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“We are the land”

Artist for social change and Art Educator Mahlikah Awe:ri Enml'ga't Saqama'sgw chats Indigenous art education and its importance for generations to come.

Mahlikah Awe:ri 2

Mahlikah Awe:ri. Photo by John Brancaccio (One Circle Media).


Since its debut last fall, an integral part of the AGO’s daily, free Virtual School Program has been the regular themed sessions about Indigenous art, led by our talented team of Indigenous art educators. And while summer school holidays are fast approaching, a few more Indigenous Art explorations remain before the Virtual School Program wraps on June 18. To mark these, we caught up with Afro-Indigenous Kanien’kéha & Mi’kmaw artist and experienced AGO educator Mahlikah Awe:ri to chat more about her role, the overwhelming feedback from students and what it means to share knowledge with others about Indigenous Art.

Throughout her time with the AGO Virtual School program, Awe:ri has accumulated a strong fan base among students across Canada and beyond. From introducing Indigenous words and phrases to modifying how she presents a piece of artwork, Awe:ri is driven to make Indigenous art accessible to everyone, wherever they are. 

AGOinsider: What do you like most about being an art educator?

Awe:ri: I see this role as an extension of my medicine bundle, as a creative being and emerging knowledge keeper. Being an art educator gives me an opportunity to engage in knowledge sharing from an Indigenous lens, in spaces and with audiences that were not always accessible to us as Indigenous peoples. And that brings me joy. I also genuinely love learning about other First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists. This role has enabled me to expand my perspective on Indigenous art and the diverse ways in which we see ourselves, our history, herstory, to the colonial project and our contemporary relationships to stewardship and sovereignty on these lands. 

AGOinsider: Why do we start with the land when talking about Indigenous art and artists?

Awe:ri: Honestly, I don’t think we necessarily start the conversation with land specifically. I believe as Indigenous people we are the land. So there’s no separation from land, our identities, our resistance, our resilience, our past, present or future legacies. 

I do my best to centre what our people call Akwé:kon Iakwataenónhkwe', or All My Relations, as an entry point for learners to engage in overstanding the interconnectedness to all things – which many Indigenous artists are conveying in their works. This means unpacking the harmful impact that the settler state continues to have on our lands, our waterways, and all of our animal relatives, and their blatant disregard for the thrivership of our communities, our stewardship and interdependent ways of knowing and being. 

Robert Houle, The Pines

Robert Houle, The Pines, 2002–2004. Oil on canvas. Panel (centre): 91.4 x 121.9 cm; Panel (side, each of two): 91.4 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Susan Whitney, 2017. © Robert Houle. 2017/243.

AGOinsider: It’s now nearing eight months since the Virtual School Program started. What has the response been like to the sessions?

Awe:ri: From what I can tell by the number of participants, and their geographic locations (which span right across what we now know as Canada and the United States, as well as from Spain, India, Australia and the U.K.), it’s been huge! Learners fully engage with me during the tour by responding to questions of inquiry about the artists and the artwork in the chat. And there has been lots of participation during our wellness segments where I might do some stretching, some breathwork, share a hand drum song or other visualizations. We always leave time at the end of the sessions for Q&A, where I’m often asked about who my favourite artists are and what inspires me to be an artist. I also get so much love for my OOTDs (Outfit of the Day) for my sessions! People want to know my makeup, my earrings, my beading, hair, everything!  It’s the whole package. 

I get a lot of people thanking me afterwards and positive feedback about how much learning and engagement folks have been able to experience in 30 minutes. There’s also so much love from Indigenous communities! I love it when they are in because they just bring perspectives that are so important to the work and the way they thank me using their native language is so beautiful. Just having that connection is great, so all my Indigenous relatives that come through have a very special place in my heart. 

I always provide an art activity inspired by at least one of the works I’ve toured in my session. We encourage the teachers and the caregivers to post their learner’s creations on Twitter or Instagram using #AGOSchools. The amount of work has just been phenomenal! Each post shows so much love and gratitude for the learning experience. Getting to know the artist and the artwork, the teachings, the history and the knowledge really shows in what the educators, caregivers and even the students are themselves sharing. 

AGOinsider: If students only take away one idea from your session, what do you hope it is?

Awe:ri: To remember that while Indigenous art is rooted in rich cultural traditions, it’s also contemporary and reflects ongoing conversations between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people about the way forward. Also, students who are future leaders and creatives are the ones who need to ensure the visions that these Indigenous artists have brought into the world for equity and social justice are actually realized in tangible ways in our lifetime. 

AGOinsider: What can people look forward to in your upcoming sessions on June 10 and 17? 

Awe:ri: I really don’t want to give anything away. What I can say is you should register now and you won’t be disappointed! We will be covering a wide range of different art materials. The materiality is going to be very diverse and will show a range of the past, present and future. A lot of different styles will be covered – which I think is very important to challenge the notion of what is art. Indigenous peoples are working and have worked across different mediums. Again there is still a stereotype that we’re either carvers or painters. So it’s really important, for me, to show off all the amazing other stuff that we can do and have been doing! 

Click here for more details and to register for upcoming AGO Virtual School Program activities (including Awe:ri’s sessions on Indigenous art on Thursdays!).

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