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Re-Indigenizing art

We caught up with veteran arts educator and spoken word artist Mahlikah Awe:ri, who co-facilitated the most recent diversity and inclusion employee training session at the AGO.


Mahlikah Awe:ri

Mahlikah Awe:ri. Image by Setti Kidane

NAC10 is a Toronto District School Board Grade 9 course offered in partnership with the Urban Indigenous Education Centre and the AGO. In its seventh year of operation, this impactful program uses art from the AGO Collection to frame an expression of First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) culture for students.   

As part of the new AGO strategy for creating more diverse and inclusive spaces, we recently welcomed two veteran NAC10 arts educators to guest-facilitate our most recent employee diversity and inclusion training session. Both educators provided valuable insight by guiding AGO employees through some exercises and lesson plans from their curriculums. 

After the session, AGOinsider connected with Afro-Indigenous arts educator and spoken word artist Mahlikah Awe:ri, who has worked with the AGO’s NAC10 program for seven years, to find out more about the process of “re-indigenizing”.  

AGOinsider: During your session with AGO employees, you spoke about the importance of “re-Indigenizing” spaces and systems. How would you define this term/process?  

Awe:ri: When I speak of re-Indigenizing, it is the counter-narrative to decolonization. We cannot decolonize what is inherently colonial. Re-Indigenizing as a practice is one that de-centres whiteness and the oppressor while calling for interventions through the reclamation of Onkwehonwehnéha (the Indigenous ways of knowing and being) for us and by us. These interventions facilitate the re-imagining of Indigenous futures in present day, and extend our acts of liberation and sovereignty to our descendants, while disrupting colonial notions of power, knowledge and progress. Re-Indigenizing asks us to actually ensure we are doing our own internal work around anti-racism, privilege and intersectional positionality, and overstanding our own ancestral ties to colonization. Re-Indigenizing requires both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to speak to truth and ask themselves:

1. Whose voices, thoughts and identities are not reflected in this space and why? And what role has complacency and systemic racism played in this invisibilized erasure? 

2. Whose ancestral homelands and territories are we situated in? And what narratives were here and are still here?

3. How can we collectively move from defining "Indigenous" as a singular, homogenous cultural or racial group? Can we begin to acknowledge that pan-Indigeneity and the FNMI umbrella contribute to a narrowed representation of the vast diverseness of what it means to identify as Indigenous, often resulting in the exclusion of nations, cultures, peoples who do not fall into the white-gaze of "Indigenous" aesthetic, or proximity to whiteness.

AGOinsider: Though in recent years more FNMI content/teachings have been added to Canadian curriculums, there are still significant improvements to be made. Can you outline some ways you feel the education system could do better in this capacity?

Awe:ri: I will begin my response with a question: "How can we begin making any significant improvements if the TRC Calls to Action have still failed to be fully implemented?" Honestly, I would love to see more funding investments for resources, training and employment opportunities for FNMI communities and individuals who want to build and create blending land-based and language learning, both in rural and urban settings outside of our educational institutions, first and foremost; while abolishing housing, water, food, health, technology and schooling inequities.  In terms of the current school system, representation matters. FNMI communities should be involved in all levels of curriculum development, as well as being hired as classroom teachers, holding positions on school boards and within the Ministry of Education. FNMI content should be integrated throughout a student's learning journey from K-12. And all FNMI courses at the secondary school level should be mandatory credits. Every school, and every school board across Canada, is situated on a homeland and territory of original peoples, communities and nations, so there is absolutely no excuse for not doing better. Our future generations need us to do better.

AGOinsider: The NAC10 program is founded on four “domains”. Could you pick one and share how it may be valuable for an art museum like the AGO, to consider while in the process of building a diversity and inclusion strategy?   

Awe:ri: When we consider materiality, processes and narratives, it is an opportunity for an art museum to select works by artists who challenge the aesthetics of "Indigenous artmaking", from the materials utilized in the creation, the process of creating, installing, placement; and the complexities of the stories embedded within the work, which speak to the past and present impacts of colonization.  These artists acknowledge the power of reclaiming our cultural identities by selecting to work with materials from the land, and motifs, patterns, symbols from our ancestral roots; while honoring the process of being a living people, who are still here, innovating modern fibres, technologies and presentation techniques. When art museums give space to artists who engage in the expressions of hybridity, conversations around cultural erasure and resilience, green colonialism, consumerism and stewardship, and Indigenous futurism and reconciliation, then unlearning and relearning is possible.

AGOinsider: How has your work as a poet/MC with Red Slam Collective contributed to your success as an arts educator?

Awe:ri: I actually don't see one or the other as a contributor to my success. I am Enml'ga't Saqama'sgw (The One Who Stands and Walks in the Light), which means it is my path and purpose, along with the gifts I carry in my bundle on this life journey, which contribute to the femifestation of this heart work. I have always been an artist and I have always shared what I know.  I have lived a life where ancestors, family, kin, community and mentors have encouraged me to bring my whole self into everything I choose to do. Red Slam has always been and remains a transformative container where I am able to speak my truth and create in safe and liberating ways, and I share that medicine in my arts education practice. I am not an arts educator. I am one who facilitates the transference of knowledge seeds through creativity, initiating authentic and mindful engagements of shared growth, overstanding, and transformative change on Indigenous lands.

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