In With Opened Mouths: The Podcast Dr Qanita Lilla, Associate Curator, Arts of Africa sits down with artists, musicians, curators and spoken word poets to discuss the expression of their practice. How did they find their artistic voice? Which life events shaped them and who are their inspirations?
Reflecting Agnes’s new curatorial approach of working along a continuum of exhibitions and programs, the podcast is mobilizing a range of guests including artist Oluseye, rapper Jameel3DN, spoken word poet Britta B, Métis artists and curators Jessie Ray Short and Amy Malbeuf, curator Jason Cyrus and writer Ezi Odozor, and Agnes’s Associate Curator, Indigenous Care and Relations Sebastian De Line and Collections Manager, Jennifer Nicoll.
The podcast series features original music by Jameel3DN, produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III and commissioned by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2021.
With Opened Mouths: The Podcast is available at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on popular podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. Be sure to subscribe now to stay up to date. The first episode, The Hidden Museum, is released 12 July 2021.
With Opened Mouths, the exhibition, is on view 6 August 2021–30 January 2022.
Other Ways to Listen
Tap or click on “Transcript” under each track to read or download the full transcript of each audio commentary.
Qanita Lilla: Hello, I’m Qanita Lilla, curator of the new show With Opened Mouths.
This show interrogates conventional museum practices by incorporating African ‘traditional’ art from the Lang Collection with art by contemporary Canadian-Nigerian artist, Oluseye. It asks if objects that originate outside western knowledge-making systems can find their voices in new ways.
In this podcast, I sit down with artists, musicians, curators and spoken word poets to discuss the expression of their practice. How did they find their artistic voice? Which life events shaped them? And who are their inspirations?
Over the course of the series, I chat with Toronto-based contemporary artist, Oluseye. He discusses his Eminado series, a collection that pays homage to the individuals of the transatlantic slave trade. Rapper Jameel 3DN shares his creative processes that germinated in a tough childhood. I will also talk with Kingston-raised spoken word poet Britta B who uses her voice to confront the realities surrounding her.
Métis artists Jessie Ray Short and Amy Malbeuf talk about curating their show, Other Worlds. And Jason Cyrus and Ezi Odozor discuss the themes of the show History is Rarely Black or White.
Associate Curator, Sebastian De Line discusses what led him to their Ancestors at the Agnes. And in the first episode, I search for the museum’s voice and visit the hidden terrain of collection vaults with Agnes’s Collections Manager, Jennifer Nicoll.
Catch With Opened Mouths: The Podcast for some moving and inspiring conversations. This podcast is produced in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM.
With Opened Mouths: The Podcast will be available at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on popular podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. See you then!
Qanita Lilla (host), Jameel3DN (guest)
Qanita Lilla: Hello and welcome to With Open Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’ exhibition of the same name. The exhibition interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside Western knowledge making systems, like those from Africa, can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with musicians, artists, curators, and spoken word poets to discuss their expression of their artistic practice; to find out what inspired them to open their mouth and be heard.
Today, I’m excited to meet Jameel3DN. Jameel wrote the incredible music for this podcast. And when I first met him to discuss the project, I knew that I had to include him and talk with him again. Raised in Toronto’s West End, Jameel3DN discovered solace through storytelling at a young age. His Jamaican background instilled in him the importance of feeling in the performance arts. It is something he has carried with him closely while making music throughout his career. What began as an outlet for jotting down the goings on of every day as a child, transitioned into poetic stanzas that unveiled the observations of life lessons of adulthood? Holding nothing back, Jameel3DN rhymes or candid spitfire tales of his experience as a black man. He takes listeners on a ride as he sheds light on the obstacles he has faced that are often tied to the colour of his skin. His last four projects was a four-part series called Letters Form, Words Speak. This project invites you to take a journey with him through his most trying experiences. Though he doesn’t come out the other end unscathed, he is a better man for it. As a father of three kids, the emcee understands the weight of his words and uses them to share messages that encourage personal and communal elevation rather than conformity, especially within the black community. Flipping to the next chapter, Jameel3DN has faith in the path he has chosen and wants his music to be received with an open mind and a clean heart. Welcome Jameel.
Jameel3DN: Hi, how you doing, how you doing? That sounds so beautiful [brief laughter].
Qanita Lilla: It was beautiful. That was awesome. Thank you so much for providing such an honest introduction for me.
Jameel3DN: No problem, you know.
Qanita Lilla: Okay, so I wanted to talk about this first sentence, how you discovered solace through storytelling. Can you start by giving me a background of what it was like growing up?
Jameel3DN: Yeah, no problem. Well, I’m the only boy out of three, you know, three children in my house at the time, because my father went on to have another child. And I was the middle child. So for me, you know, I would say it was difficult, because my eldest sister, she was my mother’s favourite and my youngest sister was my father’s favourite. So I was kind of just, you know, not only being the only boy, but feeling like nobody’s favourite. You know, I was angry to be honest. You know, I felt as the boy child, you know, I should have been my father’s favourite [brief laughter] as dumb as that sounds. But it never went that way for me. So early on I would act out. I would act out a lot actually, I had anger problems, had a terrible temper tantrum, not in the way, like, you know, the media kind of explains it, because, you know, in a Jamaica household, you can’t be too what we call bright. You have to have manners and respect, but when I would go outside and with strangers, you know, the littlest thing would kind of set me off and I’d get in trouble. But I would say my mother saw that within myself, within me, and she tried to — and she did actually successfully get me to understand my emotions and my feelings. And she would ask me what I know now as, you know, difficult questions, you know, as a mother with a son, you know, how I felt about my relationship with my father from like a very young age, like from six-seven years old. And I think that’s what kind of started off, you know, my story, because through that I was able to understand some of my feelings, not completely because I was still a child, but, you know, through that, I started writing short stories literally about my home life. I went to Calico grade five, you know, after being kicked out of so many schools that my teacher, Mr. Daley, you know, started me off, you know, by writing short stories. So I used to have this thing called — even though this is, you know, I can’t be sued for it, but I was a kid. I used to read a lot of Jigsaw Jones books. So I had my first story ever was Jigsaw Jones, Jameel Cones [assumed spelling]. And [brief laughter] pretty much I used my home life and things that were going on in my house to write these stories. And it was a way, you know — it was serious, but it was a little comedy. And that’s how I kind of started getting out my feelings and finding peace within, you know, some of the things that were going on. And from there, it just developed into poetry. You know, and then from poetry, I went into rhyming. So a lot of times when I’m going through hard times, and I’m not understanding certain emotions, you know, I use my writing ability to find peace in my situations, whether it’s a short story, a poem, or a rap or a song. You know, I write a lot of songs too that I don’t sing, because I don’t believe I can sing, but [brief laughter] you know what I mean?
Qanita Lilla: That is not true. That is not true. You have an amazing voice. And like in one of your emails, like in one of your emails, you actually said, you know like that you didn’t want to sing. And you know, like who in heaven’s name said that you could not sing? When did that happen?
Jameel3DN: From a kid, so from a child. Again, you know, I’ll say this, I’m a big believer in anything we face as adults, you know, within ourselves or any struggles, I do believe it starts from childhood. You know, from a child, they would say I was talented, and I could do almost anything I put my mind to, but sing. So it’s like you know, Jameel can do everything, but he can’t sing [brief laughter]. And that stuck with me to be honest. To this day, I go to the studio and a lot of singers and even my engineers are like, Jameel, you can sing, you just have to like practice, you know, get a little bit more training. But even if I went to training, I couldn’t take myself serious, because I feel like, I think I’m a singer and then I get too full of myself. And then I just feel like that would happen to me personally, because, you know, I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but that song specifically, it was — like I said, I like to — emotion is important to me and people and even just myself feeling a song, like that supersedes everything. So that’s the why I did it, you know. I just turned the lights off and I kind of just, I like to, I feel like I — I get in touch with my story and I deliver what I think is necessary.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah, I wondered. I wondered like what, you know, what like inspired you? Like what — you know, was it the subject matter? Or, you know, it just felt like really close as if it was the sound that was being bottled up for a long time and then it just — you know, you kind of finally just opened up that bottle.
Jameel3DN: That conversation we had that day when you explained the podcast and the exhibit. And I don’t want to butcher what you said, but it was along the lines of — well, the part that was inspiring to me was, you know, the similarity between what the mass went through and what African people went through in terms of, you know, slavery. And for me, that’s something that’s very dear to me, because I was directly affected by that. And that’s something like kind — I don’t struggle with it, but it’s hard for me to understand why, because of the effects. Like I still feel the effects, you know, my children feel the effects, you know? And it sounds like, “Oh, it’s so long ago, how do you feel affected?” Just that it was trauma passed down. You know, if you want to think about trauma is passed out also through DNA. So —
Qanita Lilla: And it’s like it’s intergenerational, you know. And if we don’t talk about it, then it just gets buried, and we don’t — you know?
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: And so yeah, so like, so for me, like I said, you inspired me, because like, it was a story that I felt I wanted to tell. Well, I didn’t know I wanted to tell. So when you sparked that — when that creativity was sparked by what you told me, I felt it, it sounded like something I thought about, you know what I mean?
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: It felt something like — you know, a lot of times you write, you know, you’re thinking about a story. That was different. Like, it was almost like spiritual maybe.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And yeah, like I got that feeling that it was there. You know, with a lot of you know, the people that I talk to, but even like that’s why I knew I had to bring you back, because I got that sense that it’s been there, you know, it’s stuff that’s been there and that needs to, you know, it needs like an outlet. So anyway, but I’ll talk about the song again. I want to go back to your childhood and, you know, what were your challenges, you know, because it’s — I get a sense that it was tough. It was, it was difficult to find your voice, even though you were, you know, doing a lot of story writing, but it wasn’t as easy as that, you know. It must have been really tough, like growing up as a boy, you know, having a creative outlet at all, it’s unusual for, you know, boys to kind of — to write, I think.
Jameel3DN: [ Brief laughter ] I would say, you know what, I never thought of it like that. When I think about it, you’re right. I was probably one of the only male writers when I think about it. Like I said, I can credit my mother, because my mother — I think first — I think the reason why there’s not a lot of boy writers, is because we’re not really in touch with our emotions, you know, from young. But my mother, she made it a priority for me to understand my feelings. I think once you begin to understand your feelings, you can kind of write about it, whether it’s personal or for, you know, public consumption and — I would say that growing up, I did feel like I wasn’t heard. You know, I felt like life wasn’t fair to be honest. My older sister — so this sounds terrible, honestly, and I apologize to my older sister. So my oldest sister’s father, he passed away before she was born. And my father and my mother got together and then three, four years later they had me. But no, no but, but no well, my father, you know, paid a lot more attention to my oldest sister. So me knowing all the details as a kid, I always felt like, and this is very selfish of me, which like I said I apologized to my sister when I got to like 18, 19 years old. I always said like, man, this is my real dad. And real my dad loves me less than, you know, the adopted daughter. I couldn’t understand as a kid. Like anything my oldest sister asked, she got. If I asked for anything, it’d be like, what do you want it for? You know, I played sports to impress my father. He never was really — never paid attention to me. My mother was so consumed with my, you know, my sisters, because they’re women, you know? And this is like; I was on the back burner for like — honestly all my life I felt like that, to be honest, you know, in terms of my parents. So the only way I felt like people listened to me was when I did write, you know? And maybe it was a way to kind of get attention maybe I did that. I was good at it. For the first time I wrote my story, you know, everyone was like, “Oh my God, Jameel is so good.” You know, but it was real for me. But my real story was good to be — I don’t know how to explain it. It was people found — people found — I don’t know how to explain that. Even though these are my, you know, true stories and through I express myself and the way I was heard I felt, I kept on doing it because I felt like I also received the attention I didn’t get at home. You know, I won awards for these things. You know what I mean? So maybe it sounds a little messed up, but as a child, you know, when you don’t get — you know, when you don’t think you’re — you don’t think your parents love you in the way you expect them to love you, you kind of look for it in other ways, and sometimes unhealthy ways. I’m just thankful that I picked up writing and not something else honestly, if that answers your question, I’m not sure if that answered your question [brief laughter].
Qanita Lilla: Being a man and like having like a lack of like a role model, you know, like really wanting that from your dad? How do you think this played in to like your idea of like wanting like positive reinforcement?
Jameel3DN: I think I was lucky. I think at 13 years old — so I was expelled out of my middle school. I went to another middle school, Pierre Laporte, and there was a vice-principal there, Mr. Malabre [assumed spelling]. He kind of took me, he changed my life actually. He changed the trajectory of my life. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Mr. Malabre, I would probably be a jailbird [brief laughter]. No, honestly it was a Jamaican vice-principal and most teachers saw me and didn’t think nothing of me. But Mr. Malabre, you know, he saw more than like the athlete or the troubled kid, you know, he saw like potential almost. And it was in grade eight when I decided to be a better version of myself, and that I didn’t have to kind of be — I didn’t have to be the person I was becoming, the bad person I was becoming, because definitely that person was bad. So the lack of role model, I would say that, you know, I was lucky to have people come in my life at certain key points to where I can always look up to somebody. As far as it not being my father, it did affect me. I think it still affects me a little bit, you know. I don’t understand that story. I love my father, we’re on a good — both my mother and my father, we’re on good terms, because I understand we’re going to get one. But to be honest, it’s still affecting me, you know? No, you can’t — you know, you only got one father, you know, and as a kid, you know, my father was like a superhero to me. And I can remember my mom kind of used to say, why do you love him so much? Or why do you look up to him like that? You know, he doesn’t really do much for you. It wasn’t till I was like 12, 13 years old when, you know, I think I needed some school clothes, and he didn’t buy them from me. And then I did develop like a small hate for him for a short period of time. And, you know, it was like a reality check for me. And then, yeah, and then when I moved away, you know, I think — I thank God for wisdom. Wisdom kind of showed me that, you know, regardless, you know, your parents have their own traumas and their own struggles; I guess I’m a child. I really shouldn’t have — I should consider them, but wisdom allowed me to consider their issues and what they had to go — you know, going through. And, you know, through that, I’ve been able to find peace with both my parents and just accept them for, you know, who they are and what they’ve done for me, regardless of how, you know — you know, if there was minimum — I don’t think it was minimum, because I’m here. I could have died or they could they could’ve gave me up, you know. So much things could’ve happened, but you know, at least they did give me 15 years where they were there for me, you know, and that’s more than what a lot of other people get.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: But it had a big effect on me.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah and it sounds just — it sounds like tough. But you know you made it out the other side really. You know, especially like during that difficult time, like adolescence, you made it, you know, out. Besides like your school teacher, who were your other inspirations? Like who did you look up to, who kind of gave you a window out of your situation?
Jameel3DN: So Mr. Malabre, he was one. That was when I was 13 years old. I would say as a kid — so as a kid, I would say only probably Mr. Malabre as far as inspiring me. And then as an adult, you know, I met a gentleman named Rob Thorndyke, you know, a good friend of mines. You know, always believed in me, you know, always invested in me. He also showed me like light within myself. Sorry. As a kid, there was a friend, this girl I used — this friend I had, her name was — I don’t want to name drop her name.
[ Laughter ]
Qanita Lilla: Come on?
[ Laughter ]
Jameel3DN: I don’t want to name her [brief laughter]. But my friend Holly, she met me when my mother left. My mother left to go live in Miami and my father got remarried. And so it was just me and my little sister in our house. It was government housing. And she kind of would always talk about being selfless, right. And —
Qanita Lilla: Wow.
Jameel3DN: Yeah, young, 15, 16, she was beyond her years. She always talked about being selfless. And I never really understood it, but it always interested in like yes, being selfless. And she’s like, oh, you’re selfless. And I’m like; I didn’t even know what that meant. You know, for somebody told me I’m selfless, I don’t know what that meant. I was confused. It wasn’t till I was a little bit older where I started to kind of understand a lot of her conversation, but she made me see beyond myself in a weird way. I don’t know how that makes — or she made me want to see beyond myself and like, not always be fully concerned about my situation, no matter how bad it was. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know how to explain it. Like, I think —
Qanita Lilla: No, I think you’re explaining it perfectly. And I think that idea of a collective good kind of thinking of the bigger, greater picture is like a profound thing for like a child to communicate to another child.
Jameel3DN: Yeah. I mean, I — — I always say like at that specific time in my life, that was definitely a needed message, even though I didn’t act on it fully then. As I got older, it became very important to me, kind of like my purpose, you know, when it comes to, you know, my people, to be honest, you know? Like I said, I always give that girl her, you know, her flowers, I try to give her a flower. There was a time that we didn’t talk for a while, but you know, recently, you know, I had to, because I don’t know, you never know who’s going to pass away. You know, I reconnected with her and just let her know like those words and just the conversations we used to have, it was another bright spot or light in my life in a very dark time, you know? So I would say her, Mr. Malabre — and it’s funny because she’s a woman, but like she really did — some probably looked up to a little bit, you know, kind of like inspired to be like, you know spiritual-wise. And then as I got older Rob Thorndyke and then I think that’s pretty much it, to be honest. You know, yeah. That’s pretty much it though.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I think, yeah, it comes through, you know, it’s like really like her influence especially, it comes through. And it’s interesting how like the people that we meet along the way, just shapes us and shapes who we are.
Jameel3DN: No, I agree because at 16, like she said some stuff to me about myself that today I’m looking like, yo, I don’t know how she kind of knew that or saw that, you know. I don’t think — I think people don’t really — I think sometimes people can’t see themselves. But to see someone in the way she saw me at such a young age where I wasn’t even developed, I wasn’t even near who I am today. That’s like I don’t know vision, foresight, I don’t know [brief laughter] all of them in one, you know, so yeah, yeah, yeah.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. That’s amazing. So now I want to talk a bit about like The Art of Black.
Qanita Lilla: And how it came to be like your creative process, how did everything come together? Could we talk a bit about that?
Jameel3DN: Okay. So it’s actually funny, because the song originally had a whole different — the music was different at first.
Qanita Lilla: Really?
Jameel3DN: Yes, it was.
Qanita Lilla: I can’t believe that.
[ Laughter ]
Jameel3DN: I’ll send it to you. It was different. It was completely different. And I actually put my brother, not by blood, but by choice, you know, Tobias, NamedTobias, he’s also a phenomenal artist in my opinion. And I got a name drop [brief laughter]. And he was singing on it at first, but the beat and just the way it felt it didn’t — I didn’t fully express the way I, you know, the way I wanted it — the way I wanted to express the feeling I got when you first inspired me. So it was telling me, I’m like, man, I can’t send this to you. There’s no way, you know. So that was the first day I went to the studio. It was April 7th if I recall. April 7th? No. When did I sing? Oh, beginning of April, maybe April 1st or 2nd, I think. But I’m like, you know what, I love the words, but I don’t like the song. Like the words were it.
Qanita Lilla: That melody is so smooth and it’s so gentle and, you know, it makes such a contrast to the words, you know, the words are really — it’s powerful, but it’s more kind of thoughtful, you know. But that melody really carries it through and it makes you want to listen, you know, because it’s just such — it’s so smooth. It’s just such — it’s sweet. It’s a sweet — it’s sweet.
Jameel3DN: Thank you. Thank you. I also was very considerate about this being a podcast, right? So I’ve thought about what information would be shared and how do you get listeners to kind of lock in to receive, you know, you know, this type of information, you know, because you have to pique the interest in my opinion. So I said to myself, if you’re hearing my voice first or last, how do I make it memorable, you know? So the music was important. I remember you said you like the Letter J a lot. So at first I’m like maybe a little different, but then when I heard the different I’m like, I don’t like it. Let’s go back to the letter J feeling. So by that music, and then I formed the words around that music or it’s instrumental, it’s a beat. I formed the words around that and I kind of just took my time. I really do believe sometimes when you rap, if you slow it down a little bit, you can digest what’s being said, you know, better rather than be so caught up in what we call flow, you know what I’m saying, and you missing an opportunity to reach a listener. You know what I mean?
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: So I feel — like I said, there was no singing even on that version. And then when the rapping was done, I’m like, man, there’s still something missing. And I was like, wracking my mind. I’m like, you know, Mike, just let me sing [brief laughter]. So then I sung, you know, from the beginning to the end.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Wow. So the singing came at the end of the process. And you thought, well, you know — yeah, that’s — yeah. It seems like the —
Jameel3DN: That was like the glue.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, it really seems like that. You know, I really love this like the letter of the letters of the alphabet, Letters Form, Words Speak. Can you talk a little bit about that, because it’s a huge project and it’s amazing? It’s very diverse, you know, it’s got so many different themes and things going on there. Can you just kind of going back to that as an inspiration for this Art of Black?
Jameel3DN: Yeah. Well, when I first started — well, when I first got the idea for the project, you know, I’m kind of — I’m like — I would say I’m a visionary, you know. I try to have meaning to everything I do. Actually don’t try it, that’s the purpose. Everything I do has to have some kind of meaning. I was 22 years old at the time, 2012. And I was in a very complicated situation, a very stressful situation. And I just didn’t understand the people around me. I didn’t understand at the time why I had to go through so much. And how was I going to express all my feelings and all of my — — all of my journey from that point forward to where people could digest it the way I wanted them to digest it, you know, not just, I feel like complaining. I do complain in my first letters. That just make it sound like complaining, but you know, bring them through the — bring them — what’s the word I’m looking for?
Qanita Lilla: Pain. Pain.
Jameel3DN: Pardon? Go ahead.
Qanita Lilla: Pain.
Jameel3DN: Pain. Yes. Let them understand my pain [brief laughter]. Yes, exactly. And then bring them through my evolution or let them see my evolution through the music. So I remember the first song, Letter A, I was sitting in my friend’s basement, I’m broke, I got no money, nobody got money. And I’m thinking to myself, man, you know, I got three friends, all broke, curse word [brief laughter]. We lost hope. At nine to five, that’s how I die slow. At nine to five, that’s how I die slow. I can’t remember. I’m tired. I can’t remember the rest of the lyrics, but it was pretty much explaining my situation and just being frustrated at the — you know, like we’re all sitting here, all broke, no hope all working nine to five, we all feel like slaves. And it’s just like, where did we go from here? You know what I mean?
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: Kind of mad at my friends and mad at myself, mad at my family, mad at my girlfriend at the time. I’m just like, man; this is a big waste of time. And as for me personally, I’ve always had aspirations. You know, I’ve always said, you know what, we got to build businesses. We got to do this. We got to do that. And I felt like I always dragging people. I was always trying to push people to become more than what we were at in the moment. And at that point I was just tired.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: So, I wrote letters and then — sorry, let me go back. Oh, I apologize. The entire project was basically a way for me to make songs using the alphabet, give it to people. And hopefully for me giving my emotion through alphabet, people can start talking about their emotions and what they’ve been through, because the common thing in the black community is to not talk about what you’re going through, to not be transparent. I’m super, super transparent. And I feel like it’s helped me. It’s been its own therapy, even though I do believe people should go through therapy, I’ve been to therapy, I still go to therapy. Learning to express yourself and learning to be transparent about what you’re going through in the moment is therapy in itself. And it would help a lot of us not to be angry all the time, like I used to be. You know, so the Letters Form was just my — it was like my gift to my, to my people. Like this is exactly — because everything in that project that I was going through, I was going through at that moment. Every single thing is true.
Qanita Lilla: Whoa.
Jameel3DN: You know, at one point letter F I questioned God. I believe in God. I was questioning God. I’m like, yo, I’m going through all these things. Where are you at [brief laughter]? You know, like where are you at? Like, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, but it feels like you leaving me out in the dry. This is Letter F. Letter G, another song I talked about, I was talking about the mentality of the ghetto and you know, the gangster culture and the hazards of that, and wanting to be free. Like, is there a place where, you know, where dreams can last forever? You know what I mean? Like it’s a range of emotion, testimonies, you know thoughts and just, yeah, I hope that answers your question. I’m sorry.
[ Laughter ]
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. I mean, I think, and I think, you know, something that you pick up again in like The Art of Black is the idea of the fold that black people inhabit. Like, what is this? What is the fold that you have to protect, like protect the fold? I kind of get an idea that it’s kind of about like space and a safe space, but can you talk a bit about that?
Jameel3DN: All right. So I purposely — when you sent me the questions, I purposely tried not to look at them so I can give honest answers, you know, because for me, I overthink everything, you know. And then by the time we got through this, I would’ve just been giving you like a rehearsed answer. So for me the fold, you know, so that’s a very good question. Like I said, that wasn’t a — that lyric was not written down. That like was a freestyle.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Jameel3DN: And like I said, it came from that same place where you inspired me. So for me, the fold has always been like, you know, my people, you know, from old to young. You know, I feel like throughout history, we’ve done things for ourselves, you know, not all of us, but there’s been particular people who’ve looked out for themselves and kind of didn’t care about the “fold” or the rest of the people. Now, a lot of people would call them sellouts, you know, but I don’t want to focus on the sellout. I don’t want to focus on the mentality. You know what I’m saying? Like, when are we going to get to the place where it’s not just about me, it’s about us, you know? You know, for me, it’s always been about us. Everything I do is for us, you know. And when I say us, you know, it goes deeper than like, you know, we have children — yes, I have my children, you know, I love my children. But do I save my children and kill my people? You know, I feel like — I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but these are conflicts that I have with myself for my kid is its like, you have to make the hard decisions to protect the fold, to protect the people. You know, we give away a lot of us, we give a lot, we give away a lot — we give ourselves away a lot, you know? And we don’t concern ourselves of the future a lot of the times, not all of us, but you know certain people. And I just feel like, not just like the people, but the things, the culture, you know, like art, you know, like cuisine, like everything that is attached to us as a people we need to protect, because in protecting those things, we protect us. And because we didn’t protect those things, we destroyed ourselves. You know what I’m saying? Obviously, we understand the history and it’s not necessarily us destroying ourselves, but you get what I mean. That’s my idea of the fold; you know everything pertaining to us as a people, not just the people itself.
Qanita Lilla: And then like in the — you know, towards the end, you talk about, you know, like the worth of a sister and the worth of a brother and protecting the soul and protecting the fold, you know, and how it’s kind of — how it’s bound together, how it’s all bound together, like your sense of identity and your soul and your sense of belonging and all these things. And you know, I wanted to — like earlier you sent me an email with this idea of the griot.
Qanita Lilla: Griot, yeah, griot. Yeah.
Jameel3DN: Yes, the West African language.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And I wanted you just to, you know, end off by talking about that because I really — I got a sense that, you know, there is so much of this kind of this person, this person in your writing, especially in this piece, you know, about like messages and about like history and sharing, sharing with like, you know your community about, you know, like your ideas.
Qanita Lilla: So who is the griot?
Jameel3DN: So how I has introduced to that term, my brother NamedTobias again, he used to be a producer and he turned a rapper, but we had this project called The Rise of the Nation in 2011. And the last song, he said, he named the beat Griot. And I said, what does a griot mean? He goes; it’s a West African word for storyteller. And I’m like, oh, that’s like — that’s dope. And from then on, you know, I researched what the griots were. And the griots were pretty much like, like I said, that the people in the tribe who would pass the stories now, you know what I mean, to generations and stuff like that. And that’s what I feel like I do. You know, I don’t really consider myself an emcee, like in the email we were talking about our master of ceremony. I really do consider myself more of a griot, because all my music, they’re all story-based, you know, they’re all intentional, they’re all speaking of our history, or I feel like writing about our future, you know. So for me, who the griot is like in terms of — do you mean like who do I feel I am as a griot? Sorry, just to clarify.
Qanita Lilla: Yes.
Jameel3DN: Yeah. Okay. So that’s a good question.
[ Laughter ]
I feel like — — for my generation — I feel like — I don’t know if this answers the question, but this is the answer I do have. I feel like through my stories and through the music, I’m showing other men that it’s okay to be, you know, emotional. It’s okay to be in pain. It’s okay to love. And at times you’re going to go through heartbreak, you know, everything is not going to be okay, but, you know, keep telling your story. That’s hard. That’s who I feel like that’s my identity as a griot, you know, just showing the full spectrum of being a black man, and sometimes a black person, you know. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s my answer [laughter].
Qanita Lilla: That’s perfect. That’s perfect, Jameel. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you so much for like writing this incredible song. It’s just so beautiful and, yeah, it was amazing. And I’m so happy that you agreed to come and talk with me today.
Jameel3DN: Thank you for inspiring it. I promise you if we didn’t have that conversation that day, and you know, you didn’t share with me — I do believe it’s how you felt as well as the history of, you know, the mass, I wouldn’t have never — I don’t think that song would have ever came to existence, because as a writer, as a griot, that’s how I work. I need to be inspired. Something needs to be sparked within me. And I’m glad that we were able to create such an impactful song. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: Fantastic.
Jameel3DN: So thank you very much. I appreciate you.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you, Jameel.
Jameel3DN: No problem.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you so much.
Jameel3DN: Have a wonderful day guys. Take care.
[ Laughter ]
[ Music ]
The podcast is hosted by Dr Qanita Lilla and produced Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. The music is composed by Jameel3DN and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III.
Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time!
Protect the fold
Protect the Fold
Protect the Fold
As we fight to be heard
Black bodies in the earth
Creators of culture
Disconnected from birth
So we let them sell us worth
Sold us fables and it worked
So we masking pain cause it hurts
Black pain being hanged like some merch
They tell our story
But let us tell you first
We was stolen put on display
Taught a new language
Distorted our face what a shame
We was shinning
They wanted us in shade
They thought we would stay slaves
One chapter but this novel has many
You know first peoples really look like pennies
This bronze skin
This is what they envy
And the culture that’s within me
Know your worth sister
Protect the soul
Know your worth brother
Protect the fold
Know your worth Sister
Protect the fold
Know your worth Brother
Protect the Soul
Today I was thinking
What it would feel like
To be outside this flesh
For my spirit to be flying high in the sky
Above the clouds
At the Doorsteps of heaven
Protect the soul…
Protect the soul…
Song Writer: Jameel “Jameel3DN’ McPherson
Producer: Elroy “EC3” Cox III
Commissioned by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2021
Qanita Lilla (host), Sebastian De Line (guest)
Qanita Lilla: Hello and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host, Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’ exhibition of the same name. The show, With Opened Mouths, interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside Western knowledge-making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with artists, musicians, curators, and spoken-word poets to discuss the expression of their practice and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard.
Today, I’m very fortunate to be joined by my colleague, Sebastian De Line. Sebastian is an artist and an Associate Curator at Agnes Etherington Art Centre. He/they also works as a teaching fellow for the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Queen’s University. His/their doctoral research focuses on the manufacturing of capitalist values and economies that transform agential, Indigenous and racialized Ancestors into labouring objects of extraction, accumulation, and consumption determined by the acquisition criteria within museum collections. His/their publications include The Journal Official Cultures and Junctures.
Hi Sebastian, how are you doing today?
Sebastian De Line: Hi Qanita. Hey.
Qanita Lilla: There you are.
Sebastian De Line: Hey, there I am. Thanks for inviting me.
Qanita Lilla: It’s a pleasure. I would like you to introduce yourself since I introduced you.
Sebastian De Line: Oh yeah. Great. Hi everyone. I’m Sebastian De Line, as Qanita had shared earlier. I am a newly appointed Associate Curator at the Agnes Etherington. Previously, I was a Research Associate, and I primarily work with the Indigenous collections and in building relationships with community in terms of care for the Ancestors in the collection and in their return, and in the ways in which community — taking community-centred, community-led approach to the care of their Ancestors that are currently housed at the Agnes Etherington. So that’s, you know, the bulk of what I’m working on here at the Agnes, as well as in the future, working on some curatorial projects. So, thank you so much for inviting me to join you today.
Qanita Lilla: Thanks, Sebastian. I always, I like to start with, you know, going back into people’s life to see how it is that they came to be the people they are and the creators they are. Could you tell me a bit about growing up?
Sebastian De Line: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. Where does one start? I don’t know about you, but if anyone asked me when I was younger, if I — you know, what my life plan was, I don’t think at that point I would’ve told you that I was going to be a curator or even an artist actually, probably at that point. So, my life, like some people have — has taken a bit of a windy trajectory to where it has become — you know, where I am at this point today. But I started out early on, in my 20s, actually, as a craftsperson. I was making shoes and I did that for nearly 20 years. And then that evolved into design, which evolved then into going to art school and moving more into other installations, sculpture and visual art, and now a little bit more actually performance is kind of the direction it’s going at this point. So multimedia and from there the trajectory has shifted also to include interest in academia and theory and curation. So, I don’t know about you Qanita, how your direction was, into your doctorate, but I’d love to hear about that too, if you —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I’m fascinated by the shoes, Sebastian. I’ve always — you know, I think that, yeah, they’re part of our stories that we kind of, you know, don’t think are as important. You know, especially when you are in academia, you kind of focus on things that make sense at a particular time, but that — but the shoe story, you’ve got to tell me how you ended up making shoes. It’s a very unusual craft.
Sebastian De Line: Yeah, that’s true. Everybody always wants to know about the shoes. [laughter] Well, we all have them. We all — most of us need them. So, you know, that was a big part of it too, right? It was when I was finishing high school, you know, like some people, I really didn’t know what I wanted to study in university. And, you know, the thought of going to university at that point at a young age and not knowing what I would focus on, and seeing people that I knew end up with very large student loans afterward, and which, you know, they’re paying for, you know, a decade of their student loans and still winding up with a degree that they were not necessarily happy with or didn’t end up leading them to a career in which, you know, was meaningful, didn’t sound for me, at the time, like a good decision. And what I knew then was that what I was seeking was competency. And so that — that’s how I actually started getting into shoes, is that I first went to trade school and I studied sheet metal. And I found that it was easy to pick it up, but it missed, like that creative aspect of it. And I actually became bored quite quickly. And so, it was a friend of mine that suggested, you know, we were talking about different professions and different trades, that said, “Well, you know,” we’re kind of tossing different ideas around. And she said, “Well, what about shoemaking?” And I thought, wow, that sounds very kind of a dying art, you know, in Canada [laughter] as not many people pursue that, you know. And so, I didn’t actually know how I’d go about it, but I, you know, I remember saying to her that, “I’ll give anything a shot at this point, you know, for six months and to determine whether or not it’s a good fit for me.” And the rest was history. You know, it took a while to get a job in that field. I started out repairing shoes and I worked for a Dutch Canadian employer who came from a long line of shoemakers and had moved to Canada when he was young with his wife and took over a business for a man that was retiring in Vancouver. And then so, he ran that shop there. They ended up staying and raising their children here. And so, from that, I ended up later on moving to Europe and working for his family, who are all shoemakers on both their sides. So I worked for his sister and brother-in-law, who were sixth generation shoemakers. So that was the — what they had said was that’s the best place to go to learn if I really wanted to learn the actual craft from start to finish, because, you know, we don’t have a shoemaking school in Canada, so. And shoe design is kind of its own other trajectory. It wasn’t centred necessarily on the craft. And I, at that point, I really, I enjoyed — what I’ve enjoyed about shoemaking was that there’s so many different aspects to the craft. I never got bored. You know, so there’s pattern making, and then there’s also the sewing of the uppers and the finishing of it. And then there’s the soling. And eventually, I got into the last making, which is what I ended up specializing in later in my career. I worked in orthopedics a lot, and so.
Qanita Lilla: Sebastian, who wears handmade shoes? Who — I mean, it’s an amazing idea. It’s lovely that you can, you know, go to somebody and have your foot fitted for your own particular pair of shoes, but who, like in reality, besides people who have like medical conditions and stuff, who are these people?
Sebastian De Line: Yeah. In reality nowadays who makes handmade — well, it’s — okay, if I — the theorist in me has other answers. [laughter] Really, we can get into the whole complicatedness of actually the handmadeness of factory manufactured shoes. But I think where you’re going with it, yeah, primarily the people that can afford shoes that are handmade, like bespoke shoemaking, are generally people that have — are of a higher income, that they can afford to buy those kind of shoes. But, yeah, primarily nowadays, the bulk of who buys bespoke shoes are actually orthopaedic clients, you know, and that was the field that I worked in. And even that shift in Europe, I had heard a lot from other colleagues in the industry that there was a big transformation that actually happened in the 20th century, it moved from bespoke to orthopedics because of insurance. And so large countries like Germany and the Netherlands who have orthopaedic shoemaking, you know, covered by insurance, that was — that was a — there was a big move in the industry towards that direction. So that is primarily who buys handmade shoes nowadays. Yeah. Or like clients with diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and leg shortages and other needs that require that, that go beyond the capacity of the conventional shoemaking.
Qanita Lilla: How did you make the transition from shoemaking into conceptual art?
Sebastian De Line: That — but that was art school [laughter]. Yeah. Yeah. I went to art school in the evenings when I was working as a shoemaker. So I used to work in a factory in the mornings, and then I would go to school at night. There was an adult, you know, mature student program. I did a BFA for five years, and a lot of the artists that taught the course were also interested in conceptual art. And the school I went to in Amsterdam was called the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, but it was — had a lot of conceptual artists there and in their interests. So they never taught craft in that way. They always said, “You’ve got to go out and learn that yourself.” They just expected you to be more autonomous in that way. But in the school itself, they didn’t focus on that. They focussed on teaching what art is and all the kind of more theoretical questions around art in order to contextualize what we were doing.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: And then, so that’s how I ended up taking that trajectory.
Qanita Lilla: But did you somehow — were you able to transfer your kind of craft-like skills? I mean, you have — I mean, I’m sure you did, and you were in the field for 20 years, you know, and, you know, like how did you translate that from doing something that was so particular, you know, handmade, like it had to just be perfect. How did you translate that? How did that kind of fit together, you know, like the physicality that you were used to, you know, working with and kind of translating those kinds of things into ideas, perhaps you can kind of talk around like a show that you did or some particular like works or pieces?
Sebastian De Line: You know, maybe in a way, I feel like I kind of took a different trajectory in the sense that I saw art school as a place that I could try other things, you know. I saw it as a way that it could open up my practice, that I wouldn’t — that what it had become at that point. So, kind of fixed in a certain process of making shoes that then it was actually very hard when I started art school to open up my mind a lot more and expand my practice to something that, yeah, was very, you know, with making shoes, it is so tied to the function that, you know — you know, mind you, there are other shoe designers that designed first from a conceptual basis and then try to manifest it, let’s say, materially. But because my practice first was grounded in the craft, I could never free myself entirely from it. I always, you know, whenever conceptualizing something, I’ve tried to imagine how it would be made, what it would be made with, and, you know, that I had been keeping the engineering of it in mind all the time and the ergonomics of it. And, you know, biomechanics was always my background as an orthopaedic shoemaker. So, in that sense, it was actually challenging when I went to art school to — even when I remember many moments I’ve had in my life where I thought that I would — was somewhat free from it in my practice, there are always people that still remind me that there’s an aspect of a shoe still in a lot of the, you know, sculptures I make and stuff like that, even if I don’t see it myself. And so, you know, sometimes I actually feel a little bit kind of kicking myself, you know. [laughter]
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. No, but I’m sure that it’s just, it’s so deeply buried that it’s subliminal. It must be. You know, it’s kind of like, if you — like for example, I was taught fairly early, like how to cook, like at 10 years old because I had to kind of help everybody out, and we had a big family and so forth. And then later, like, you know, in my 20s, I was like, “No, you know, this is not a woman’s role. This has like been stifling me, like completely.” But, you know, in my heart of hearts, it’s something that I really love and enjoy, you know? So it’s kind of like trying to find a balance between the things that, you know, you choose and the things that are like inherently there. They just like part of like it’s — and it’s beyond us. It’s kind of like ancestral, even, you know, like the kind of things that we were taught or that we just genetically programmed into doing or something, you know. I really get that sense and, you know, the things that we kind of have to also just like make peace with, you know, kind of move beyond those things. So I can definitely understand why they just said that it comes back. I mean, the shoe is just — it’s just such an incredible kind of metaphor for, you know, life’s journeys and things. And it was an amazing place for you to start, you know? Yeah. And also, I don’t believe it’s, you know, these things kind of fall from nowhere, you know. They just must’ve been something that made you like, so attuned, you know, to that. So, like what do you think — like, what was a particular project at that time that you felt proud of?
Sebastian De Line: I, you know, I have — I tend to try to tie things together. So, my mind is trying to tie everything together a little bit, which is why I’m just taking a moment to pause.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Oh, it’s fine.
Sebastian De Line: But — because I’m thinking about what you’re saying, you know, about how maybe sometimes when we come into learning something that is a labour, you know, and we might not — there’s kind of that tension of appreciating the joy of it or the artistic part of like, let’s say with cooking, you know, but it’s never, you know, inseparable from the consciousness of being a woman and labouring, and that kind of form of domestic labour, you know. But there might be moments of like, I can imagine, I love cooking too. Like when you’re, you know — it’s highly creative, you know, to be able to, but then, you know, when you’re cooking for your family, there are just days where you’re really tired and —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — you know, you might not have the creative capacity to —
Qanita Lilla: Oh yes, yes. And it’s going to be kind of fish burgers in the microwave.
Sebastian De Line: Yeah. [laughing]
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. It’s kind of been going like that.
Sebastian De Line: I feel like the shoemaking journey was a bit like that in a different sense that, you know, like getting back to like maybe, you know, being young and not growing up with a kind of competency. And then I lost my father when I was very young. And so, growing up and not having someone around to kind of teach me that sort of tradition of a craft or what, you know, what your parents would pass down to you. I’ll get to that part of the story later, because actually my mother is an artist, so I ended up inheriting in a way her tradition —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — as a narrative, but I didn’t start out in that direction. You know, I think I leaned towards wanting to learn what I was missing. Right? And so, and part of that was, I think part of my healing journey and learning, you know, was to carry on as a young adult and find a way to take care of myself that I could live and work anywhere, everywhere, everyone needs shoes. Right? And that was part of, I think, you know, the psychological, at least, impetus behind picking a craft like that, that I could carry that competency wherever I went and take care of myself, and finding joy in it, you know, where those moments were finding the joy and the creative aspect of it that allowed it to become much more, you know. And there was that kind of, I definitely went through a period in the years I studied and made shoes too. I think I was interested in a kind of self-mastery, you know, and I liked that this craft, everyone that I know who makes shoes, it’s a lifelong journey, and no one ever becomes in that. I would argue to say that most people are never fully a master at making shoes because there’s so many different aspects to learn about it. You can constantly improve, you know, and so we’re — when you meet other shoemakers, you’re sharing tips and tricks and, you know, you’re constantly learning better ways to make things more refined and et cetera, you know? So, there’s — it’s a long learning curve, you know?
Qanita Lilla: That’s great.
Sebastian De Line: I missed, sorry, the second part of the question.
Qanita Lilla: I can’t remember — I can’t remember. I was just thinking how, you know, like for myself, I went to art school almost on the opposite, kind of — with the opposite kind of impulse not to do something practical, like not to, because I felt that, you know, like when I was at school, I got introduced to art and I thought — and to museums and I thought this is like a completely new world that I just never understood existed or, you know, at all and was very foreign. Like my family is very traditional but luckily, they let me kind of do this somehow because my dad felt, you know, you kind of had the same, said girls needed to be educated, which was incredible, you know, coming from a really kind of a traditional person. And so, when I went into art school, it was so peculiar because it was a very, a highly traditional classical art school. And I was — I also came into it like from I just had no experience like growing, plus the costs, you know, like [Michaelangelo’s] David, and, you know, all these, you know, the time slavery and all these crazy things that, you know, where kind of transposed into Africa. And then also life-drawing, you know, naked domestic workers. It was just all this kind of — and it was so alien and alienating that I found solace in theory because I felt I was kind of hidden there, you know, like my — and I was safe. It was kind of like a safe space to practice and kind of develop my ideas and, you know, the art classes — art history classes were so enormous, it was almost like a thousand students. And like, you never wrote your name on a script, so nobody knew who you were, which was fantastic for me, you know, because I would always stand out when I was in that lecture hall, you know. It was like 99.9% White, so people could always see me, but when I wrote, nobody knew who I was. So it was, you know, this kind of like freedom in, you know, being anonymous. But then, yeah, it’s really, really interesting, like, you know, this fact that you felt that you needed to do something that people needed, you know, which is so important. I felt that people needed to — like I needed to be in a space where people could just like hear my voice, even if I — you know, with just reading what I have to say, just because of the kind of traditional constraints like on me and, you know, the racial constraints and all of those kinds of things. Yeah. And I think it’s interesting because mostly people find that space in creative art, you know, like you kind of went through like to conceptual art and found that kind of freedom, and that you’re kind of struggling with those, you know, constraints that I was introduced to right in the beginning and thought, “No, this is like absolutely not for me. I cannot do this because I’m kind of fighting too many barriers besides my own kind of incompetency, because I just don’t have the background,” you know?
Sebastian De Line: Yeah. You know, you’re reminding me of is in a different sense, when I was working in the factory and studying art at night, I remember most people where we all worked there were all immigrants, most of us, because living in the Netherlands, I think probably about over 75% of the craftspeople working there were folks of colour, you know, from different Dutch-colonized homelands that came there with their families. And so, I can identify in a way, what you’re talking about, as theory being a kind of solace and freedom to it that, you know, when I would be sitting, sometimes I would listen to podcasts or I would listen to lectures a lot on, you know — in my ear buds and on YouTube, and be able to dream, you know, and listen to philosophers. And while I was, you know, standing in the factory, it felt like it was a freedom, you know, that I could dream bigger and how to get out of there, you know, because of the classism and the racism. Whereas I felt like when I was making shoes, part of that what had helped me go to, you know, pursuing academia was because some of the barriers that I experienced in that industry, you know, where I was never promoted for jobs, and I had the highest education in the factory by — with my BFA, and then my MA, I did there too. And I could never even get a job as a, you know, just a supervisor or anything outside of that craft. It was very masculine. It was very male. There were only a couple of women shoemakers that worked there. And so, there was a lot of sexism and homophobia, and transphobia, and it was, you know, very racist. So, it was challenging. And I hear you in that way, like there was that, you know, there were moments where I could be in my own little world with my earbuds on, you know, and, you know, listen to my favourite theorist at the time or people talking about art and it was the gap, the class gap between my colleagues, really, I noticed increased a lot over time. Like sometimes, you know, I think after my second degree, my colleagues still never really understood what I was doing and they kind of equated it to doing Sunday painting classes. So sometimes they’d ask me, “Are you still –“
Qanita Lilla: Doing that thing?
Sebastian De Line: — doing that painting?”
Qanita Lilla: Oh, yeah. No, no, no. Like I get that totally. Like, I got that from my grandmother, from my parents. Like, “Are you still doing this thing?”
Sebastian De Line: This art thing, like —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, like, you know and it’s yeah, like basically anything — like, nothing is basically worth doing, unless you can — you — it’s employed. You know, you — it makes you employable. And I completely understand that. I completely, you know, understand that like coming from my mother, who she left school at 14 because she had like seven siblings to kind of help take care of. And it’s just, yeah, like why would I? Why would I like write the papers that nobody pays me for? Like what — you know, like my grandmother, you know, she was like, “When are you going to have children at 24, 26, like high time?” you know, those — you know, those kinds of things. And yeah, but you know, theory kind of just does — it gives you that space. It gives you that space to be, you know, like a potential of who it is that you imagine. And then like curation like opens up a whole new field, you know, to actually making that visible, those ideas, like trying to — and try to share it with like new audiences and people who might never have thought about seeing things the way that you, you know, can show them.
Sebastian De Line: Yeah. I think that was part of one of the — I mean, I have a different appreciation of art now than I did when I was young, because, you know, when my mom, after my dad passed away, you know, my mom raised my brother and I, and she was an artist, and actually went to art school and did her BFA. But watching her struggle as a single mom and not being able to then choose her career, you know, and have to put that aside to raise us and take a “normal job,” that was a big deterrent or a discourager, you know, for me getting into the arts later on, because to see her not be able to, you know, finish pursuing her dream at the sacrifice of taking care of us, you know. So, you know, and growing up and having family members too that would say, “That’s not going to make you any money.” And like, “That’s not going to put any food on the table. Why do you want to be an artist or yeah, draw on Sunday, but get a 9 to 5 job?”, you know, and having that 9 to 5 job, but then feeling really impinged by it and not feeling that it really nourished my growth and my spirit. You know, that was that shift. And I don’t know about how it was like for you, but I think maybe it was that being also supported enough, you know, by my mom too, to pursue that even though it seemed impractical, you know, and a little bit risky probably for them, you know, risky for her in that regard of, I, you know, definitely think like she saw it as a kind of investment in her children, you know, to not have to struggle the same way that she did, you know. And it’s been a long, long journey [laughter] —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — you know, only now kind of finding its legs and where that leads.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Like totally. Like I could completely and totally understand. It’s not, you know — I mean, like you too, I had to work. I had to work like long hours because I had to support myself. And so, it takes long. It takes like really, really long, you know, and life happens, things happen, children happen, relationships happen. You know, and I just — this kind of idea that you kind of have to, like, as a woman, lock yourself away in a nunnery and do your PhD, and then you kind of emerge, you know, and you know, suddenly you kind of have like an epiphany, and then you kind of get, you know, chosen to go and teach somewhere. It’s just, it’s completely alien and impractical, and never — most of the people I know, it just doesn’t work like that at all. You kind of just, you struggle and struggle, and struggle, and you know, every now and then you get like a break and an opening, and like encouragement, like from people, you know, who, yeah, who’ve kind of been through, you know, on the same path or, you know, kind of tell you that you’re not insane, basically, because they’re just so — there’s so few people who you kind of you can like aspire to whose life you can kind of, you know, follow. It’s just, yeah. But yeah, I just — like, after, you know, many years, like in my community museums, because in South Africa, like after ’94 with like apartheid being disbanded, there was this, you know, increased appreciation for people telling their own stories and telling their own histories. So, it was a really exciting time to be like involved in museums. But then I realized that, you know, I was always telling other people’s stories also, you know, that that — and that was good, you know, in a way, except that there was like limited resources. And as time went on, you know, those kind of resources kind of got more and more like constrained. And I felt, no ways. Like, I, you know, surely, like I need my own space to be able to kind of develop my own ideas. And yeah, that was like with two kids and both of them say now, you know, “You would like really — you were like a bad person at that time. Like during your PhD, you were like a terror, just don’t — you know, when you go and work, please, don’t become a terror again,” because it was just it’s so like emotionally taxing, you know, but I just had to go through that. I had to go through that and that’s insane. It’s insane to have to go through that process to just tell yourself you’re okay, like you — like, just to validate your existence, that’s insane, but that’s just kind of what I felt I needed to do. And, you know, I’m like at peace with all the mess and all the, you know, the broken stories, and things that just don’t make sense, you know, in my life, because that’s just what it is. It is what it is.
Sebastian De Line: Yeah. They say that a lot, how PhDs are really very hard on families. You know, it’s a really challenging time when you have a partner and children, it’s a lot for the whole family.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: You know, goes along on the ride, you know? So, to be finally, you know, of that long investment free of that, you know, but still the reality of what it is to do the actual job is a lot different. Like you said, you know —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — then the fantasy of what it means to become the scholar. You know.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. So, like you — we left off at you like, you know, pursuing like a bachelor’s and master’s in fine arts, and then like you continued. So, you’re busy with a PhD, you’re busy with Agnes. And so, let’s talk a bit about that. Just a bit about how you kind of found your feet in a different way.
Sebastian De Line: Yeah. Well, when I was finishing my MA, I was — it was part of my thesis, was I was interested in stories by Cornplanter, and I realized that being in Europe, you know, I had a great supervisor, but that wasn’t her specialty, you know. Her specialty was feminist Marxism, and labour, and art. And so, she could only support me to a certain degree, but I realized if I really wanted to continue to learn more about the things they cared about that were related to my dad’s culture, being a Mohawk, and that I needed to go home —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — if I wanted to learn more about that and I needed to be in community. And those were things that I missed out on growing up and I didn’t grow up on the territory. And so, yeah, it just seemed like the natural thing, actually, to come back to Turtle Island and to put my roots back here, you know, and to be able to learn about our culture. So, that’s why I ended up actually taking that turn after I finished my MA, then it seemed like, “Okay, I really got a taste for theory and I know I got the theory bug,” so now I wanted to go on, you know, and pursue that more but I needed to be grounded in home, you know, and learn that from here. So, that’s how I ended up coming to Queen’s. It’s ’cause I had extended family that lived in the region. And so, I felt like if I applied here also, I could learn Mohawk in university, which is amazing. I never got a chance to learn that growing up in Vancouver. And then I had cousins and my cousin’s family, you know, were close by, so I could go visit. And, you know, when I had time off, I could go on even with the family and, you know, just feel I had some support, you know. I wasn’t alone. And through that, you know, I started doing my PhD in Cultural Studies, which is the program that I’m in now on, a candidate in Cultural Studies. So, with Cultural Studies, you know, the — there is — it is kind of a natural fit a lot of times with art theory and visual culture. And so, my — the theory that I studied in my MA was grounded in Cultural Studies because a lot of the professors work at Goldsmiths and then they were adjuncts at the Dutch Art Institute, which is where I did my MA. So, having that kind of, I want to say unofficially a Goldsmiths’ stamp, but a number of them coming, you know, working at Goldsmiths, it was very much kind of grounded in Cultural Studies. So that was a kind of a natural fit to apply for those kinds of programs. And it gave me, you know, the freedom to be able to focus on subject matter that related to art and have a practice if I wanted to do a research creation kind of project or like the artistic research while I pursued, you know, a longer dissertation, which was something that I wanted to learn, which is to write a lengthier, you know, written document of research, to learn how to write also the craft of writing, right, and the craft of writing theory in that way. So, I guess there would go back to that theme, again, of being interested in some form of a craft of its different mediums. And with the Agnes, you know, actually the Agnes originally approached me a couple of years ago and asked if I’d be interested in pursuing a position as a research associate, and they wanted to spend time more dedicated to Indigenous collections and the lack of documentation about a lot of the Ancestors in the collection. And as part of the one of the things that we talked about if I were to apply to that position, and when that came up, was that what I had been interested in, too, was that well, it was important to me that we also focused on rematriation and repatriation, and that was — that would be a part of it. Just how — you know, how I have been taught and what I know for our communities what’s important to us. And so, I was very pleased, you know, to hear that they were very open to that. They didn’t actually have anyone on staff that was dedicated to the — you know, what that entails and I didn’t have experience in doing that. I have learnt on the job and I still am. And I have a lot of community support, thankfully. So, we’ve set up ways in which it’s not focused on me, but I found that my role in doing that has been to bring community in. So, one of the things, you know, we have is an Indigenous Arts Advisory Circle that we set up last year that was, you know, our discussion and what our focuses are, annually. And so, we’ve been starting that work. And so, they are who I turn to. And then when we have projects that people bring to the museum, like other, say, professors that, you know, want to invite their students to engage with the collection or graduate students who are interested in projects that involve conservation or autonomous studies. And that’s what my job has become, is to bring them together with our own people to be able to hear from them what our needs are, our community’s needs are, then getting — guide that process rather than the other way around, which is, you know, commonly the way in which things are operated in museums, where especially in the logics of museums and the logics of universities, you know, where research is often something that is someone’s idea within the Institute, and then thinking that that might serve community. It’s — so we try to take an approach the other way around. So yeah, that’s how I ended up here.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I’m interested, you know, in your bio, you mentioned that you’re interested in how Indigenous Ancestors are transformed into labouring objects of extraction. That’s really interesting. Could you talk a bit about that?
Sebastian De Line: Yeah, sure. Maybe with that, I’ll try not to use such inaccessible language as I wrote in my bio [laughter]. Basically, what I’m interested in, is I’m interested in ways in which different Indigenous and racialized communities, how communities understand their own Ancestors. And what I — what we mean by that is that not only when you think of the word ancestor oftentimes if you know the word, we’re referring to human Ancestors, so human remains, but, you know, from my culture and from many other cultures, a lot of people understand Ancestors to mean also what the Western logics are often referred to as “artifacts” or “objects.” So, non-human beings, you know, that are embodied in a different way. And so, when we think about it from those kinds of perspectives, which is at the heart of my dissertation too is basically, you know, referring in different ways to our different cultures, having that understanding of that aliveness of relatives in museum collections that’s really counter to this kind of Western logics of objectivity and objecthood. Then when we understand that, we can see in other ways in which they’re performing a form of labour as well, you know, within collections, within exhibitions and what does it then mean to be alive and to be remembered, and known, and have a role in community, but being not in community, but then being extracted from community and being accumulated, you know, within collections and archives, and performing a certain kind of function, right, and creating validity, right, or having value extracted from them, like from their — literally their embodiment, you know, within those collections, has been the focus of my interest in telling those stories, you know, and telling the way — telling the story in which the way at how that operates and how that is counter to the ways in which they live and how the repercussions of those choices and the harm, the impact that it has on them in their, oftentimes, inability to be returned home, are the moment before return, you know —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — and what they’re doing in that — in those places. So, yeah, what it leads a lot of, you know, in that direction, in that way too, when we, like, when we’re — you know, those Ancestors that were also connected to those ancestral — those Ancestors in the museum, their embodiment, let’s say, as a mask, or, you know, as a ceremonial pipe, or as medicines, as beings that questionably are not necessarily — well, they may be highly artistic, you know, and highly, you know, highly beautiful in that way that they really need, you know, with the creator’s breath in mind, their, you know, their purpose in life was not to be a “artwork,” you know, in a museum. Right? They serve another role, right —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — in their societies. And so, you know, and those spirits that are still connected to them that lived with them in that period that they were alive, and that have used them and that made them, and passed them down to their relatives and, you know, they still have a connection to them. And so, the way I’ve come to understand things is that when they’re awakened to perform labour, you know, in museums, like, say, on exhibition or even on a permanent display in a vitrine, you know, in which they’re then awakened, you know, then it’s really activating and not giving rest to those spirits that are connected to them because most of them, right, they were found — you know, they’ve been on earth, right, from a lot of them from burial places. Right? And where spirit was meant to be resting at that point, you know, and not being called upon to labour, you know —
Qanita Lilla: To do stuff.
Sebastian De Line: — certainly not in that way. Right?
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. So, how do Indigenous people experience these collections? Do they feel as if they are living Ancestors?
Sebastian De Line: I mean, people have different beliefs, so that’s something that I have to preface. You know, I can’t speak for every nation. Every nation has their own understandings and protocols, and their own ways. Right? I’m primarily taught from a Mohawk or a Haudenosaunee perspective. So, that’s how I understand things, but, you know, even as an urban person, right? I’m an urban, mixed race person of Indigenous descent. I didn’t grow up, you know, learning those things. I learnt them later in life. And so, there’s a lot of people that also, you know, in community that might also still view them as non-agential, and as objects. And that’s — I feel like that’s a product of colonization. That’s one of the ways in which we’ve been assimilated. So, there’s really — you know, we have lost an everyday memory and understanding of those things. But the way I’ve been taught about that is that, you know — they are alive and they have a spirit, you know. Everything has a spirit, this table has a spirit, right? This table I’m sitting at, you know, it’s also made of wood. You know, it also came from beings that are alive. Right? And then they’re — if their body’s been sacrificed to now, you know, becoming — come to this table that I sit here at, you know? And so, in that way, how does it affect communities? I think it — I know it affects a lot of communities, especially it affects communities when the Ancestors are ceremonial, when their purpose in life was to be a medicine. Those are because if you think of it that way, then they’re not — when they’re in a museum, are they really having the ability to then be that medicine to community?
Qanita Lilla: Mm-mm.
Sebastian De Line: No, they’re not. And so, they miss out on being able to be — fulfill their role as a medicine, right, in the community, or their ceremonial role that then, you know, revitalizes and supports, and nourishes community. So, yeah, community really longs for the return of those Ancestors, because they fulfill a really vital role that they can’t fulfill when they’re in a museum, because the idea of museums, again, maybe coming back to like what it — what we think of what art is, you know, that there is a — that there’s a certain idea and purpose in which, from a Western perspective, what is the kind of labour being asked of those Ancestors? Right? But I also know that like sometimes community members, you know, the people also feel, you know, happy about seeing some of their Ancestors represented in a place in which is predominantly very Western, you know, and to see a pride, right, in the artistry and in the deep spiritualness, and, you know, the knowledge and beauty of one’s Ancestors is —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — can feel really good, right, to come into a space and to feel that if it’s done respectfully, you know, and if they’re shown respectfully to that — that’s conveyed, you know. I, you know, I don’t know, I was wondering about, you know, your thoughts about that, too, but I really feel like any of these kinds of decisions that we make, you know, in museums and in making art as artists, how something is made with a certain intention, is really conveyed in the whole process and that’s felt, you know, by the visitor, you know? So, I think it’s complicated in that way. It’s not a — I don’t have one answer for you other than it’s quite context-specific, it’s person-specific, family-specific, nation-specific, you know.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But yeah, and I also think, you know, as curators, as academics, you know, where you’re coming from and your, you know, your place, and then where you kind of, yeah, where you’re speaking from, is it’s very like important to kind of make that clear and to make your, you know, your positionality so that people have a sense of that. Because like very often in museums, just kind of covered up, you know, behind this veneer of doing things in a particular way, you know, of presenting thin glass cases and having wall panels, you know? But I think it’s really, especially for people who are coming into the space as — like a real alien space, it is, it’s an alien space for many, many people. And, you know, they want to know who’s speaking, like who’s speaking to me, you know? Whose voice is speaking to me and telling me the ideas, like who — you know, because yeah, for example, in South Africa, official spaces are like everybody knows they are highly politicized in political spaces, you know. So, who is it? Like, who is the official voice? And I think once you make that clear, people can transition, like, you know, it’s like an easier transition. So, Sebastian, like lastly, I’ve kept you here for — and it’s been fantastic. It’s been so amazing speaking to you. I wanted to know how would you say you found your voice now that you are conveying like the voices of Ancestors of many nations? Like how do you see yourself like in that process and how do you — you know, is this a creative process? Like, how do you kind of, you know, like reconcile that?
Sebastian De Line: I mean, I just see myself as a helper. I think that’s my role. That’s a role I feel I’m coming into in community. My role is to support communities and getting back in touch with their Ancestors here at the Agnes, and learning from them, how they wish to ceremonially take care of their Ancestors from their own perspectives, that are from many different nations. So I’ve always been reluctant to take on this idea of what I think a lot of institutions often do, where they’ll place a person in a certain kind of job and say, “Okay, now you are the “expert” on something.” And in reality, I could never be an expert on everyone else’s different nation —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — you know, let alone my own as a learner, you know. And that to me is that’s being authentic in our roles in which what our capacities are as people who work in museums oftentimes with Ancestors from other cultures and with artists from other nations, and who have different life experiences, and come to the decisions that they make based on, you know, all of that. So that’s my role, I think, as a helper in that way and to help those Ancestors too, and to help them bring that communication, you know, make that smoother between them and their beloveds, and centre, you know, their needs, centre communities’ needs, centre those Ancestors’ needs. And that informs the kind of decisions that are made in terms of what — how they want to be while they’re in this museum, who they might want to teach, who they might not want to teach everything about their life —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — what is appropriate and what is not, you know. And so sometimes my job has been to kind of navigating those challenging questions of relearning and unlearning certain kinds of very Westernized ideas about knowledge production in spaces like museums, where even, you know, in this university, too, and probably safe to say all universities across Canada and throughout the United States, you know, there is very much grounded an idea, I think, that’s tied to enlightenment, you know, European enlightenment, and this idea that knowledge is universal, and it’s meant to be accessible to everyone. And not all knowledges, from the way I was taught, are actually meant for everyone. And the reason why is that I think back to one of my elders, Al Doxtator, you know, he often teaches me that, you know, with knowledge, what we learn carries a responsibility and especially when it comes to Indigenous knowledges and carrying certain knowledge, is that with that, there is a — there’s a role, there’s a kind of a job or an obligation, you know, to the whole of that. And so, we do not want to know everything because that would be a huge burden to carry, to be responsible for, not just for ourselves, but then our whole community and giving that back reciprocally, you know, and thinking about that seven generations ahead and how that affects the next seven generations is an enormous responsibility even to then carry one thing. So, you know, if I see it the way I’m taught in that way, to be a helper, I still have to think of it in that perspective. What does it mean to be a helper that makes decisions and choices in my life that affect, you know, the next seven generations in our community? Is something that I have to hold and I have to keep in mind whenever I navigate decisions. And that’s why we have a process that involves having a circle that I can turn to with people who have a lot more knowledge —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — you know, that our elders and knowledge keepers, and people who have worked also in the arts in many years, and have had to deal with similar challenges and have ways of navigating them, and good ideas on how to go about doing that in a good way. So that’s the way I approach it and that’s how I’ll probably always see my life, you know, as a helper —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — and a learner, because I don’t know about you, but I never want to stop learning, you know. That’s I think when we stop learning even when we’re older, you know, then we’ve closed something off —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: — you know, that we’re not being open, you know, and being humble in that way, so yeah.
Qanita Lilla: That’s awesome. Sebastian, thank you so much. You know, I totally agree. I think that, you know, the more people you have on board, you know, when you are dealing with such potent, heavy, you know, rich knowledge, is it’s really important. It’s really important to have your support system because, yeah, it’s just too much for one person. And also, I think, you know, this idea of, you know, the artist is genius, the artist as an individual is just something that we have to break down and to open the field up and to let more people in. So thank you so much. Thank you so much. It’s been fantastic and it was worth waiting for. Thank you so much, Sebastian.
Sebastian De Line: We were long overdue for conversations.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Like months and months. Yeah. Like across oceans and so forth but thank you so much. Thank you, Sebastian.
Sebastian De Line: I’m very grateful. Hey, thank you very much too. Take care.
Qanita Lilla: Thanks. Bye.
Sebastian De Line: You’re welcome.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouths: the Podcast. Special thanks to our guest Sebastian De Line for speaking with us today.
The podcast is hosted by Dr Qanita Lilla and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM.
The music is composed by “Jameel3DN” and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III.
Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time!
Qanita Lilla (host), Oluseye (guest)
Qanita Lilla: Hello, and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’s exhibition of the same name. The show With Opened Mouths interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside western knowledge making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast I sit down with artists, spoken word poets, musicians, and curators to discuss the expression of their practice, and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard.
Qanita Lilla: Today, we’re talking with artist, Oluseye whose work Eminado is part of the show at Agnes, With Opened Mouths. “Eminado” is a Yoruba word meaning good luck charm. In this series, Oluseye re-imagines the talismanic objects that African past and present carried across the Atlantic for protection and for comfort. In his practice, Oluseye travels across the Black Atlantic collecting and re-purposing the diasporic debris that makes up his oeuvre. The term diasporic debris refers to the remnants, the discarded parts of life, out of which he attempts to resurrect and acknowledge people and histories. Oluseye’s work embraces the magnitude and polyvocality of Blackness and the way in which it moves across space, place, and time, shaping and shifting in the world. Centring Yoruba cultural references, he blends the ancestral with the contemporary, and rejects the binary distinction between the traditional and the modern, the physical and the spiritual, the past and the future, what is new and what is old. He imbues everyday objects with the mythic attempt to reinforce African rituals and philosophies as living, complex, and valid traditions of the human consciousness. He has exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Patel Brown, and is debuting a new body of work at MOCA Toronto until January. Welcome, Oluseye!
Oluseye: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I was on mute.
Qanita Lilla: I’m so delighted to have you. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. There’s been so much, you know, good feedback like with Eminado. And so it’s — I’m just really excited to be able to talk with you today.
Oluseye: Thank you.
Qanita Lilla: So Oluseye, your work – is incredible. And when I was choosing work to exhibit alongside the African masks of Lang collection your work really spoke, to the central themes of the show. But it’s also very unique, and I’d like you to tell me a little bit about what drew you into art in the first place.
Oluseye: Wow. [Laughs] I mean I always I guess painted as a kid and like, you know, sketched. I really enjoyed biology class because we had to do all like the sketches of like the human body and like the muscles and the nerves and the plant drawings. So I’ve always had an inclination towards the arts. But I think, you know, art as I know it like as a professional artist I think for me started in 2013 when Nigeria passed an anti gay bill, and I was in Nigeria at the time. And, you know, I was really hurt by it. I just found it very unnecessary especially because it was like part of a plot for the president at the time to get a second term. So I came back to Toronto and that pushed me to create and I started doing these drawings, these charcoal and pastel drawings, that actually took the Yoruba creation story with the different gods and deities and I kind of turned it on its head and I made some of these deities like, you know, gender fluid, and homosexual beings. So they all sort of engaged in acts of love. And that was how it started for me. I — I wouldn’t say I ever set out to be an artist, but I knew that I wanted to express the discontent I was feeling at the situation in Nigeria. And then I got invited to show some of that work in New York and I did that again not thinking of myself as an artist. It wasn’t until after that show people started asking “What’s next?” and I was like, “Wow. I guess — I guess this means this is what I’m doing now. I guess this means I’m an artist.” So yeah. That’s how I, you know, got in to the art world per se. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: I think what’s amazing is thatAfrica stimulated that need, you know. And I feel that it doesn’t feel at all as if your artistic practice is so new. It feels as if it’s been living inside you waiting. It’s been kind of like incubating for a long time because it’s — and then also, you know, I get a sense that it’s definitely evolving and it continues to evolve and change. Yeah. So do you always — do you start off with like a long term project in mind? How does your practice evolve?
Oluseye: I’m definitely inspired by the things that I see. I’m very heavily inspired by objects. In the last — more recently I’ve moved in to like object based work. And a lot of the times it’s the objects that will almost dictate to me what I’m going to make. Of course there’s always going to be ideas that are floating in my head. You know, I’m very inspired by my conversations with people, so I look heavily at oral histories, like the stories from my family, the stories from the Black people in the Black communities that I’ve been fortunate to travel to. So these ideas are all sort of in my head, and then I’ll see an object that sort of, you know, triggers a memory of a conversation I’ve had. And then I start putting those two things together and then I start doing some research into what these — you know, what’s the origin of the objects? Why am I interested in this object? How do these objects relate to some of those oral histories that I’ve stored in my head? So that’s typically how it starts for me. I don’t think that I ever have this sort of like grand idea that I’m thinking of and then decide, oh I’m going to work on this now. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, but you know with Eminado, for example, the slave ship Friendship, that is such an amazing concept to kind of bring everything together. How did Friendship — where did Friendship come from?
Oluseye: So with Eminado I had actually started collecting objects like maybe two years before I even started making that body of work. And this is just me like — I had — how this happened is actually pretty funny. So I used to drive and I had a few instances with being a not so good driver so I lost my licence. And then I just decided, you know what? I’m going to sell my car. So I — so that’s actually how Eminado was born. I didn’t have a car so I now had to start walking everywhere or taking TTC and I started seeing all these objects and like I’m clearly attracted to black objects. And I noticed everything I was picking off the street was like black rubber, black plastic, maybe some metal accents. But everything was like aged and, you know, black was sort of the common theme as far as colour goes. So I amassed this like junk — or this was even before I coined the term ‘diasporic debris’. Right? So I had this for two years and I took a trip to North Preston in Nova Scotia which is one of Canada’s first Black communities. And found some more objects there. And then when I came back from that trip I was like, “I need to do something with these objects.” And I sort of started playing around with them like piecing one thing with another thing. Some things were perfect on their own. And I maybe made about 26 of those. And maybe a few months later I started — I actually don’t remember how I — how the interest in Canadian built slave ships started or where that came from, but I think I found like a database and I think it’s on the Harvard website that has like a full list of all the slave ships that were ever built. And then I was like, “Wow. There are some that were built in Canada. Some were built in Nova Scotia, in Newfoundland, on our east coast.” And I had — I was just there in Nova Scotia. Right? So I think I started chasing my own travels to Nova Scotia and to Canada’s east coast with some of the places where these slave ships were built. And there’s 27 slave ships and going through the list I was like, wow, there’s actually a ship called Friendship. Like the irony of this. So that irony is what, you know, drew me to that ship. And then, you know, learning more about that ship, and then finding out that it actually sailed from — it was one of the ships that took enslaved people from Nigeria to Montego Bay, Jamaica. And then obviously being in Canada where like Jamaican culture is probably the most noticeable Black culture. So there’s those kind of connections that for me inspire my work. And at that point I had made 26 of these objects and I knew I wanted to carry on making them and I was like is there going to be a cap or do I just keep doing this for the rest of like — is this a product that will be like a lifelong — or career long project? But then I was like no. I could sort of for lack of a better word package this or honour the lives of those enslaved people by making this work about them. And then there’s also the fact that all these objects have come from several different places which also mimics the different places and the movement of enslaved people throughout history because you have like the Jamaican Maroons who were taken from — obviously from West Africa to Jamaica. And then there’s a history of Jamaican Maroons being exiled to Nova Scotia. Right? And then from that group you have some of them who would then decide to make the trip back to Africa to Sierra Leone, to Freetown. So all of those connections really mimicked my own personal journeys, my own personal travels within Canada, across the Atlantic and back. And I wanted to find a way to link that to the lives of enslaved people. And that’s how Eminado was born like in a nutshell.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And the fact that you’ve got such a strong link to the African continent, that you’re always going back,, how do you feel this impacts on your practice?
Oluseye: It definitely — Wow, how does it impact on my practice? I think for me the journey itself is the art practice. So as I work on like a revised artist statement now like traveller, collector, those are all words that I want to include in what this artist statement will be. So like yes. People get to see the finished product, but it’s about what has the art done for me. And part of my process is travel. Right? So I also think that it helps keep my connection to the continent. It keeps my mind fresh because I’ve been able to do these two or three trips a year. It also — there’s sort of like a cultural mix and matching that happens as I make that journey across the Atlantic several times. And then the objects that I’m working with are also in some ways like symbolic of that, you know, transfer of cultural knowledge, transfer of aesthetics. And then you also start thinking about like, you know, the transfer of — or even just like the transfer of like certain types of food from West Africa to the North America. So like okra, for instance, certain types of rice originated in West Africa and found their way to the Americas because enslaved people took it with them. And then now you have this like really rich North American — African American cuisine that, you know — that is — has origins in West Africa, in Brazil, in the Caribbean. But so there’s that sort of [inaudible] of like cultures and ideas that I’m able to live, you know, through my own travels, and then I’m able to sort of embody that in the objects that I make.
Qanita Lilla: I think also you once spoke to me about this idea of waste in Africa. You know, not waste, but like things like recyclable or, you know, reusable culture. And how you visited —
Oluseye: In Kenya?
Qanita Lilla: Yes. Yes. Yes. Can you talk about that a bit because it’s really incredible? the way that you’re talking about the differences in culture and the differences just like in use and reuse of objects.
Oluseye: Yeah. So during my time in Kenya there’s a tribe or a group of people called Akala, I believe that they’re called, A-K-A-L-A. And they’re known for re-purposing tires, rubber tires. So they strip the tires. They turn them in to sandals. They turn them in to art, in to all kinds of things. So I was fortunate to meet a man, Mr. Sampson, spent some time with him, and he actually gave me like a stack of a lot of the things that I’ve come to use in my work. So rubber — and I think this is also linked to my interest in like rubber, like black rubber specifically is — it’s durable. It stands the test of time. Rubber can be in the sun. It can be in the snow. It can be in — like regardless of what the climate is, rubber will always sort of survive. And I was interested in how that could — how that could be a metaphor for the lives of Black people, for the Black experience. You know, you think of enslaved people being brought from Africa to colder climates, oftentimes completely naked, but survived. You know. And then you have rubber that’s able to survive in all kinds of climates. And then you — and then I’m putting that in conversation with how Africans — the ingenuity of Africans and being able to take things that are, you know, “discards.” And, you know, breathe new life in to them. And that’s really what Eminado, that body of work, is about. It’s about taking things that we recognize that have been thrown out, that have been discarded, and like, you know, giving them a new — giving them new life. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: You know, when I took the students around that body of work they also — they picked up on a sense of humour that lives alongside it. And I’d really like you to talk a bit about that, you know, the fact that there are spikes and there are things that can cause pain, but there’s also things that can cause pleasure like fringes and, you know — and also like the cowrie shell itself is an ambiguous kind of object. You know, the fact that it was used as a form of exchange, but also, you know, it kind of mimics the shape of a vulva and a fingerprint and teeth and all those kind of things. So can you talk to me a bit about how BDSM plays kind of, havoc in your work?
Oluseye: So definitely as I’m making the body of work in Eminado I’m having fun with it. You know, like it needs to be enjoyable for me even though I’m speaking about, you know, ideas that are quite serious. So there’s a sense of like humour and fun and also, like you said, there’s like sharp things that can possibly hurt you. And I think as I was making the work I was also thinking about what some of these enslaved people — the comfort that they might have wanted to like access through these objects. So, you know, reminders of home, things that might bring them a smile. You know, remembering a certain person. But at the same time I was thinking of objects that could also not just offer comfort and protection, but you know defence is also part of what I was thinking about. And, you know, protection. Being able to defend yourself is also a part of — it’s also a type of protection. So I imagine that, you know, there would have been times where they might have needed objects to attack and like to protect themselves and their families. So I was thinking of all of those ideas as I was making the objects. So how can, you know, a piece of rubber feel like something that’s comfortable if held a certain way, but maybe if you hold it from the other side it can then become something you can use to attack someone who’s, you know, threatening your own safety? So I like the juxtaposition of sort of the fun and danger, and I think I was — I then started to look to like BDSM as a way to sort of like bring those two ideas together. So this idea that something could be a form of pleasure, but it could also be a form of pain. And sort of pain and pleasure being like one and the same thing or, you know, different sides of the same coin.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And I think also it gives like a complexity to those imagined people, you know, that hasn’t been kind of thought of. You know, when people think of — memorializing people they think of a kind of strong body and, you know, not — focussing on kind of diversity and fluidity and things like that which I think that this, yeah — this really like picks up on.
Oluseye: I think that sometimes, you know, when people explore like, you know, slavery, yes. They often forget the humanity of these people. You know, the fact that these people laughed and they told jokes and, you know, they had dinners with their families. And they gave each other gifts and like, you know, some of these talismanic objects would have been given by say a mother to her daughter or a grandpa to his, you know — his grandson. So those are the kinds of things that, you know, I’m — sort of the ideas thinking about the humanity of these people as I was making the objects. Just so they’re not one dimensional objects that are — they’re not intended to just reflect the hardship of what being an enslaved person was. They’re meant to reflect, you know, just how varied their life experiences were.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Also maybe the kinds of things that people do to survive.
Qanita Lilla: And part of that is humour and, you know, the — no matter how difficult things get, you know, we think of ways of kind of rising above or kind of, you know, negotiating that kind of thing. Your practice is not always easy. It can’t be easy because it’s really conceptual. You know? What are some of the things that you struggle with?
Oluseye: Some of the things that I — wow. I think trusting — I think time. Time is a thing that I struggle with because some things are conceptual and I think they need time to really like crystallize, and I can be quite an impatient person. So I’m learning to like just trust that everything will reveal itself in the right time. So like with “Eminado,” for instance, I started making these objects. And the fact is I actually started making the objects almost like — I wanted to make my own alphabet system. And that’s how this idea really came about, you know. But then when I got to the 26th I was like why am I basing this on Western ideas of what an alphabet system is. And then I was like I need more time. I need more time to think this through. And then I was like so how many alphabets are there going to be in this system. And then I was like why am I even basing this on alphabets? Why couldn’t I be maybe trying to express feelings through these objects versus like having a — you know, an object represent what would be an A or B. It’s like, you know, a lot of African languages, you know, are just very complex and one word can, you know, mean like five different things as objects or five different feelings. Like Yoruba is the same way. So it really — I really started to think that way and I realized that time is what I need to give myself. So learning to be patient is a — has been a challenge of mine. The other challenge that I face is because I scavenge like going through customs and trying to come back in to the country with all — that’s a very — it’s a very real life challenge for me. But, you know, I’m coming back with like all kinds of like, you know, junk so to speak. But I find that part of the — that’s part of the process. That becomes part of my practice like having to explain to people at customs why I’m bringing in all of this stuff, what it is. It gets easier. Any other challenges I —
Qanita Lilla: Do you have a problem with kind of framing things like in your mind? Because it seems as if, you know, these ideas are really big, and they’re really expansive. And the more you work on them, they just grow and grow and grow. How do you kind of reign it in a bit?
Oluseye: I try not to reign it in. I just tell myself that there will come a time when I can create everything that my mind, you know, is currently thinking about, currently working through. I might not have the financial means right now or even just like the logistics to like bring back some of the things that I’ve found that I want to work with, but I just trust that it will happen. And I’m already seeing some of those things happen. Like with Eminado, it’s grown like, you know, into 208 objects, but the concept is much bigger than the physicality of the objects. Right? And when all of these objects are together in one room it’s way bigger than I even imagined it would be. And every time I see people experience this work in person, I’m like, “The universal connection that they’re having is just as big as I want it to be.” So I never think that any idea is too big for me because I think it’s the collective sharing of the idea that kind of makes it be as big as, you know, I want it to be or it needs to be.
Qanita Lilla: Who would you say enabled you as an artist? Which people in your life helped you to develop and, you know, nurtured your ideas?
Oluseye: Yeah. So the first person that comes to mind would be Anique Jordan. She’s a peer of mine and she’s just been the most supportive. Like I’m getting goosebumps because it’s just every time we meet her — the level of encouragement she offers me is just — is just for me is just out of this world. For someone to like, you know, see me and like believe in what I’m trying to do, I just I mean I’ve had that before, but not in the way that Anique does it. She’s just very —
Qanita Lilla: Anique is an artist herself.
Oluseye: She’s an — yes. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: And, you know, she’s also, you know, thinking about really intense issues, and working through, you know, ideas of memory and the archive and ontology. You know, so yeah. But she’s also she’s got a very generous spirit.
Oluseye: Yes. Yes. Very generous, and just very — like her practice is very much rooted in community building. And so for her I believe like that encouragement of me is also because she wants to see her community like, you know, operate at the highest level possible. That was a thing she told me that really stuck with me and she was like, “Oluseye, you need to situate yourself in your work.” That’s exactly how she said it to me. And like the meaning of that changes over time. You know, and it just — it just — has just sat with me. It’s been about two or three years since she told me that, and I think it was at that point that I really started to like throw myself in to my practice in a way that I hadn’t. And what I started doing was just taking the everyday things that I enjoyed and making that my practice. So like I like to travel. I like to wander around. And then, you know, now I’m doing that as part of my practice. You know, so my everyday life is my practice.
Qanita Lilla: That’s really powerful. situate yourself in your practice? How — geez. That’s amazing. That’s really — that’s really insightful that like everything you do is artistic practice, everything. You know, it’s — and I think especially for, you know — I come from a family that doesn’t — that is not in the arts. So I had to kind of define how, you know, I do it for myself. And kind of thinking about everything that I do as part of that is really, that sounds amazing. Thank you very much for sharing, for sharing that with us. [Laughs]
Oluseye: Thank you, Anique. [Laughs]
Qanita Lilla: Thank you, Anique. So tell me about like — a bit about your life growing up [inaudible] on this path.
Oluseye: I grew up in Lagos in Nigeria. I [laughs] wow. I dabbled in a lot of things. My mom really like wanted us to I guess do as much as we could. I never did quite specialize in anything, but like we did a little bit of tennis. I did take ballet dance classes. Swimming was I would say the one thing that we all enjoyed together as a family, and that we actually like really focussed on. So I come from a swimming family. I like being outdoors. Like I like collecting things. I always would be trying to build things. I remember trying to like build my sister like an outdoor kitchen like using scrap materials like things I —
Qanita Lilla: Wow. You’re a good brother.
Oluseye: So I’ve always been kind of hands on in that way. And I’m also stubborn in the sense that I don’t like to use — like if I know there’s a tool I can go and buy from Home Depot that will make this problem I’m trying to solve easier, I don’t know if it’s just me being cheap or not wanting to like do it the easiest way possible, but I will always try and do it with my hands first and do it with things that I can find readily available at home. And I think even like as I made the Eminado sculptures I’ve tried to maintain that because I think I keep going back to like okay, when Africans are making like the leather goods and things that, you know, I love to collect, they’re not working for the most part with like any like high tech advanced tools. They’ve found ways to make these things durable, and they last. And they’re much stronger than, say, if you’re using like, you know, new methods. Right? So I’m always trying to like sort of tap into that sort of like ancestral way of creating would have been when I’m putting things together. So yeah. I definitely enjoy being outdoors and like playing in the sand, and like I biked a lot as well which I currently do. And, funny enough, I find a lot of the objects that I used in my work as I bike. So yeah.
Qanita Lilla: So does that like feed in to how you take care of yourself, how you kind of nurture — you nurture the artist. Like how do you nurture yourself?
Oluseye: I nurture myself. I try to give myself — so I bike everywhere. But then I will set aside bike time that is just for my own pleasure. It’s like I’m not biking to run errands. I’m not biking to go to the clinic. I’m just biking because I want to bike. So I’m finding that as I get older and as I work and art, you know, gets busier, I need to be more intentional about my time. Like if this is time for having fun then I need to just have fun. Art will always be on my mind because there’s no avoiding that. Right? So but I also find there’s a quote by El Anatsui where he says, “You are more — when you play, you’re more honest.” So I’m also finding that I need to set time to play and have fun because the art will always be there, and the art is more likely to be honest, you know. Like some of the things I find when I’m not actively thinking about art turn out to be some of the best things I’m seeing. I just feel like my eyes and my mind are seeing and hearing different things when you’re just kind of like living, you know. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But I also think that your practice is so inherently playful. It is so playful, you know. Even though it’s — so much of it is kind of heavy, you know. That kind of sits side by side and it really it sits comfortably. It sits really comfortably and well. Yep. So I think — I think it’s just it’s awesome. And I’ve loved speaking to you Oluseye. It’s amazing. Thank you so much.
Oluseye: Thank you.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you so, so much for talking with us today. It’s been awesome. Yeah. And I’d love to work with you again. It’s been amazing even though it’s been tough. You know, especially during install. Jenny [assumed spelling] is amazing, and I know that she’s listening to this. You know, like shout out to Jenny. She’s — it was amazing. Seriously like she came in to an environment where she’d never been before and she just kind of took hold You know, said this — yeah. Man, like this is how you want it. This is how we want it. And that’s awesome. And, you know, like one of the like students who came to see the show asked me like “What, you know, if an artist wants something and you do not want it in the same way, if you don’t share the same vision, how do you like, you know, reconcile that?” And, you know, I told them like very honestly that I approach artists whose vision I share. You know, and in order to be authentic to that vision it often means that curators have to bend and compromise. And yeah. I didn’t have to do much of that with you, but it was really cool that you stuck to certain things that you wanted because I felt it really made things beautiful, made the show beautiful. So thank you so much Oluseye.
Oluseye: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. And special thanks to our great guest, Oluseye for speaking with us today. Thank you.
This podcast is hosted by myself, Dr. Qanita Lilla, and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. The music is composed by Jamil 3DN and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast on Digital Agnes, CFRC’s website and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time.
Qanita Lilla (host), Britta B. (guest)
Qanita Lilla: Hello, and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host, Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’ exhibition of the same name. The show, With Opened Mouths, interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate from outside Western knowledge making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with artists, spoken word poets, musicians and curators to discuss the expression of their practice and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard.
And today, I am delighted to have Britta B with us. Britta B is an award-winning artist, poet, MC, voice actor and educator. In 2021, Britta won the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award and was named COCA Lecturer of the Year. Her work has featured in print, in sound and onstage across North America in notable spheres such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, CBC Arts, Poetic License, the Walrus Talks, TEDx and the Stephen Lewis Foundation. As an artist educator, she facilitates artist training seminars, poetry workshops and social justice programs in partnership with organizations like JAYU, Poetry In Voice and Prologue Performing Arts. Britta also serves on the League of Canadian Poets Membership Committee for spoken word and is the interim director of Hamilton Youth Poets. Currently, Britta is preparing to defend her MFA poetry thesis at the University of Guelph in early August and is looking forward to joining the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto as a spoken word professor in the fall.
Britta, I’m totally blown away by your accomplishments. Seriously, it’s amazing. And, like, by your body of work. Thank you so much for coming, all the way to your hometown and joining us today.
Britta B: Thank you for having me, Qanita.
Qanita Lilla: That’s a pleasure. Let’s dive straight in. I think it would be really great if you can share a piece of your work with us just so that people can get a sense.
Britta B: Yeah. Okay. So this poem is called Black Boots. Here we go. Snap, snap, snap.
Said no black and broke into black boots. Loosen the strings of my black, black hoodie, pulled my head see-through. Soak black worry in a bath of black laughter tucked into, tinkered out of black turtleneck fractures. Saw the spy on the other side of the tunnel. Spat purple black paranoia over boom bap stitches. Hunch pitch black helmet hips. Black shellacked fists rolled around black cotton sheets, the T-shirts till I snatched cavities on a black satin dress. Geez. Took it off, put on black track pants and black leather gloves. Pushed my way through the dark of a long black coat’s arms. Parked in front of the mirror with black wings of what little I got. I and a lot of blackish and black begin every day reentering this blacklisted grid. Black comes back. Black attracts black. Black goes with everything. Sure. But what would you give to be the blackest thing on earth?
Britta B: I always want fireworks to go off at the end —
Qanita Lilla: No, no, no, no, no.
Britta B: — of the last line.
Qanita Lilla: Wow, man. Wow. The blackest thing on earth. What are you thinking about? What are your thoughts? What is in your mind?
Britta B: Yeah. So, well, actually growing up in Kingston, yeah, I was one of very few families that had black and brown skin. Growing up in Kingston, there wasn’t a lot of other black or brown families to relate to and look at and be recognized by. I was used to be the only black kid in my school or in my class or in a room. And so often, I think about what it means to, like, stand out and be invisible at the same time, to not really be seen, to not really be recognized in terms of your full presence, because there are stereotypes. There’s biases or biases. And yeah, with this poem, I really wanted to complicate — not complicate, but look at the trouble of showing up in, like, your fullest self but having that pride, that inner pride that keeps the momentum, that keeps you moving, even when, you could say, adversities are against you or people’s opinions, people’s thoughts, people’s judgments, people’s discrimination or any of the -isms are thrown on to you. And so yeah, with this, I just — I think this piece just wants to see itself in its blackness and to understand also, like, blackness isn’t just one thing and to be available to that full presence.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, I really like how you use, you know, black clothes and the fact that, you know, everybody regardless of, you know, skin colour adopt some kind of —
Britta B: Yes, but, yeah, the clothes.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that is like it’s a — something readily adopted, you know, and how you transition that into, like, sharply into actually, like, being that, you know, and how that is so difficult to be accepted. And, you know, just how, like, the codes work. The fact that you can, you know, you can wear all these black things. And, you know, they might be cool, might be elegant. You know, they’re read in all these different ways if people wear them. But, like, being in the body is totally, totally different. And I think that spoken word poetry has something to do with, like, poetry being embodied. When you’re speaking now, it came from deep within. Can you please explain — it’s the first, really, the first time. You’re the person who’s introduced me to spoken word, really. There’s been a lot of — there’s a lot of traditions in Africa about pray singing, for example. And this is the closest thing that it comes to, like, pray singing. You know, and I find a lot of similarities between your work, your practice and pray singing. Could you talk to — tell us a little bit about that.
Britta B: Yeah. I think, too, with embodiment, what it — what is it that you as the artist can’t take off? So when we think about, like, apparel or swag, armour, masks, when we think about these things we put on to show up, but what is it that you can’t take off? What is the thing that you are left with when you are vulnerable but when you are generous in being able to gift yourself to people? And for me, spoken word is my way of letting others receive me because I’m able to hear my voice and control my voice. And if I’m not able to control maybe my surroundings, my environment, my company, my era, all these other things, so much of the world I can’t control, my voice is something that is mine. It’s my thing that I’m at least left with. It’s the thing I hear when I’m alone or when I’m isolated or when I feel lonely or when I feel confused, caught up, when I feel these intense, complicated emotions. And that I’m not — at times, when I’m most not able to use my voice, then I’m able to curate and write. Of course, writing is a part of it too because I’m curating what it is that I want to be able to express. So I think spoken word — a lot of people show up to spoken word wanting to be able to get something off their chest or to kind of clear a cloud that’s fogging their mind. And a blank page, for instance, is a place where you can begin to pour those thoughts, pour those feelings. And what’s maybe really attractive about spoken word is that everyone — a lot of people are really afraid of being in a room and having the attention, like, being able to speak in front of a roomful of people. But with spoken word, you’re not just like giving a speech. You’re putting some music into it. You’re putting some rhythm. You’re putting some motion, some body movements, facial expressions. It’s theatrical. It’s dramatic and dynamic. And you get to kind of stage how that expression gets to be visible, gets to be heard. It gets to be sensed by the audience. Whether they interpret it the way that you want them to or not, it’s still a play and an experiment and a way of either telling a story or contributing like a piece of art to a scene or to a moment. I think of poetry in terms of moments and how you are reflecting value onto a particular moment with what you choose to say. It automatically becomes valuable. And so yeah, I think poetry and spoken word specifically is very attractive because it’s a chance to use your voice as you would want to be heard and as you would choose to have it experienced.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And it’s very — it’s like a very overt form. You know, it’s like —
Britta B: Overt. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. It’s, like, this is what I — which is fantastic, which makes it really evocative. You know, it’s like this is me. And either accept this or not.
Britta B: Yeah. It can be the opposite too. Like, I imagine, like, overt as in you’re going to take what I’m giving you. But it could be the opposite of it, too, where it’s like I want to bring you in. I want to have you go introspective. Like, go inside your mind. Go inside your faculties, your ability to intelligibly decipher the language, the sound of the language, the cadence of the language. And I want you to be able to — with where I’m going to land you or certain landscapes, parts of words or even images, I want you to be able to meet somewhere in the middle of all that tension and remedy a thought of your own and get to a thought of your own that maybe I can’t tell you exactly what you need to be thinking right now or reflecting on. But you’ll get there. And that’s a really beautiful thing about poetry too is how you’re able to gesture towards something without imposing it, without, like, really pushing somebody to see it.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But also, it takes, like, movement on the part of your audience.
Britta B: Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: It’s not — it’s not, like, you know, opening up a book of poetry and reading it and then deciding, you know — or I’ll pick it up, whatever. This is like, here I am, you know, regardless of the type of experience. But here I am, and this requires movement, you know. And I want to ask you, how did you start on this journey? Because this is a dynamic journey. And it’s — you know, it’s kind of — absolutely, it’s completely activist. You know, it’s activist like for the spoken word artist and for the listener. How did you arrive, like, on this journey from Kingston?
Britta B: Yeah. Growing up, I spent a good quality amount of time with my mom reading, reading and writing. And I remember the day she taught me how to spell my name. Like, that’s something that will live with me, like, feeling the pen in my hand and her hand around my hand and teaching me how to draw the shapes that would create the letters to spell my name. And that, for me, was this internal, like, little switch that went off in my mind that just without knowing it full on in that moment, but looking back, I could tell myself, oh, I knew that writing would be a way for me to achieve some kind of power, some kind of magic, let’s say. And growing up, my mom would spend time reading out loud with me, teaching me to pause and use my breath and be able to look at an audience and address them. So we would stand, my little brother and I, sometimes in the middle of our living room and just pretend we were kind of giving a speech, but really working on the comfort of being up at the front of a room so that if we were ever given a chance, we would never be afraid to do that. We would always have this ingrained confidence of being at the front of a room and speaking our mind. And I got really into it because of my mom, like, sharing those skills with us and spending that time with us. Then when competitions would come up, like little speech competitions at school and stuff, it would be a really easy thing for us to do because we had this quality of confidence that other kids didn’t have. And regardless of what we were talking about, we had conviction. And so it made it interesting, you know, entertaining for an audience. Also, being, like, the only black kids at school, it made it doubly interesting. Like, look how confident these exotic children are. And as I grew older, I had always been writing. Writing poetry was something that started as, like, a letter to a pen pal from a very young age, because I had a best friend that I had growing up ever since I was little. But then she moved away. So I would write her letters. And then it was later in elementary school that I found out about poetry. And when my teacher explained what poetry was, I realized that I wasn’t just writing letters to my best friend, I was writing poetry. That’s the way that my mind worked. And so I saw the connections from a very young age, like, 10 years old. But I didn’t know about any poets, especially any poets that looked like me, that were, like, making a life out of writing poetry. And I didn’t know of any poets that were performing their work. That didn’t come till much later in my life when I was leaving high school and going off to university. I started to be more on YouTube because YouTube was coming out by that time. And seeing that there was places, especially in the States, where artists would mingle, get together, share poetry out loud. And there was specifically one poet that really lit my mind up. Her name is V Young. And I saw her on Def Poetry Jam on YouTube. And the way that she was, as you say, embodying moving across the stage, her stage presence, the character of her voice, the sort of music, musicality of how she was telling a story, but it was very poetic because of how expressive and lyrical it was. When I saw her do it, I was like, yo, I want to do poetry like that. And so that’s sort of what I would try to mimic in the way that I would now share poems with my friends, just gathering them together and be like, “I have a poem I want to share. Let me know how you feel about it.” And for a while, it was just like a friendly thing. Like, I would just share a poem in front of my friends. And then throughout university, later at university, I saw that there was, like, open mics and poetry club meets. And that’s really where I would start to have a community of writers because at school, I was studying biology. I wasn’t in English or theatre or anything like that. I was just a very private act for a very long time. And so once I started to see other examples, that’s when it gave me permission to attempt this more staged act of — it’s not an act, but just the stage ability to perform a poem in front of an audience, in a roomful of people. Something that I wrote that came from my heart, came from my experience. And as you say, spoken word in terms of activism. For me, spoken word was the place that I could talk about the truth about, you know, dysfunction in my family. I could talk about issues I was dealing with in terms of mental health. And that’s where I would be able to really understand more deeply for myself what accountability I could take for that sort of experience, but also ask the world, let’s look at this together. Why is this happening to me? Why is this? Why is this violence going on? And who else is dealing with it? Why are we so ashamed to talk about it? And it really would help me to communicate to people just in a better way than any conversation ever could.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. You know, it’s — what strikes me is that you often tackle, like, difficult issues, you know. Where did you find your strength to take that on, head on? Because, like you said, it’s not — people don’t, you know, gravitate towards, like, difficult issues. How did it — like, what held you up? Were there people?
Britta B: So I think in my younger years — no. I think even when I was young, I wouldn’t look at it as strength. For me, it was how am I going to survive? And if I was going to hold it all into myself, I wouldn’t survive. I wouldn’t make it through. And I would harm — I would do more harm to myself. And even though it might hurt a little bit for others, such as people in my family, for me to talk about what was happening, it would at least give me a creative way because I’m not trying to hurt people. I’m talking about something that has actually happened, to me, in my experience. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But if it happened to hurt people along the way, it would hurt way less than what I was doing to myself if I kept it in. So I think — I don’t — I mean, we look at resilience. We look at strength. I don’t really think I would use those words. I think it was self-preservation. I think it was a way of keeping myself together.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah. I understand that totally. For myself too, it was just never — I couldn’t — I needed something. Like, I needed something in my life, because, you know, yeah, there were just, like, obstacles and stuff that I just needed to deal with. And there was only — I had to be creative to kind of deal with it.
Britta B: Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: But I mean, like, your — you said your mother gave you a lot of encouragement and support. And, you know, you had a circle of friends. And then, you know, it kind of grew.
Britta B: Yeah. Both my parents actually — like, my mom and my dad, despite — you know, we all have flaws. We’ve all made maybe some serious mistakes in our life. Through all of that, both my mom and my dad have forever been encouraging of their children, myself and my brother, living life happily. And so I think by way of little things that they would do. So making sure that we had — we would have time outside. That might seem, like, really simple, but —
Qanita Lilla: No, that’s a big deal.
Britta B: It’s a big deal.
Qanita Lilla: That’s a big deal.
Britta B: Having time outside, making sure we had something to eat, travelling when we could, doing little road trips, going to amusement parks. We didn’t have a lot. And I think now that I’m older, I can see how much living as working class, people living sometimes in poverty, like, not knowing when — if you’re going to be able to make it to the next check. I can see how much damage that does to the mind, how much pressure and stress that puts on people, many people, every day and how that can affect the quality of your life and just your own mind. And so I think when we get to a place where now we have dependents and things aren’t going as well as we would hope they would be for the people we are raising and supporting and surviving, a lot of that can be expressed in ways that are more reactionary and ways that — definitely not ways we mean to, but just in ways that want to show us that we exist.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, I think most people around me growing up decided to, you know, kind of adopt quite negative strategies, you know, because they just weren’t seen. They weren’t seen in the world, in, you know — as, like, poorer, as, you know, just, like, coming from tough backgrounds. But I also think that what I really love about your work is that you take those challenges. And you, you know, you kind of rocket ship them up so that you make them visible. But also, there’s the sense of movement. It’s not just, you know, this is where we are. And it’s tough. And it’s shit. And we hate it. You know, it’s — that’s what I kind of want to, like, get at. What, like, propelled you? Like, what propels you?
Britta B: Yeah, I think I’m influenced by a lot in terms of teachers I’ve had in my life and I think maybe an innate sense of wanting to provide something for someone, somewhere. Like, not always knowing who that is or where they are. But having a sense of, like, you could get through this better than I did. You can trust that even though you might be in a situation right now, your mindset is what’s going to help you to come out on the other side of it and be maybe not always grateful that you had to go through it but at least grateful that you got through it. And you can use it as fuel to create something forward, create something moving forward. Yeah, I just imagine. You know, I don’t — I look at legacy a lot. I don’t imagine legacy so much in terms of, like, blood relations, heritage and, like, family stuff. I look at it in terms of community. And so I know that if I’ve experienced whatever I’ve experienced, I know that there’s at least one other person that feels the same way I do, regardless of if we have the same exact experience or not. They feel — they feel how I felt at a particular time. Now how do I speak to them? How do I send those whispers, that voice of encouragement to keep moving? Because luckily, I had whispers. Whether I recognized them in the moment or not, I had whispers and mentors and guides in my life that were saying, “Keep going. Keep going.”
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And I think, also, just, like, the power of seeing your face, you know, for a girl, little girl. It’s enormous and —
Britta B: I wish I saw my face when I was young.
Qanita Lilla: Me too. I wish I saw your face when I was young, really, because it’s really lonely. Like, just, like, physically lonely. And you think, you know, there’s just me. This is crazy. And all —
Britta B: Hundred percent.
Qanita Lilla: And society is telling you this all the time.
Britta B: Absolutely.
Qanita Lilla: You know, like, why go that way? Why not just go this way, where everybody else is going? And it’s not — you know, for me, it wasn’t just society. But it was my own family and culture and all that stuff. But to just have one, just to have, like, even one YouTube video. And you think, you know, you kind of make that connection. That is really, really powerful.
Britta B: Yeah.
>> And I think we kind of overlook, like, the very, very simple things, you know, that kind of hold us up —
Britta B: Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: — and hold us together.
Britta B: We want to see ourselves reflected.
Qanita Lilla: Yes.
Britta B: I think we need to. Especially if you’re a minority group, you don’t see yourself at all. You need to see something that represents you, represents a part of you at least because that will be more motivation for understanding that there’s more than one possibility of what this outcome will be because patterns will tell you, well, if you come from a broken home, you’ll end up an addict or, you know, an abuser —
Qanita Lilla: Or pregnant.
Britta B: Yeah, teen pregnancy. There’s all these, like, patterns and stereotypes and that societal, I guess, tension of you had a bad environment, so you’ll be a product of that bad environment. And there’s less, like, humour. There’s less, like, satire. And there’s less, like, meaningful examples, I guess, meaningful examples of, like, what all the other infinite possibilities and options are.
Qanita Lilla: Like, infinite, infinite possibilities. And when you are — when you’re kid, you just cannot see that. You cannot see that. I just felt like, oh, my God, I just have to get away from that little environment. I just have to. I have to, because it’s not possible for me to do what I need to do there, you know. And I need to kind of make, like, alternative options for myself —
Britta B: Absolutely.
Qanita Lilla: — because it’s not going to — yeah. And at that time, I didn’t see a face like yours. But I’m really interested in thinking about how you translate your lived experience into your creative process. So what does that look like physically? Where does it start? Like, how do you — where do you get, like, the impulse?
Britta B: I mean, impulse is happening all the time. Like, that’s why I always have a notebook in my purse, pen in my purse or like in my pocket, in my back pocket, because anything — like, I get — I guess I get triggered by, like, positively and negatively by things that I’m just sensing. And so my lived experience is very important because I have a hard time imagining things. I’m not the kind of creative that will imagine or, like, fantasize or just, like, invent a world. I’m living in whatever make-believe of this world that I have in my mind. And I am trying to process it. So– so much of my truth is in my poetry because I’m processing it. And little by little, I’m learning how to reference and use references to things that might not be so personal to me but use references in a quality way, in a good way that will help and serve my readers or serve my audience so that they have more entry into my work. Not to make it more accessible, but just so that — just so that the things that I’m writing are just better. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: So who is your imagined audience?
Britta B: My imagined audience? That’s tough because I think in terms of, like, vibe, my audience is, like, on a level of energy that wants to feel good, wants to feel good in a way that’s not superficial and wants to rally and also be good being alone. So it’s kind of like — my audience loves to be separately together.
Qanita Lilla: That’s great. That’s a good answer. Yeah, like, I want to talk about your role as an educator because, you know, like, just thinking about the audience and about the social role of your work. How does this, you know, especially with, like, social justice programs —
Britta B: Yeah. Teaching is a way for me to learn even deeper what it is I’m attempting to do in my work. And so when I get excited about teaching something to a group or even to a mentee, it’s because I’m learning it at the same time as them. So if I were to look at, you know, my notebooks from what I was teaching last week to last year, it’s very different where — it depends on where I’m at in that time in terms of my own craft and my own process. And social justice is important throughout all of that. It’s a major thread through my work because for my own personal values, I constantly think about what respect looks like and how people can exist sharing mutual respect for one another. And if I am going to be in a space, I will want to ensure that I’m respected and that people who are, you know, sharing my company also feel respected and have a sense of respect from me as well. So social justice looks different for everyone, depending on how much knowledge they have about the world and their community. But I think that with the help of social media, like, even TikTok is fascinating. But Twitter is huge. I get all my news on Twitter. And Instagram — things like this. I think the younger generations are way more in tuned —
Qanita Lilla: And demanding.
Britta B: And demanding. Like, what is this called? They have more agency.
Qanita Lilla: Yes. Yes. And they are advocating for change, seriously. For the first time really, they mobilized, you know, in a new way.
Britta B: Yeah. They’re way more aware than my group of friends were. And maybe that’s also because I grew up in Kingston. Like, we didn’t — it wasn’t very diverse growing up in Kingston, right? So our issues were little more just small town stuffs that would happen and not so much, like, thinking about the world and, like, what was going on. News is something you did when you got to be an adult. You don’t look at the news. But social media is the news. You know exactly what’s happening all the time. I think I look at social justice — it’s really important to me in everything I teach, though, because it’s a way of being responsible for yourself and also for how people are impacted by you having this time on Earth.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Like, how do you see your students, like, responding to this? I mean, are they very responsive?
Britta B: Oh, yeah. The younger ones, especially, like Grade 5s and Grade 6s. They know so much. And they are so clear about their values and their morals. And they are so wonderful to listen to because it’s so simple how to be here for each other. And they — the younger ones are just so open about talking about it. They’re not afraid to talk about these deep violences that are happening and how things are unfair and how we’re missing the point of living in this time together. And then as we get older, I just find there’s a mix of, let’s say, young adults and, like, early 20s being so — like, having a lot of energy about pushing, like, justice for a particular issue. But at the same time, because it’s probably tied to so much of their personal experience, they’re also being really burnt out by talking about it.
Qanita Lilla: And also just day to day, kind of —
Britta B: And the day to day.
Qanita Lilla: — being exposed all the time.
Britta B: Hundred percent. There’s, like, almost too much responsibility that they’re taking. So it’s like, as a mentor and as a teacher, how do we also continue the conversation on how to take care of yourself, how to make space for yourself and, you know, to also step outside of the activism a bit just so you can refuel, recharge and be able to show up fully and fight. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: That’s really important, like, that idea of, like, selfcare and teaching it to kids. It’s really inspiring to hear, you know, that, yeah, the younger generation are there, like, for sure. But it’s tough on them.
Britta B: It’s tough on them because then, again, social media works against that. It’s like, what are you doing right now? Where’s the instant gratification?
Qanita Lilla: And it’s always — yeah, yeah. It’s kind of like, you know, pumping them all the time.
Britta B: All the time. But that’s why you have to take the tech breaks, I love my tech breaks. You also have to find ways of finding — like, self-care can be really expensive, especially the way that our culture wants to show you self-care, you know. So now, again, like, how do the whispers work in terms of how you are good by yourself when you are alone? How you be yourself when you’re by yourself and find yourself and love yourself and celebrate yourself and not, like — not put yourself down but be gentle and be kind to yourself.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. How do you do that, Britta? Tell me. Share that fount of knowledge of me because I just —
Britta B: I journal.
Qanita Lilla: Okay.
Britta B: But I also like — I love — I’m — I love burning bridges. So, like, I love, like, setting up this, like, goal in my head for things that I’m going to do for, like, let’s say for a month. Like, okay, for a month, I’m not going to eat Cheezies. So now I have this goal in my head —
Qanita Lilla: Or chocolate.
Britta B: Or chocolate. And then if I break that rule, I’m like, haha.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Go easy on yourself.
Britta B: I’m like, yo, I’m doing good. I did it for two weeks. I’m happy about it. Now I’m going back, and I savour it even more.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah, you’ve got to — you’ve got to just build yourself up, you know. That’s so important. Like, how do you teach that? It’s so crucial. Like, how do you teach a child of colour, black child, to love themselves when so — like, so many generations before just haven’t? Like, we struggle with it.
Britta B: Right.
Qanita Lilla: Because everything is, like, against us, you know.
Britta B: Right.
Qanita Lilla: I think it’s just —
Britta B: We’re against us.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, we are. We are completely. And we’re completely complicit. It’s not as if it’s this, you know, like, outside. I mean, they can’t care. Like, the outside really don’t. That’s the problem. You know, they don’t include us in an imaginary even. But I think, yeah, we definitely have to make that like a priority, definitely in various ways.
Britta B: It sounds maybe exactly what a teacher would say, but. I think if we read more and read more regularly, it doesn’t have to be an everyday thing. But the more we read, the more vastly we read, the more writers of colour we read, like, I just think that that will help so much. And different genres we read. Yeah, that time.
Qanita Lilla: Yes. Yes. I get you totally. Totally. Totally. I mean, that is what saved me for sure. Like, public libraries saved me totally.
Britta B: yes. Shout out to the public libraries. Absolutely. I’d be borrowing books, and not bring them back on time. I’m happy about it. Yeah.
Qanita Lilla: No, for sure. I mean, it saved me, like, as a kid. And it was — that was the door, like the opening to see other people’s minds, you know, to realize that, like, what I see and what I experience right here and right now is limited and crazy. And everybody is crazy here. That’s okay because there’s a whole room full of books that helps me.
Britta B: Yes. There’s a whole room full of books and worlds and universes —
Qanita Lilla: And voices.
Britta B: And voices. And that will also open up that imagination. It will open — that will help your critical thinking because you’re being shown different perspectives. You’re being shown different voices and different personal traits that you can be more like or you could be less like. Like, I just think reading and that opportunity to also read with others. It’s a way of doing that self-fcare and the community stuff at the same time. Yeah, I think we definitely — I need to read more. I’m reading way more than I ever have. But I still need to read more and more and more.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And it’s amazing. It just gives you a sense of, like, just how much. And that is just so empowering, you know, that — and that you can be part of that conversation. And, you know —
Britta B: Yeah. It’s lovely. Like, I love when I overhear people talking about books or when, you know, back in the day, when we used to ride public transit —
Qanita Lilla: No, this is my day. I’m riding public transit.
Britta B: No, I just mean because of COVID and the pandemic when we used to ride public transit. But I see people with a book in their hand. And I, like, oh, what are you reading? I like seeing the cover and the title and everything.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And you immediately know that’s a certain kind of person.
Britta B: It’s a certain kind of person.
Qanita Lilla: It’s a certain kind of person, which is amazing.
Britta B: And then you can make recommendations. Yeah. It’s so cool.
Qanita Lilla: It’s awesome. You — it’s amazing. Like, your future. You’re going off to be a professor of spoken word. Britta. Man, that’s awesome. That is so totally awesome. I wish I could take your class.
Britta B: Yeah, me too.
Qanita Lilla: Oh, yeah.
Britta B: I’m, like, writing my course outline. I’m, like, “Damn, I want to take this class.”
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah. No. Geez. Yeah. Like, tell me about it. Tell me about your journey there and how you see your role.
Britta B: Yeah. I think as an artist, you’re — a lot of artists that I know, especially myself, I love living in the unstable conditions, not knowing what’s going to happen, where my next job will come, the next opportunity, how much money I’ll be able to make from it. Will it pay my rent? And will it pay my bills?
Qanita Lilla: I don’t know if you love it.
Britta B: I love it.
Qanita Lilla: It’s a bit thin, like 10 years later.
Britta B: Yeah. I love the unpredictability because it’s such a surprise when things grow and things evolve. Things have — my trajectory has always just, like, doubled every year, like more and more, little by little, but more and more every year. And so when I started thinking about I have a husband. And, you know, if we were to start a family, what sort of security can I bring to our household? I started thinking about, well, what would that look like if I’m — if I don’t have anything published yet and I just keep touring or keep performing, like, what’s the thing that will hold us together? So I started thinking about, you know, publishing, but also going back to school and teaching and what — I don’t know. I don’t really know if I exactly chose this route because what’s funny about this particular job at Seneca is that I was hosting something earlier this year at Seneca for Black History Month. And a professor there happened to love me. And I was asked this summer if I would be interested in teaching. So it wasn’t even something that I had sought after —
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, but it found you.
Britta B: But it found me for a very, like, beautiful, particular reason because it’s exactly what I want to be doing. So much of my life is that. So that’s why I love being open to the opportunities, the unpredictability of it, because I just want to be able to choose it myself all the time. I love what finds me. And this is another one of those — one of those moments. It’s definitely full circle, too, because — and it’s an opportunity for me to be in a room that I didn’t have when I was on my spoken word journey and now curate the next person, the next artist’s, the next poet’s journey and their trajectory into performing and doing spoken word on a whole other level and contributing to the culture of spoken word in a whole new way. So I’m very excited about it. And who knows, like, what will happen from it. Like, you know, we’re talking about, like, oh, I wish I could take this class. I literally want to take this class. And because I want to take a class, I’m like, okay. Everything I’m going to get the students to do, I’m also going to do it. You know, if there’s goals that they’re making, I’m going to make goals. I’m going to achieve those goals. So it really reinforces again. It helps me to learn more on a deeper level what it is I’m teaching but also reinforces how I’m also contributing to the culture of spoken word.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. That’s awesome. You’re going to have such a fantastic time. And they are going to love you.
Britta B: Yeah. I hope so.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you so much, Britta, man. Geez. I’m just so happy that you could come here to Kingston —
Britta B: Thank you.
Qanita Lilla: — and join us today.
Britta B: Thank you for having me. And shout out to the 613. Shout out all my high school, my alma mater, Loyalist Collegiate, Vocational LCVI Lancers. What up? Legacy.
Qanita Lilla: Cool. Thank you so much.
Britta B: Thank you.
Qanita Lilla: Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouth: The Podcast. Special thanks to our guest, Britta B, for speaking with us today. This podcast is hosted and produced by myself, Dr. Qanita Lilla, and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. The music is composed by Jamil 3DN and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast on Digital Agnes, CFRC’s website and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time.
Qanita Lilla (host), Amy Malbeuf (guest) and Jessie Ray Short (guest)
Qanita Lilla: Hello and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’s exhibition of the same name. The show With Opened Mouths interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside Western knowledge making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with artists, spoken word poets, musicians and curators to discuss the expression of their practice and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard.
Qanita Lilla: Today I’m lucky to be joined by the creative team, Jessie Ray Short and Amy Malbeuf, who curated and are also exhibiting in the show with Agnes called Lii Zoot Tayr (Other Worlds).
Jessie Ray Short is an artist, filmmaker and independent curator of Métis, Ukrainian and German descent. Jessie Ray’s practice involves uncovering connections between a myriad of topics that interest her, including, but not limited to, space and time, Indigenous and settler histories, Métis visual culture, personal narratives, spiritual and scientific belief systems, parallel universes, electricity, aliens and non-human being(s). Jessie Ray explores these topics using mediums such as film and video, performance art, finger weaving, sewing, writing and curating. She has been invited to show her work nationally and internationally, including at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre here in Kingston, at La Chambre Blanche in Québec City, Art Mûr Berlin (a satellite exhibition of the Contemporary Native Art Biennial/BACA) in Germany, and at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in New Zealand. Jessie Ray is deeply grateful to be based in Pile of Bones (also known as Regina) in Treaty 4 territory.
My other guest Amy Malbeuf is a Métis visual artist from Rich Lake, Alberta, Treaty 6 territory currently living on unceded Mi’kmaq territory in Terence Bay, Nova Scotia. Through mediums such as animal hair tufting, beadwork, installation, performance, and tattooing Malbeuf explores notions of identity, place, language, and ecology. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally in over forty shows at such venues as Art Mûr, Montréal, Winnipeg Art Gallery; Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe; and Pataka Art + Museum, Porirua, New Zealand. Malbeuf holds a Native Cultural Arts Instructor Certificate from Portage College and a MFA in Visual Art from the University of British Columbia Okanagan.
Thank you very much for joining me today Amy and Jessie Ray.
Amy Malbeuf: Thank you for having us.
Qanita Lilla: And, I just have to say, you know, I had this idea planned on what I was going to talk to you about, but after reading your bios I was just completely blown away because of the complete scale of the kinds of things that you work with. Like, you know the idea of aliens, Jessie Ray, and animal tufting, it seems like a whole kind of universe of experience. Could you both just talk to me about that please?
Amy Malbeuf: I think we need to start with the aliens.
Jessie Ray Short: [Laughs] Oh, thanks Amy. Well I mean I guess I just put that in there to be a bit tongue in cheek, but I mean it’s funny because I completely left Facebook a little while ago. I just found it like way too stressful to be on there, and then I recently had to rejoin Facebook for work, you know, because you need to do a lot of work stuff through Facebook now. So, I started a brand new account, and you know, I think people are always suspicious like that it’s not actually me. And so I didn’t really know what to say because, you know, what do you say to a whole bunch of random people who know you, you know, in varying ways? I just put this funny thing like, I was like I’m not sure how to prove that it’s me except that if you had met me in real life I probably talked to you about aliens at some point, which seemed to be proof for actually a fair number of people. [Laughs]. And I’m not really sure that, I mean, I guess I’ve always been kind of interested in like science fiction, and fantasy, and things like that. I really like the X-Files in the ‘90s, you know that kind of stuff. You know, and then also I think it’s interesting because, you know, the more I learnt about, you know, some different traditional teachings that I’ve been told from different First Nations people, Elders, you know there’s a lot of a lot of unseen, and I guess I’ll just speak broadly here, because I don’t want to say anything I’m not supposed to say, but, you know, it’s very common, I think broadly speaking, that there’s, you know, these sort of unseen things are just a given. So I’m not sure exactly why I’ve had a fascination with it my whole life except that I think often we’re kind of drawn to those things that we can’t quite get a hold of, right, like that’s part of what drives you. And I guess also I think a lot too just in my own practice as I sort of move forward with things like, and it’s been said before, and I remember there’s this Métis artist, Rosalie Favell, who did this really cool piece in 2010 in Winnipeg where she actually projected like this film piece about like Métis going to space in a planetarium. So you know those like domed buildings that have those strange projectors with the big ball, has many cameras, right, so it can project onto the whole dome? So she actually got to use that thing, and she projected sort of this idea of Métis people you know, being Indigenous people going to space. Like what does that mean, you know, as people who’ve experienced [inaudible] being a part of colonial processes. And so I think about that a lot, too, I guess. You know, somebody who’s had connections to like has family connections to colonial battles, right. Ancestors who fought at Batoche, and, you know, we have family stories about that. Yeah. It just seems all connected in my mind. I think it’s very arrogant to assume that human beings are the only like, “intelligent” beings, not even which totally discounts like animals and the way that all sorts of different beings exist on this planet. But then also, just more broadly in this whole wide universe, like there’s no way. There’s no way in my mind, that you know we’re the only ones or whatever we think we are. And then I guess as, you know, space exploration becomes more real I mean ultimately we’re colonizing space. Or you know, Elon Musk is colonizing space, right. All these billionaires are colonizing space, and what does that mean? Like we can’t even live amongst ourselves on Earth well–should we really be going? Anyway, yeah, I guess there’s a lot of different connections to these things for me, but also I just think it’s really fascinating to think about what else is there that we don’t know or see in these ways that are like sort of science approved. Like we can measure it in this particular way, therefore it’s real, and then anything that’s not measurable in that very specific way doesn’t exist, despite the fact that people might say, “Well, no, it’s real to me because of this interaction and how I understand it.” Yeah. So I don’t know. I guess it’s a really interesting thing to think around especially with everything that’s going on right now.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And thinking more broadly it expands everything, it expands our possibilities, and our connection with each other. I think like Amy’s practice of animal hair tufting, and like, you know, tattooing of the body and of people and each other. It seems as if it’s part of the same conversation. Do you think so, Amy?
Amy Malbeuf: Yeah, I do. You know Jesse talked a lot about things that you can’t quite get a hold of and are intangible. I remember being a kid and seeing caribou and moose hair tuftings and not understanding how they could come to be, like thinking that they were so magical, that like some sort of magic must have had to have happened for these beautiful art forms to exist. And for me, there’s a lot of magic in that art form and it’s because of the things that you can’t see, the incredibly micro things that you can’t see. So inside of a moose hair or a caribou hair, the shaft is hollow and that’s what allows a tuft to happen, is when you pull tight on the thread as you’re setting it in, because it’s hollow, it creates a perfect bend. And it allows the hair to expand upward and outward creating a sculpture essentially. And then you go and any relief carve it is how I describe it with a pair of scissors. And if you don’t know those things it looks like magic. So I think that you know, I’m very much also interested in sci fi, and fantasy, and those kinds of rounds. But I see a lot of Jessie too, I see a lot of parallels between those forms of storytelling and our traditional forms of storytelling as Indigenous people. And I think, you know, the art form of animal tufting is very much related to animals of this earth. And I think that, you know, our relationship as Native people to the plants, and to animals, and to the beings of the earth, you know, it’s a very kind of close relationship of understanding. So I think all of these things are very related as well.
Qanita Lilla: The fact that you work together on your artistic practice is very unique and very amazing because it does allow for like a much richer understanding, and experience, and practice. Could you tell me how this came about? And how you met and decided this is a fit because I think a lot of people would be interested to know how can you meet somebody who can compliment you?
Jessie Ray Short: Well, I think it was loneliness that brought us together [laughs] from my perspective. Although we’ve met before, we’d met before. Yeah. The first show I ever curated was in 2012 in Toronto and I co curated thought with a person named Vanessa Dion Fletcher in Toronto. And we curated together Amy into the show, and Amy came and did a performance for the exhibition, which was like the first time I guess we ever met in person. And I think you stayed at the same hotel as my parents.
Amy Malbeuf: Yes.
Jessie Ray Short: Because they came to visit, and I don’t know, had breakfast with them or something.
Amy Malbeuf: Yep.
Jessie Ray Short: So then I ended up getting this job, this curatorial short term contract in the BC interior in a super tiny town called Grand Forks. And it was good, but it was just that I was so out of my element. I didn’t know anyone. It was kind of like mini-Kelowna, which is, Kelowna is like where a lot of people, I think in western Canada go to retire, especially from Alberta, cause it’s warmer, it’s much warmer than Alberta for the most part. And so I guess there are a lot of retirees is I guess is what I’m trying to say in Grand Forks as well because it’s even smaller and it was like 4000 people. It was a very quiet town. Yeah. I didn’t know anyone, and I was like out of my element and I just remember — I don’t know how I knew this, but somehow I knew that Amy and Jordan were going to UBC Okanagan, which is the UBC satellite university in Kelowna. And I think I just started showing up at your house, just something along those lines.
Amy Malbeuf: Yes. [Laughter].
Qanita Lilla: Are you serious?
Amy Malbeuf: Yeah. Jessie would call or text and be like, “Is it okay if I come over?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, sure.” And she’d be like, “Great. Well I’m already halfway there.” [Laughs].
Jessie Ray Short: I was just so lonely. I was like, I just want someone I kind of know who’s close to my age who is doing cool art stuff. Yeah. It was a three hour drive. I would go at least once a month.
Qanita Lilla: Jeez. Woah.
Jessie Ray Short: So that was the power of my loneliness.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I think also it kind of sprung out of necessity, you know. It wasn’t like a calculated choice. It was as if you cannot actually come together with this creative force, things are not going to work out the way that you want.
Jessie Ray Short: Oh yeah. No, it was like I would have kind of lost my mind a little bit had I just lived there that whole time. But yeah, I just kept showing up which was really nice of Amy and Jordan. They had like I had my room in the back of the house. I knew the cats. Yeah, the more that I started to show up – well because Amy you were in the middle of doing your masters, and I had like, you know, maybe four or five years before that finished my masters, and I think we would talk and we were having very similar difficulties.
Amy Malbeuf: I think we were sharing our frustrations with each other around kind of a lack of critical, both critical exhibitions and writing around Métis art. Of course there are, you know, many Métis artists and scholars that we were aware of who were practising, but it was still difficult to find any information, and so we just started talking about that frustration and it somehow turned into us taking on a very large research project. But I think before kind of talking about that research project, I think one thing that had maybe guided us together, I think, our ancestors brought us together. We figured out through, you know, these many visits that we are related. That we’re cousins. [Laughter].
Qanita Lilla: Oh my – no way.
Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Ray Short: Yeah.
Jessie Ray Short: Which is like pretty typical. You know, there’s lots of ways that people become disconnected from their culture, right, through no fault of their own. But one of the things that I think a lot of people don’t understand is like you know, generally speaking Métis people have like really pretty good thorough knowledge of their ancestry, you know. I think, Amy, you were telling me it’s like we’re some of the most researched people. Or like there’s a lot of documentation about us and our families because I think because of the way that we sort of, you know, came into being alongside like the colonial mercantilism of Canada, so like the Hudson Bay Company and stuff. There’s actually a lot of records about our families. I haven’t done enough research into my tree. Like I just kind of got back to a certain point and stopped, but I could keep going. Yeah. We literally got out our family trees and started like, oh looking, and we were like, “Oh yeah. Those people, oh yeah.”
Qanita Lilla: You felt that intuitively? I mean, like your parents, or your grandparents, or somebody who didn’t say, “You know, I know you know who…” It’s really interesting because you’d never met before, you know, and yet you were kind of and I think, Jessie, I like that idea of, you know, like an invisible kind of pull, that you don’t have a choice. It was definitely at play here.
Jessie Ray Short: Yeah, yeah. I know. I think had I not taken that job like I don’t think that we would be here right now. I think we probably would have known each other, but maybe not in this capacity, yeah, which is kind of funny to think about.
Qanita Lilla: So your family trees, you opened it up and you found a connection.
Jessie Ray Short: Yeah, pretty much. I think Amy, I think you knew already. You knew that you had Shorts in your tree.
Amy Malbeuf: Yes, yeah. I knew that I had Shorts in my lineage somewhere. Yeah. I became curious about that, [Laughs] so I started asking Jessie questions. [Laughs].
Jessie Ray Short: So that was really cool and fun, and then, you know, it was just because Amy was in the midst of doing her MFA, and, you know, like I had come up against a lot of the same frustrations when I’d done my MA. We were almost doing like doctoral level of research because there just wasn’t enough written. Don’t get me wrong there are some really amazing scholars, artists, and academics who are Métis who have written and contributed to that field, but like it’s so small, you know like, it’s not like a big body of work. And, you know, they are only a handful of people so they can only do so much. They’ve done important things, but I think that’s what we kind of wanted to keep moving on from because you know, surely if we’re having this issue, like other artists, other Métis artists especially must be finding this kind of frustration. And yeah, I don’t exactly remember how, but we just started talking about like, “Maybe we should just curate a show, or see what artists are doing.” I think that’s how it started. We wanted to just because we just started counting, like just on our fingers, you know, like we just started naming artists who we knew that were Métis, who were practising, and we realized just off the top of our heads, I think we came up with like a couple dozen artists, and, you know, we figured there must be more, and we should go talk to them. See what they’re doing. [Laughter].
Qanita Lilla: But hold on. Hold on. Before we get to this conversation because that’s an amazing conversation. But what I wanted to know from both of you is how did you get into the visual arts field at all? What lead you to that? Because it is such an elitist, closed off space. It’s incredible if there’s any field that, you know, differentiates between like its own and other, this is the field. What drew you? Amy, why did you decide to do this?
Amy Malbeuf: Oh my gosh, I have no idea. Well I guess ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to be an artist. Of course, as a child, I had no idea what that actually meant, but that was kind of a path I was drawn towards from a very young age. And, I just ended up, you know, as I got older pursuing that, and I went to college. I went to Alberta College of Art and Design. It’s now Alberta University of the Arts. And so that’s kind of where I started onto that path.
Qanita Lilla: And your parents were cool with this? They kind of had an idea of what this entailed?
Amy Malbeuf: I don’t — [Laughs] They were supportive of me. Me and my siblings were all very creative, and I would say my parents are as well. But certainly a very different path from their own. I think they were I think they were supportive of what I wanted to do. I think they had a difficult time like seeing how I would make a living. [Laughs]. Even, you know, it’s been a decade now and I think they’re still not sure. [Laughs]. But yeah that was kind of where, you know, my education began. And, afterwards, I went and I did what was called a work study at the Banff Centre for the Arts. It was like a practicum placement. I think that period of time I also did a residency right after that, like an arts residency at the same place, and I think that period of time was really formative. For me, in terms of you know I got to see how a lot of artists worked and functioned in the world from all over the world. And so just witnessing that I think was really a powerful [inaudible]. And so I think that that’s kind of where I got a start into the arts, and I think my role as an artist is always evolving and always changing. And I’ve pursued further education since that time. I did a native cultural arts instructor certificate in my hometown, and I did my MFA as well. And so I’ve, yeah, I’ve been drawn to all different types of mediums, and art forms, and curation, and I kind of see it all as all very much related and all a part of a continuum.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I think, I find it very interesting how we always kind of come back, you know. We come back to ourselves or to like some kind of essence to why it is that we do what it is that we do. And you Jessie?
Jessie Ray Short: Yeah, I was going to say I guess I kind of forgot about this, but it’s like — Amy I feel like it’s – [laughs] – like it was going to happen eventually that we would meet because I also did that work study practicum in Banff, and I did the same position that you did. I was the person before you. And then you moved into that position when I left. [Laughs].
Amy Malbeuf: [Laughs] That’s amazing. I forgot about that.
Jessie Ray Short: Right. Yeah. I don’t know that I thought I would be an artist, but it just seems like something I would probably do, probably because I was always a bit of a weird kid. And my parents, when I would just do, like, I would just like get up at night and I would draw a mural on my bedroom wall at like 2 AM.
Qanita Lilla: Woah.
Jessie Ray Short: I don’t know why I did I was just like, “I think I need to do this right now.” So I think when I did weird things that were like vaguely creative my parents didn’t totally get it, so they’d just say, “Oh Jesse. She’s such an artist.” [Laughs]. I don’t know like if it was destined or whatever. But I actually then tried – I enrolled at ACAD, now Alberta University of the Arts, as well, and then I didn’t even make it through a semester, I dropped out so – and here I am today. So you can be an art school dropout and be an artist. Just at the time when I think back to it, it just wasn’t the right place for me: I liked it, but I really hated being forced to like draw boxes for eight hours. I know those are the foundation things, but it’s just, sometimes it’s hard to understand why you’re doing that.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But just having an institution of art is so problematic in many, many, many ways especially when you’re kind of raring to go, and you want to do stuff, and you know they’re kind of trying to push you into a curriculum. It’s just tough.
Jessie Ray Short: Yeah, yeah. And it just so it wasn’t a good fit for me. But I did, you know I went and did a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts but not Fine Arts, like I was doing more social sciences kind of thing, but always like skirting around art. [Laughs] And then after I finished my masters which I wrote about contemporary Métis visual culture because I was just curious. It was partially auto-ethnographic, so looking at myself and my family. And then I also interviewed three other Métis artists, Rosalie Favell, Christi Belcourt and David Garneau just to try and wrap my head around this more, and like see if there was some kind of connection. Yeah, I was definitely heading in that direction. And then I curated this show after that in 2012, that Amy was in, and that was the first show I ever curated. Then I became the Director of the now Indigenous Curatorial Collective. It had a different name back then for a while. And I think that really got me started on wanting to do my own work. It’s like sort of umbrella organization to broadly promote the work of Indigenous artists and curators around the country. And because of that I got to see so many artists, so many really amazing Indigenous artists and what they were doing, and curators and arts writers, and like it was just this whole world that I didn’t even know existed. And, you know, most of them are functioning within that sort of contemporary art gallery circuit. I got to learn a lot about it through their experiences. You know, I’m trying to navigate that to help other artists. Yeah, just as I saw the amazing depth of work that you could do you as, not just an artist, but like as an Indigenous artist. I was really inspired. But also being the director of an organization like that means that you have like zero time to do your own work. So sequences of events happened. I ended up leaving. I was in Toronto doing that position for a little bit. And I’d lived out east in Ontario for like 13 years at that point, and I had my own project that I wanted to start doing about an Ancestor, and I just knew so strongly that I needed to move back to the prairies to do that. Like I just knew I needed to come home. And so I got this opportunity to come home. Well I got dumped. My relationship of eight years.
Qanita Lilla: Oh boy!
Jessie Ray Short: But you know it’s fine because I think the only way I would have come back right my ex really wasn’t interested in moving to the prairies, and I just knew that’s where I needed to go, and there were other issues whatever So I was very, very sad. My dad drove back from Ontario with me and I cried a lot. But like it was totally what needed to happen. And so when I got back to Calgary, I moved back home with my parents. Thank you parents. [Laughs] for a bit. I was there and it was just like it, something just opened up like, like I wanted to get into filmmaking and I kept applying for these like mentorship programs in Toronto, and they were so competitive. You can be an emerging filmmaker, apply. And then I would see who could get it. I never got called, never even got close. Then I would see who got it as an emerging filmmaker. It’s somebody who had already made like ten short films, and I was like, “What? What is “emerging” even?” So,I guess maybe the skill is just a bit different. I don’t know, but when I moved back to Calgary that’s when I really started to make work publicly. I got a few mentorships, so I got to make a few films. I started to learn finger weaving. I found a teacher there and I started to do that, and I was incorporating it into performance art. And it’s just like the doors just kind of opened. And so really I didn’t start practising as a public artist until I was like 35 I would say. And I’m 40 now. So yeah. I don’t know.
Qanita Lilla: That’s incredible. And thank you so much for sharing that because, you know, people think that there’s one life trajectory, like one way of kind of doing what it is that you need to do. And I think from both of you there is definitely. It’s just like, you know, what you need to do. So I think what I would find very interesting is if you could talk a bit about your creative process together. Amy and Jesse. How does this look? Like how does it start, and how does it get initiated. What are the kind of the processes and thinking takes you through?
Jessie Ray Short: Like when we’re working with each other?
Qanita Lilla: Yes.
Jessie Ray Short: Hmm,
Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Ray Short: [Laughter].
Jessie Ray Short: Well I guess it’s pretty familiar. I don’t know. We talk a lot about everything.
Amy Malbeuf: Yeah. I think we have a very, a very organic working relationship and it’s been very intuitive. And it has been quite some time. I think it’s like 2015, 2016.
Jessie Ray Short: ’15, like something like that.
Amy Malbeuf: So at this point I feel like sometimes we just share the same brain. [Laughter].
Jessie Ray Short: Which is the best place to get to — yeah.
Amy Malbeuf: But I mean I think it’s definitely been a journey to get there. I think in the beginning it really started with simply having a lot of conversations with one another, and that’s always been key is that we probably talk about things too much. [Laughter]. But I think because we’re able to talk so openly with each other, it makes, you know, when things really need to get done, when we have deadlines, we really know where the other stands. It’s kind of, I don’t know, I feel like we’ve become this really efficient, well oiled, well I don’t if well oiled. [Laughter].
Jessie Ray Short: Sort of squeaky. [Laughter].
Amy Malbeuf: [Laughter]. Sort of squeaky. But I think we’ve certainly come to this place of trust as well where if one of us isn’t capable to, you know, carry their workload for whatever reason, the other carries it. And we reciprocate that for one another. And so I think that has been a key element to working with each other.
Qanita Lilla: For example in Lii Zoot Tayr (Other Worlds), that’s on at Agnes, you are both exhibiting and curating. How did this kind of evolve? How did the process evolve?
Amy Malbeuf: I think that came really early on in our working relationship. We wanted to do that. We wanted to both create and make. You know, this is the third in a series of exhibitions that we have created together, and the first two we were curators only. And I think as creatives and as makers, we really felt compelled to contribute to this conversation visually through making and not just curating. And so, I think you know we had done the two kind of conventionally curated shows, and this time around we felt like, you know, expanding on that a little bit for ourselves.
Jessie Ray Short: I was just going to say I think too a lot of it has to do with where we are and who we’re working with. We started working with Emelie Chhangur when she was still at the AGYU, and she has been so incredibly supportive of like she actually came out, like flew herself out to Edmonton to see the second show that we did. I think she’s one of the only people who came from eastern Canada which was so amazing. And she came to the two day symposium we did. And she was just like really supportive, and really just present, and it made such a big impact. Because I think we were both quite like burnt out. We were like, “I don’t know if we can ever do this again.” But, you know, when she approached us about creating something new, and she was so flexible about that structure and what we could do. And so, typically speaking like you’re it’s kind of like a “no-no” to curate your own work –
Qanita Lilla: Which is weird.
Jessie Ray Short: Yeah. But I think we both just had yeah. Well I think we both have just been so like again, you work with all these artists, and that’s something that you’re also passionate about, and like you get thoughts, right. I think we’re both like, but I have something to say too. So, Emelie was really open to that. We didn’t have to be just curators necessarily, and was just really supportive of our vision. You know, this will be probably our last show together and to do something really interesting and unique, which is, you know, why all the works in this exhibition are, they’re all brand new, made for this exhibition to kind of, you know, go beyond curating what’s already there, and, you know, create as we’re creating a curatorial vision. It’s sort of like this holistic thing.
Qanita Lilla: What is your ideal understanding of like curation versus production? It’s a very, very close kind of relationship.
Jessie Ray Short: I don’t know. It’s funny. So, I guess, curators are becoming more professionalized. Right. Like there’s now master’s programs with curatorial studies and things like that, where it used to be, from my understanding, like something that you more it was almost like a work placement, you just start to do it and that’s how you kind of figured it out. I’m always curious I always ask curators like because curators often do have creative practices. Not always, but I find it to be more rare to meet a curator who really does nothing, like has no creative practice of their own outside of curating, you know, than vice versa. So I always like to ask other curators, like art, do you make work? You know, are you an artist? Because I always find that really fascinating. I don’t know, like, my goal was never to be a curator. I remember in my position at the Banff Centre, I guess because it was more of an administrative sort of one versus like a studio based position, people would ask me a lot, you know, do you think you’re going to be a curator? A) I had really no idea what a curator was like until I started working there. I don’t know. There are those people. They wear all black. [Laughs] Back in like 2010 or whenever I was there, Blackberries were still popular. I remember suddenly being like artists have iPhones and curators have Blackberries. That was the difference [Laughter].
Qanita Lilla: Oh god [Laughs]. And certain hairstyles, and quite kind of forbidding. And, you know, you wonder like what is it, you know, about like the figure of the curator? I think that today, in a way, curators have superseded the figure of the artist. And you you know, because, I mean, this kind of like postmodern idea of like the artist is dead. You know, the author is dead. So you kind of need, like this other figure to kind of guide you through this unique vision, you know. Hopefully it’s kind of breaking down now because it’s complete, I mean it’s just based on ego in the same way, you know, that kind of individual male ego artist.
Jessie Ray Short: I also had a curator who is like an older generation, like maybe in her 60s, I would guess, who I think was more of a strict curator, tell me once that, oh, what did she say? Oh. She didn’t want me to write like a statement. Or I think she was saying like she didn’t like artists’ statements because that was the curator’s job how to interpret the work,
Qanita Lilla: Wow.
Jessie Ray Short: Which I was like, “Oh. Really?” I also could never imagine maybe this is just because I mostly work with Indigenous artists, and, you know, and I cannot speak for any Indigenous person, you know, but myself, really, and so I would never think that way. But I mean she kind of followed up to say that she thinks too much is being demanded of artists, you know, in exhibitions today, and I appreciate that, but I also think it’s kind of wild to just be like, well, you know, be totally silenced as an artist. Like you just give over your work and you’re like, “Here you go. Figure it out.”
Qanita Lilla: It’s completely awful and it kind of impinges and is almost abusive, because you’re actually taking somebody’s voice. And you’re saying, you know, this is what they, instead of, you know, kind of perhaps working together with artists. Make something concrete that people can convey to an audience. I think so. But I know that like the process, like the artistic process is not always seamless at all. There are always challenges. What are the kinds of challenges that you two face? You’re not based in the same city. What are the things that you kind of encounter?
Amy Malbeuf: [Laughs]. So many. [Laughs]. Yeah. I think, you know, not being based in the same place wasn’t such an issue before the pandemic. We met up a lot in person – and frequently. We both used to travel a lot. And so, I think you know that’s kind of been a challenge we’ve had with the mounting of this particular exhibition at Agnes, it’s been difficult to not be there for the install, and difficult to not be with one another making decisions in the same room.
Jessie Ray Short: I think we’ve literally been installing this show for like six months now.
Qanita Lilla: Jeez.
Jessie Ray Short: Yeah, because it’s just, you know, for a while only one person could be in the gallery. So it was literally one person installing these like very large pieces by themselves. And then things kept getting shut down, and then, you know, shipping was delayed. So because these are all new works, we had to get very specific materials for some of them. And suddenly there’s like supply chain issues, right. People would have something one day and then it would all be gone the next day. And you’d be like, well when can you get them back and they’re like, we don’t know. That happened a number of times with a lot of the pieces. So yeah, it’s been really challenging. But I mean also it’s like we’re lucky I guess too, because so many artists have just had their shows cancelled, and you know, we even get to put this up for hopefully some people are seeing it. We haven’t seen it yet.
Qanita Lilla: Yeah, I know. I’ve seen part of it because the install has been staggered. It must be really difficult to communicate to people who you’ve never haven’t met, or you don’t have a personal relationship with to, you know, kind of express ideas about a conceptual show. The last time I encountered your show was actually in the entrance hall, and it was crazy. It was completely crazy. The pool was going up. It was incredible. Like the pool was going up, and those enormous like stainless steel drum like tubes were being placed, and water was gushing out, and it was this cold day, and everybody’s hair was standing on end – because you know it was anyway – I mean it’s just it’s a show of a lot of energy, you know, which is phenomenal. It’s just got a lot of energy and movement and people are interested in that. But here’s like a last question, what drew you to the show and why is it close to your heart?
[ Laughter ]
Amy Malbeuf: Oh my goodness. I think it’s close to our heart, I mean my heart, I can’t speak for–
Jessie Ray Short: Our heart, yeah! [Laughs]
Amy Malbeuf: I feel like we have the same brain and heart at this point. [Laughs]. I feel like it’s close to my heart because it’s something that we, you know, I almost see it as the culmination of our years of research, and I see our years of research basically as a labour of love for our people, and for our fellow Métis artists. And, you know, it’s just felt like a really long time coming. And we met with so many artists early on in our journey when we first started doing our research. We met with over 50 artists. And so, of course, we haven’t exhibited all of those artists because it just wouldn’t be feasible.
Jessie Ray Short: Or even half of them.
Amy Malbeuf: Yes. But kind of that getting to know those artists and deeply engaging in conversation with various artists, and creatives, and curators over the last however many years it’s been. You know, it’s been such an honour to work with all of those people and then to be able to kind of showcase and support these works. So these, as Jesse mentioned, they’re all new works, and so to be able to support the artists and developing these new projects. And kind of work with these themes that we were talking about in the beginning, you know, pulling together, not only the work of, you know, Métis artists, but pulling together these various themes that seem like they’re kind of all over the place. You know, I’m really excited that, you know, the show is finally up, and it’s finally here, and we’re finally sharing it.
Qanita Lilla: I can totally feel your love, like, you know, looking through those works. Completely. It’s a fantastic show, Lii Zoot Tayr. I really hope that you’ll be able to see it. I hope that you can come to Kingston.
Jessie Ray Short: Me too.
Qanita Lilla: Are you planning on coming to Kingston sometime?
Jessie Ray Short: I think maybe in November sometime, you know, assuming things don’t get shut down again but hopefully.
Qanita Lilla: Please do. Please come and meet us. Yeah, it’s been such a pleasure Amy and Jesse. It’s been fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for talking with me. I could talk with you for the whole day. But that’s not possible. Thank you so much.
Jessie Ray Short: [Inaudible] either.
Amy Malbeuf: Thank you.
Qanita Lilla: Thanks. Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. Special thanks to my guests, Amy Malbeuf and Jesse Ray Short for speaking with us today.The podcast is hosted by Dr Qanita Lilla and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM.
The music is composed by “Jameel3DN” and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III.
Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time!