April 03, 2004
Radical Native Art: an interview with Tania Willard
I'm writing a paper on radical Native art, so I asked Tania Willard, self-described half-breed Secwepemc person, activist, artist, and manager of Redwire Magazine, if she could talk to me over e-mail about some of the issues. Lucky me, she agreed.
ME: What does radical Native art mean to you?
TW: Well I think radical Native art is everywhere, from real traditional stuff — the idea that it's radical for us to continue our art traditions like basket making or beading or carving — but then there is also radical art in the sense that it's really very cutting-edge contemporary work.
Then there is also politically radical art; I believe art is a way that we can dream and we can communicate our hope for the future and our issues with the world today, and I believe we have a responsibility to do that with art. I think that as an artist I can't just pretend there is nothing but me and my art; it is informed by my experience and how I see the world, and when I see the sort of injustice that is everywhere, I think everyone has a responsibility to use their skills to confront that injustice and to seek to change it.
ME: What do you think are the roles of mainstream versus alternative art, e.g. clan prints and masks on the big market vs. the work at the Roundhouse galleries or in Redwire?
TW: Well I think it's great that West Coast formline design is appreciated in the art world, but I always have this weird relationship to it where I think like the people who are buying this work are in this different world, a world apart in that they are usually wealthy. And I think there is still a colonial relationship there that non-native people can like buy atonement or buy their way out of white guilt by purchasing Native culture and art.
In our ways, for most native people art was a part of life, and so I guess it's about continuing that art making that is for us and making sure that we are doing that as well as being able to make a living and sell work. I think it's really important to have places for Native artists who are working in different ways in traditional and contemporary forms to share their work, and that space is with our peers, it's not with these invisible people who buy Indian art.
ME: What do you hope to change/build through your own work? Okay, I know, huge question — but through Redwire or another project that comes to mind, for example.
TW: Well, I hope to maybe not change, but at least get the message out that things need to change. I think throughout all my work I carry the same responsibility: that I continue the struggle my ancestors started before me and that I have the courage to speak out against injustices and inequities. I hope that by doing this I can make it safe for other people to stand up for their rights; I hope that people can feel comfortable expressing themselves and telling their stories, and if people are willing to listen and we start to understand each other, maybe change can start to happen.
ME: The "mainstream" market for Native art, and therefore a bunch of rich white people, still has a big influence on what forms of art are viable for working artists to produce. How can better self-determination be achieved? I'm open to any level of idealism on this question, from working within the system, to slow change, to just setting the whole damn thing on fire... uh, but I think I'm getting off of my essay topic now...
TW: Hmmm, this one is a little broad... hahaha. Okay, well definitely, and that's why I think we need to make art for ourselves too — because art is in our stories, in our songs, in our dances, in how we express what is in our hearts, what we are passionate about — so we need to have that space to express ourselves but then we also need to be able to feed ourselves or our families, and that is where patrons come in. I think aboriginal art should be valued, and if there are other artists selling high priced work then hey, aboriginal artists can do that, too; I'm just saying keep it real. Don't like only share your culture with people who can afford it, while our children are starving to learn more about it.
I mean, I think it's a risk you take as an artist, though, that maybe your work is not going to be appreciated or sell, but it doesn't matter because you do it because you need to, because it's a part of you and your life. I mean, I would like to see aboriginal artists have more control of the market, running the stores and stuff. I am not West Coast and I don't do formline design work, that's not my culture, but I think there is an amazing artistic tradition on the West Coast, and I also think there are amazing aboriginal painters and contemporary artists, but I don't really think we are that different... so called 'traditional' art is always changing and adapting too, and is contemporary in the sense that it is being made now and is growing and changing as an art form.
ME: What is art's relationship with identity? Tradition?
TW: Again it is identity, it is tradition; it is intertwined with culture. Art is not separate in the aboriginal experience. It is the regalia your auntie made for you, or the basket you have that your grandma made, or the mask your uncle carved and that has stories and memories attached to it. Art is like our way of remembering the past and dreaming the future, so it's remembering who we are and growing and moving forward on that path.
ME: I hope these questions aren't too anthropological... If we ever meet in person, I owe you a drink. Thanks again for the help.
TW: I am happy to thank you for the opportunity to share some ideas!
Posted by delire at April 3, 2004 02:00 PM