John Wood and Paul Harrison, installation view from ‘I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T KNOW IT’, Contemporary Art Gallery, February 12 – April 24, 2016. Photography by SITE Photography

Meet Emily | CMA-RBC Indigenous Curatorial Assistant

Hello, I am Emily Dundas Oke, and I am very grateful for these past months spent learning and working alongside the staff, artists, and partners of CAG. Joining CAG as the CMA-RBC Indigenous Curatorial Assistant immediately after graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Visual Arts was the most exciting opportunity. This experience has provided me a rich platform as I continue to develop my curatorial research with specific interests in contemporary Indigenous practices.

Throughout my undergraduate degree, my disparate interests in Indigenous epistemologies, the history of Treaty Rights for First Nations women, relationships to land, and curation found a constellating presence in performative works. Artists whose embodied actions carried a certainty of knowing in addressing shared histories spoke to each of these interests. Having to navigate the realities of being a woman of Métis, Cree, and European descent, I recognized the centrality of the body – of daily and shared practices – in understanding my relationship to complex histories and specific territories. As such, the opportunity to work closely with the Curatorial and Learning team towards Jeneen Frei Njootli’s solo exhibition my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, which occupied the B.C. Binning Gallery throughout the summer months, and associated programming, was more than I could ask for.

Jeneen Frei Njootli, installation view from ‘my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money’, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, July 13 – September 16, 2018. Photography by Michael Love

Frei Njootli’s critical and incisive interdisciplinary practice and her eloquence in making space for Indigenous action, kinship, and cultural practices carve out pathways for being in the world. As an Intern at CAG, I’ve been able to learn through what these actions and refusals to remain fixed mean to contemporary art institutions. Agency is given to the materials with which Frei Njootli works. Having previously been shown at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in 2017 and continuing their trajectory to the Sobey Art Award Exhibition this fall, the large steel sheets with impressed beadwork marks in grease show their flux. Lavender striations on the steel appeared, recalling northern skyscapes. A sheer rust grows as they travel between exhibitions, exposing their age and undeniable relationship to the environment in which they are housed. Following a performance with Tahltan Nation artist Peter Morin, a collection of indiscernible handprints and fingermarks along the surface become an inherent part of the work. Counter to a gallery’s tendency to conserve and archive an artwork, maintaining it in a static state, the works Frei Njootli exhibited this summer are material agents of change.

These activities, these environment and activity induced changes taken up over time, have become somewhat emblematic of the traverse between contexts that many Indigenous people and thoughts go through. We are asked to situate ourselves in our research, and to respond to the lands and the local contexts in which we work. Our “practices-in-place”[i] further ask us to allow our research to shape us. We continue to transform, maintain our motion, to be transformed, and defy practices that look to remain static. We recognize agency where others only see objects. All as part of the old (k)new[ii]  of Indigenous thought.

I thank the artists and Curatorial teams involved with this year’s programming for sharing a bit of their worlds with me. The words contributed to the upcoming publication on Frei Njootli’s work demonstrate the beauty and depth that such a practice incites. The conversations sparked over the accompanying library, developed in partnership with the artist and the Simon Fraser University Library, remind us that coming together unable to answer the questions remains deeply generative. The Resonant Presence and Refusals panel talk, organized in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery, carved out an exemplary mode of centering friendship, family, and embodied practice. Thank you – you have transformed how I view presence. As a guest and visitor, I thank the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations for hosting me on their unceded and ancestral territories as I continue to work, play, and live on their lands.

[i] Manulani Aluli Meyer. “Holographic Epistemology: Native Common Sense.” China Media Research, vol.9, no. 2, 2013, pp. 94-101.

[ii] Manulani Aluli Meyer “Holographic Epistemology: Native Common Sense.” IDays Guest Scholar Speaker Series, 7 March 2018, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC