Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac’s "(official denial) trade work in progress"

First Nations, English, Research

New Book Explores Art and Reconciliation: The Land We Are

December 09, 2015

The recently published collection The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation is fundamentally concerned with asking: what role does art have in the project of reconciliation? What can and does art do? Co-edited by Metis artist and SFU alumna Gabrielle Hill, and SFU English professor and settler scholar Sophie McCall, The Land We Are looks to artists to engage the concept of reconciliation head on, to “shake it up, to wrestle with it, and to insist on other possible futures” (vii). The book is luxurious, filled with images of the contributing artists’ work. It is also timely, as reconciliation, showcased here through artistic production, dominates the conversation between the Canadian nation and indigenous people, while indigenous struggles for rights and land ownership remain un-reconciled.

The idea for the book emerged during a lunch break at a Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference. McCall had previously undertaken numerous grant-funded projects that critically considered art and reconciliation partnered with Jonathan Dewar, Director of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University, and Ashok Mathur, Professor of Creative Studies at the UBC Okanagan. They had hosted workshops and held artist residencies and colloquia. Hill had been both a participant and a research contributor for these projects. Many of the participants in the various projects had expressed the need to put debates around art and reconciliation into a textual form. Around the lunch table they decided McCall and Hill would co-edit a book to do just that.

Seventeen artists contributed to the collection. McCall explains that the work of artist Rebecca Belmore, displayed in the opening pages of The Land We Are, is a key articulation of many of the main threads of the book. Belmore’s work ‘Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother’ was made in the aftermath of the Oka uprising. It consists of a large wooden megaphone, which Belmore transported to the numerous blockades during the summer of 1992, inviting indigenous people to speak to the land they were defending. McCall explains that government reaction to Oka was the origin point of discourses of reconciliation: “state response to Oka was to shift tactics and move to peace building and reconciling. Reconciliation in the case of the Oka crisis worked very much as a discourse to distract away from land and that has continued up until the present day.”

New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society Collective

Part of the contribution of the art and artists in The Land We Are is to show the ways art can be a place of insurgency, decolonization, or a space of conflict. “We wanted to look at the way art has been, and can be, an important part of indigenous resurgence,” says Hill. The editors share a concern about government funding directed to projects on art and reconciliation, so they sought to show how artists critically engaged and resisted the implicit ties to promoting reconciliation that came with the money. McCall says, “We wanted to honour and recognize the work that indigenous artists have done to push against those funding structures and institutional pressures and tell a different story.” Hill shared that while she appreciated the opportunities that comes with funding, she was also critical of “the way it was directing the conversation within this framework of reconciling with the Canadian colonial project. It was really important that instead we talk about the responsibilities that artists have to reconfigure talking about reconciliation.”

The book is divided into four parts which explore various themes: the role of public art in the neoliberal city; critical interrogations of formal state apologies to native people in Canada and the US; collaborations among artists addressing some of Canada’s continued colonial acts such as murdered and missing indigenous women and then-Prime Minister Harper’s 2009 denial of Canada’s history of colonialism; and finally the insurgent power of art and performance.

"Apology Dice": David Garneau and Clement Yeh

While the book is critical of reconciliation, the editors foreground that this criticism is not intended to minimize any potential healing or restorative aspects that some have found through reconciliation. As Hill clarifies, “it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of people who did attend residential school have found that telling their story and making artwork about their experience has been healing.” Instead, as Hill shares, The Land We Are is concerned with “balancing the benefits of conversations about reconciliation while remaining critical.” For Hill, acknowledging and expressing the anger many indigenous people felt in response to discourses of reconciliation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a crucial part of that balancing act: “I think some indigenous people are very angry about reconciliation, especially those who experience colonization every day in all sorts of different ways that aren’t limited to the residential school experience.” McCall adds that their analysis of reconciliation was informed by the critical work of scholars like Taiaiake Alfred, Leanne Simpson, and Glen Coulthard, who argue that ongoing issues of land ownership and social justice are eclipsed by the imperative to reconcile now, on Canada’s terms.

New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society Collective

Hill, McCall, and contributors in The Land We Are, reject the idea of art as singularly expressing the healing closure of past colonial projects and instead insist that art can express the current conflicts, rejections, and contestations of ongoing projects of settler colonialism in Canada. As a then undergrad, Hill, who is now pursuing an MFA at California College of the Arts, recalls her role as an editor as transformative: “Putting together the book was really exciting. It was a great learning experience to come to know the challenges of being an editor, of being a good editor. We thought a lot about our responsibilities to our various communities our responsibilities to the authors.” McCall shared this sense of responsibility to the contributors: “The artists’ work is showcased really beautifully and powerfully in the book and I think that through the process of editing we’ve gotten to know these works really well and that’s fantastic. I now have their voices in my head and that seems like a gift that is not spoken of much in the editing process.”

The Land We Are is available to purchase; all proceeds will be donated to the Unis’tot’en Clan in Northern British Columbia who are currently protecting their territory from proposed pipelines.