories of genocide, cultural oppression, and colonialism are constantly in conversation with personal histories. The Sami people and North American indigenous people have a similar history, where invaders stole the land and missionaries stole the children to attend residential schools. In talking about these histories, Carola emphasized that she does not feel that Swedish history is hers—rather that the Sami history is.

Kan man ärva smärta? (Can one inherit pain?) , October 2012, plastic film, Konstnärshuset. Image via carolagrahn.se

Kan man ärva smärta? (Can one inherit pain?), October 2012, plastic film, Konstnärshuset. Image via carolagrahn.se

Carola’s work wonders if the land keeps such pain and if the pain can be passed down to generations. If we don’t give voice to it, can the land itself cry out? Nature witnesses atrocities, and Carola finds comfort in the trees and wild. In Expanses(,) cry out, she gives nature a voice. Her installation at the Banff Centre uses the same recording. The Sami yoik subsumed my whole body as I stood in the center of the room. Outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City, she was able to install it along with a pine tree from a march, and the viewer could sit with the tree and listen to the recording.

At the end of our coffee chat, Carola gave me a hug. We wrapped ourselves into our sweaters, scarves, and jackets to head outside. And in the shadow of Banff’s mountains, there was no good bye—just an optimistic see-you-later.

 

You can see more of Carola Grahn’s work at carolagrahn.se.

Hon fejkade att hon inte kom (She faked, she didn’t come),   2011, mirror and lipstick. Image via carolagrahn.se

Hon fejkade att hon inte kom (She faked, she didn’t come), 2011, mirror and lipstick. Image via carolagrahn.se

Oh cry  . Image via carolagrahn.se

Oh cry. Image via carolagrahn.se

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out]  ,  outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

Vidderna Ropa [Expanses(,) cry out]outside of Bildmuseet in Umeå City. Image via carolagrahn.se

Explorer is a funny word for colonial imperialist

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.

4th grade history class , 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

4th grade history class, 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

Defining principles , 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

Defining principles, 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

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.

Last minute silkscreening: Whess worked while we chatted. This process enchants me.

Last minute silkscreening: Whess worked while we chatted. This process enchants me.

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.

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at Banff

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at Banff

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.

Whess’ studio in Banff

Whess’ studio in Banff

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.

Studio wall thoughts (with thanks to Sherman Alexie)

Studio wall thoughts (with thanks to Sherman Alexie)

Text planned out on transparency

Text planned out on transparency

Prints drying

Prints drying

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at the Banff Centre

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at the Banff Centre

Malibu Raven goes to Banff

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Alison Bremner’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.

Anxiously I sat down in a chair that was appropriately far away from (but near enough to) the other residents of In Kind Negotiations—you know, so I didn’t feel alone without being presumptuous enough to invade someone’s space. It was orientation day for my residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. Alison Bremner, as a brave, new In-Kind-Negotiator, walked right up to me and introduced herself. I immediately hoped we’d be friends, and my hopes were not in vain. During the residency, Alison was always next to me: alphabetically, in our adjacent studios and rooms, and at many shared meals.

By the time our studio visit rolled around, I shouted without any reservation over our shared studio wall to see if Alison was ready, and wandered over when she had settled in for our conversation. I found myself in the midst of paint and wood ephemera as Alison prepared for her departure.

Alison lives in the Seattle, Washington area. Her father was born in their community–the Tlingit community, and later her mother was adopted into it. After some time at Emily Carr in Vancouver, Alison left to apprentice under other traditional Tsimshian artists to learn her community’s art practices. She works in a variety of ways, but has made wood carvings, formline drawings, and stretched drums. I found myself getting lost in her work’s lyricism and secret hilarity. Her traditional work often finds itself up to mischief.

Malibu Raven  , 2013, limited edition serigraph, 18” x 15”.  Image via alisonobremner.com

Malibu Raven, 2013, limited edition serigraph, 18” x 15”.  Image via alisonobremner.com

Cat Lady , 2014, limited edition serigraph, 20” x 18”.  Image via alisonobremner.com

Cat Lady, 2014, limited edition serigraph, 20” x 18”.  Image via alisonobremner.com

LTB: Who do you see as your ideal audience?

AB: I really see it as people in the know, people who are in on the joke.

After cursory glance of Alison’s work, it would seem incredibly serious. As a non-Tlingit viewer, I first get lost in the ebb and flow of the blacks and reds in pieces like Malibu Raven. I don’t know exactly what to look for with formline. Only after my double take at the title, do I start to see Raven’s stiletto heels. During our introductory presentations of our work, Alison guided us through her drawing, and I found myself imagining this sassy, Tlingit Raven strutting from shop to shop. Tradition meanders down the contemporary sidewalk.

LTB: How do you feel about museums purchasing some of your pieces given the complicated history of the acquisition of indigenous artworks?

AB: Many Tlingit artifacts in museums are objects that have been collected from graves. So, I feel that when a museum is purchasing something from me, it’s very positive. It’s good to showcase where my community is now—that the culture is alive. 

She shares that there’s a joke that many traditional Northwest artists are art school drop-outs. The mastery of craft is paramount, and she felt there was a lot of resistance to the acceptance of craft as art—or at least that there wasn’t some hierarchy there. At contact Tlingit work was collected as “artifact,” not seen in the same category as Western artworks. They became part of curio collections. Tlingit work can have functions beyond “decoration”—sometimes it has a practical, social, or political function. Totems were chopped down and taken to be “preserved” at museums. These totems were actually meant as markers for their communities. Their makers actually intended them to fall apart, allowing time and climate to take their toll. These artworks weren’t meant to remain in stasis.

Speaking the Language  , 2014, acrylic on alder. Image via Facebook.

Speaking the Language, 2014, acrylic on alder. Image via Facebook.

Banff Centre wood chips from the globe rattle,  Speaking the Language

Banff Centre wood chips from the globe rattle, Speaking the Language

LTB: It seems like your community is really important to you. How do you see that as part of your art practice? What’s it like being in Seattle even though your community is in Alaska?

AB: I definitely want to move back eventually, but Seattle and Vancouver is a good place for my work. Seattle is where my mentors are right now.

Alison talks about hoping to teach her nephew and others to work traditionally. She sees her work as a dialogue for her community—about the objects she and others are making. There’s the question of the old objects taken by museums like totems, and she is hoping to help her community have them returned.

Alison has been participating in so many conversations around questions in indigenous politics and art-making. She participated in an indigenous leadership conference that ran concurrently while we were at Banff, and after the residency flew to Fairbanks, Alaska for the Community Doers Gathering.

Video installation of a small protest Alison held in front of the Banff Indian Trading Post

Video installation of a small protest Alison held in front of the Banff Indian Trading Post

AB: I do identify as a “Tlingit artist” because my identity with my tribe and clan runs so deeply. I’ve been thinking about how we’ve been talking about Adrian Piper’s“Dear Editor” piece. With that, I’ve been wanting to avoid being called a “female Tlingit artist.”

Adrian Piper says she earned the right to not be called a “black artist,” and instead an “artist.” I do feel that everyone here at this indigenous residency absolutely is an “artist.” However, there is so much agency in naming yourself. Alison and I have been talking about expectations from the (Westernized) art world when one does make work about any identity, whether that means being a woman or indigenous.

I said my goodbyes to Alison, who had meticulously packed away her rattle and new drums into a black suitcase. She left a few days before I did, and her empty studio reminded me that I’d soon be gone as well. At least Seattle and San Francisco are sort of next to each other.

 

See more of Alison Bremner’s work at alisonobremner.com, or follow her on Facebook. You can also see more of her work in Yakutat, Alaska, where in the summer of 2015 she will be leading a workshop as the feature artist at the Tern Festival.

Alison’s studio in Banff

Alison’s studio in Banff

Mona Lisa Smile  , 2014, limited edition giclee, 27” x 18”. Image via alisonobremner.com.

Mona Lisa Smile, 2014, limited edition giclee, 27” x 18”. Image via alisonobremner.com.

In progress at the Banff Centre: drum and drawing

In progress at the Banff Centre: drum and drawing

'Wat'sa with a Pearl Earring  , 2014, limited edition giclee, 2014. Image via alisonobremner.com

'Wat'sa with a Pearl Earring, 2014, limited edition giclee, 2014. Image via alisonobremner.com