Greg Staats, untitled , 2021. Archival pigment print on cotton fibre paper, 132.1 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Greg Staats
Based in Toronto since the mid-1980s, Greg Staats is Skarù:reˀ [Tuscarora] / Kanien’kehá:ka [Mohawk], Hodinöhsö:ni’, born in Ohsweken, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. In his recently mounted exhibition, Greg Staats: in constant return, on view at the AGO until May 2022, he expounds upon his Hodinöhsö:ni restorative aesthetic with two new constellations of photographs, untitled  and darkling ease (both 2021), along with a video feedback installation dark string (2010). “I exist within the process of transforming belonging,” explains Staats about the exhibition works, “by way of selecting more complex images that challenge essential thinking. The images are of deep personal connections to family, land, and systemic deficits that continue to exist.” Imbued with richly layered concepts, Staats’s modes of expression are varied across visual forms—from photographs to installation, video, sculpture and more—asking viewers to pause in meditative reflection.
As part of aabaakwad 2021, Staats will be joined in conversation with Rick Hill, artist and curator, to further explore in constant return on Saturday, December 4, the in-person event will also be livestreamed from the AGO. With this upcoming conversation in mind, we asked Staats a few questions to delve into the nuanced meanings within his lens-based works.
AGOinsider: Can you share some of the details behind your creative process for each series included in the exhibition as well as the video feedback installation? What is it about image gathering through lens-based visual language (photography and video) that engages you to explore the themes of the exhibition?
Staats: in constant return is a direct reference to my process of gathering photographic and archival images as evidence that reflects my journey to belong coupled with a visual aesthetic that has reflected a life within the shadows of experience. I tend to present constellations of images and single video works that reinforce the act of layered placemaking, this continued intuitive approach reveals more of a reflective process paralleling the memorializing of personal evidence and a recovery of knowledge pertaining to Onkwehón:we neha [our original ways] identity.
AGOinsider: How do the photographs and video feedback installation exist in correspondence with each other?
Staats: They hold an embrace of energies and an overall cumulative feeling of heaviness yet a visual beauty that sustains a prolonged gaze that I share to the viewer. They also correspond to a personal visual language that encompasses the wordless representing my inner world and my memories of an on reserve lived experience.
AGOinsider: How do you embody the role of both observer and participant in your practice, especially given the deeply personal familial and ancestral connections?
Staats: I approach my work through a process of relationships as a principle of organization which allows me to balance a mediated role of photographic connectivity and the mental health aspect of discovering new evidence of survival. My positionality has shifted to that of witness and interpreter locating myself as an active participant in this previously misinterpreted history reminding the viewer that every act of perception is an act of translation.
AGOinsider: You describe belonging as a transformational process, rather than a fixed state of being. The title of this exhibition seems to allude to this too, in terms of retrieving what has been lost through intergenerational trauma. Tell us how this informs your work and process.
Staats: Hodinöhsö:ni’ Knowledge has not been lost, it is simply on the ground waiting for us to pick it up, similarly there are people on the reserve awaiting your return. Being in constant return also reflects the state of being in constant inquiry of what it means to be Hodinöhsö:ni’. Returning to the sources of traditional of knowledge, be it my work with Alfred Keye - knowledge guardian, oral translations of ceremonial condolence texts and worldview, archival records as evidence of a continuum of systemic deficits, on reserve political events that marred community relations and its subsequent recovery, all play a large part of my process and this awareness keep things grounded so that the works produced and offered to the viewer can at once speak to a humanist methodology and my own restorative aesthetic based on the condolence ceremony.
AGOinsider: This exhibition comes nearly seven years since you were selected as an Artist in Residence at the AGO. How do you feel your work, and all that entails, has shifted in the years since then, especially in relation to this current exhibition? What remains most relevant to your current practice?
Staats: While my positionality has shifted to one of the mnemonics of survival, recently my sources of evidence have guided and expanded my visual possibilities while reconnecting the broken transmission of knowledge. I am now in a place where diverse ways of expression, such as sculpture and video provide a constant return to the spirit of sharing.
The AGO x RBC Artist-in-Residence Program is accepting proposals for 2022 until Tuesday, November 30. Read here for further details and proposal guidelines.