I was fortunate to attend the It’s a Cultural Thing: Individual Expression, Collective Inspiration gathering in Calgary in 1993. Organized by the Minquon Panchayat, First Nations and of colour artists disturbed, and eventually re-figured, the white spaces and culture of the artist-run network. While the resulting changes to the network are significant, it was the fact and mode of gathering that rocked my world. A quarter century later, I attended Primary Colours, a gathering of more than 120 Indigenous and of colour artists, curators, cultural activists, thinkers, and doers at the Songhees Wellness Centre, Lekwungen Territory, Victoria, British Columbia (Sept. 23 - 26, 2017). It’s a Cultural Thing was about justice, inclusion. Primary Colours was too, but the main message I felt was the importance of these gatherings as an alternative to mainstreamed “alternative” art culture.
I recognize these meetings as a performance of what Richard Rorty describes as new forms of social cohesion and momentum that can emerge when grand narratives lose their credibility, when shared stories and beliefs fail to include and inspire community. His three principles are contingency, irony, and solidarity. Emergent communities are liberal, in that numerous narratives are entertained but none rule. It is recognized that truth is contingent on experience, self-knowledge and self-authorship rather than reliance on accepted meta-narratives. Such a position is ironic in that knowers are always in doubt because competing narratives about like situations and things are compelling. Nevertheless, we have to live, do things, together. So it is solidarity, the will to include difference without subjugation that provides social cohesion and momentum.
Primary Colours, the Summer Intensive Institute at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, and numerous other Indigenous-centered gatherings of recent years, are centers that endeavor to hold without containing. They are gentle vortices drawing divergence close, but only for a moment, and not with the desire to puree. They are contingent. For artists who dissent for reasons other than art fashion, these temporary eddies succeed artist-run centers by not aspiring to become institutions, but to become relationships. Institutions are designed for survival despite their momentary occupants. Relationships between non-institutionalized actors only exist because they aspire to respond to the immediate and changing needs of their participants.
Primary Colours is ironic in that it was a gathering of differences. While mostly conducted in English, there were numerous French speakers, simultaneous translation, and folks who spoke many other tongues, and who came from a great range of territories and cultures. I am Métis. While also a Canadian citizen, I glimpse my Canada rarely; this was one of those times. Organizers, France Trepanier and Chris Crieghton Kelly, centered the Indigenous, but it was often uncentered by the active and welcome presence of Black artists. Whether it was the reminder of Black and Indigenous colonial slavery, or the need to recognize Canada’s continuing colonization of territories beyond Turtle Island, the violence of borders, and our communion 25 years ago in Calgary, I felt a sense of fragile relations renewed. The possibility of solidarity. I felt a shift from seeking solitary spaces of artistic privilege, to shared places of artistic responsibility. I felt a turn from a desire for inclusion in the mainstream, alone, and toward also engaging and creating communities of like Others, territory beneath, above and aside from the one pulled over us, called Canada, or not, located at an uncertain latitude.
David Garneau (Métis) is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Regina. His practice includes painting, curation, and critical writing. He recently co-curated, with Kathleen Ash Milby, Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound, National Museum of the American Indian, New York; Moving Forward, Never Forgetting, with Michelle LaVallee, an exhibition concerning the legacies of Indian Residential Schools, other forms of aggressive assimilation, and (re)conciliation, at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina; and With Secrecy and Despatch, with Tess Allas, an international exhibition about massacres of Indigenous people, and memorialization, for the Campbelltown Art Centre, Sydney, Australia. Garneau has given numerous talks in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and throughout Canada. He is part of a five-year, SSHRC funded, curatorial research project, “Creative Conciliation;” and is working on a public art project in Edmonton. His paintings are in numerous public and private collections.