syilx art travels many territories to find its way home with help of mentor

Content Warning: This story contains imagery and content that relate to Indigenous land theft and loss of connection to identity that’s tied to the land. Please honour your body and spirit and read with care.

A syilx and Secwépemc artist’s work has found its way home to syilx lands, and with it, the teachings of art as a tool for reconnection are coming full circle in my family.

Two digital prints, created by Keenan Marchand, will take their space on the walls of the Vernon Public Art Gallery on Okanagan territory in Unsettle the Settler: Dismantling Systemic Oppression, an exhibit by the Kama? Creative Aboriginal Arts Collective, which runs from Jan. 13 to March 9.

Keenan and I are cousins, connected by our Mama (grandmother), Barbara Pearl Marchand. Barb, a respected artist, has mentored many artists in our nation over the past several decades. Now, two of the artists she’s mentored, Keenan and the show’s syilx curator Sheldon Louis, are coming together across generations, and hundreds of kilometres, to continue her teachings.

Keenan’s art is on display at the gallery thanks to a connection he made with Sheldon, who’s become a mentor to him. But to understand either of their practices, and the art pieces on display, we must follow syilx storytelling principles and first understand the teachings of Barb, who shaped their journeys.

Barb, or who I loving refer to as Mama, shares a message to those artists she’s mentored: continue to take part in your art because art comes to the joyful even in our hardest of times.

Here is a clip of me in conversation with her about words of wisdom to artists.

“If you can be happy, your art comes a lot easier for you,” she says.

Barb is an established multimedia syilx artist who uses natural materials, and who mixes mediums to add depth to the traditional stories she holds.

“This is about joy. And I don’t know how many times I whooped and I hollered all over the place because I knew when I succeeded at a print,” she tells me over the phone.

She says growing up poor, she had to find everyday materials around her to create art. She often recalls the time she sat next to a little creek near her homestead and drew a chicken on the ground. It was the 1940s and it was the first piece of art she was proud of as a little girl.

“I first started my drawings in the dirt in Winfield. I was always drawing in the dirt.”

“I was little and I didn’t know that it was called ‘art,’ I just knew I liked doing it. And you know what? That saved my life so many times because it gave me so much freedom and relief,” she says.

“I used to always work things out in art.”

Growing up as an artist, Barb always wished she’d had a mentor, which is why, as an adult, she has offered creative guidance to many young people.

“I never had any teachers teach me. I worked it all out myself. And when I was really upset, that’s when I really worked hard and then I would get rid of the upsetness from whatever caused me to get upset and hurt.”

She knew that her art was a gift she had been given to pass on after the Creator started to show up in her work.

“I know the Creator was helping more than me. Because he always seemed to be around. And I had so many successful pieces.

“I don’t care if I ever had money. But I had to in some way because we were poor” she says. “I was working from love.”

One of those young people that Mama believed in and mentored was Sheldon, a syilx artist whose work focuses on political causes and whose use of vibrant colours brings our culture to life.

Now that mentorship has come full circle as Sheldon curates the show, Unsettle the Settler: Dismantling Systemic Oppression, and is mentoring Keenan, among others.

Mentorship is a common method for syilx knowledge transfer, and artists such as his father Gerald Louis, and his Aunty Lucy Louis, have also guided Sheldon.

“[They] are my reasons for being [an] artist so it’s about passing that onto these young artists and when they get older I imagine they’ll remember us artists supporting and teaching them and they’ll pass it on to the next generation of artists,” Sheldon says.

“I just want to take what I got from Dad and Barb and share that with our young artists so they feel supported in their dreams,” he says.

Sheldon, who lives in sənƛ̓ uxuxtan, place where they were killed by a grizzly (Six Mile Creek) on syilx territory, says he invited Keenan to participate as a way to mentor him, and because he values Keenan’s creative vision.

“He’s a good artist and I like that he wants to push the boundaries and highlight our experiences as Indigenous Peoples in a colonial backdrop,” Sheldon says.

Keenan, who’s currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory (Musqueam) says that working with Sheldon, across a great distance, is an honour.

“Immediately, when Sheldon messaged me about the opportunity, I got really excited.”

“I have a deep connection, even though I’m away from home and our lands right now—it’s hard to put into words what that means.” Keenan says.

And Mama says she’s proud of the artist Keenan has become.

“He loves his work, he really loves it. I am just so proud of him, he calls me all the time to ask questions and I love that about him.”

Keenan created two art pieces that are being exhibited in the show. The first, “Let us heal, let us grow,” holds a story of truth for Keenan.

“The face that is surrounded by maple leaves has a very dark background…which is basically [representing] systemic oppression…and systemic racism.”

The leaves themselves are inverted and are a reflection of the parts of Canada that it doesn’t like to show to the world, he says. And a maple leaf dripping blood on the figure’s forehead is symbolic of the wound that Canada leaves on Indigenous Peoples.

“[It] shows the very real damage that Canada has done, and continues to do,” he says.

Keenan intentionally weaves the figure’s hair into its tears, representing the syilx belief of how hair holds spirit, and that spirit can shift and move through tears.

The tears that pour from the empty eyes show, “the things that folks tell you to forget about while they just live on and it lives in our bodies.”

The face itself looks like it is “both disappearing and also being formed at the same time.” This, Keenan says, represents a space that can feel like a “no man’s land,” between healing and feeling better.

“The title, “Let us heal, let us grow” is really just wanting to have Indigenous Peoples be given the opportunity and the autonomy to properly heal and to grow…the work is already in progress,” he said. But, when you’re constantly being reminded of the harms done to the people and continued trauma, it makes moving forward “a lot more difficult.”

Keenan’s second piece is a translation of his understanding of the “first stage of our [syilx] people in creation.”

For syilx people, representations of our creation story are meaningful and for Keenan, this is his first time doing it for public display.

“The very visceral imagery of being torn from the Earth—it was very, very beautiful to my imagination and my heart. I find if you go beyond a lot of the surface level translations of our language it’s absolutely poetry,” he says with a passion in his voice.

The white, skeleton-like arms, which adorn the border and also dig into the body of the naked figure, represent settler violence and the intergenerational trauma clawing at Indigenous people. That the person is still digging despite the attack, is sad, Keenan says.

“They’re still working towards that [land connection] it doesn’t matter that they’re completely surrounded and it’s claustrophobic.”

Indigenous Peoples have experienced this separation through land thefts, and the piece is a literal image of being torn from the earth.

“A lot of the lands have been privatized which means you don’t have access to them. So in a very literal sense, you’re cut off from the knowledge of the land,” he says.

The body clutching to the land is to show that the relationship with the land is “a soft one.”

The image also exhibits an embodiment of love for the land.

“A love that’s brokenhearted…[a] desperation…digging towards the land, to be reconnected,” he says.

Now that Keenan’s art has travelled home, it’s hanging on the walls beside artists he’s always admired.

“It definitely moves me—a lot. I can say I hope that there will be other things I make that make their way home.”

Ethical storytelling teaching: At IndigiNews we practice trauma-informed, anti-oppressive storytelling. We honour the spirit and well-being of kin first. In stories that require a content or trigger warning, we use first names as a way to be sensitive to our cuzzins (readers.) Indigenous kin in colonial institutions are often referred to by last names, so we steer away from that and instead honour people by using first names or traditional names.

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