Tania Willard

Tania Willard, Gut Instincts, 2018, Digital mural.

Courtesy of the Artist.

Tania Willard, Gut Instincts, 2018,(installation view at Kelowna Art Gallery), Digital mural on adhesive textile, laser cut silk and satin ribbon, copper welding rods, wood stumps.
Courtesy of the Artist.

For Tania Willard, cultural objects encountered in the archive are expressions of Indigenous futurity, carrying stories and ways of knowing across generations. Gut Instincts (2018) is based on an archival image of a cedar-root basket collected from Stl’atl’imx territories during the Jesup North PacificExpedition of 1897–1902. [1] The work highlights the enigmatic “entrails design” adorning the basket that, for Willard, indicates the visceral nature of harvesting game from the land, including the ways in which complex ecological networks sustain one another. Willard describes the basket as a “universe of knowledge” that is related to hunting, seasonality, and land base and that articulates the deep reciprocity of the Secwépemc people with their territories and the other-than-human worlds that share them.

 

The title of the work affirms the importance of embodied intuition and challenges the supposed superiority of rational thought. In her archival research, Willard employs an intuitive approach motivated by aesthetic and affective ways of relating to belongings rather than the categorizing approach of anthropology. She considers the gendered associations of

intuition, historically coded as feminine and set in opposition to masculine rationality, alongside the erasure of female maker names in anthropological archives—an absence that corresponds to the colonial dispossession of Indigenous women.

 

Gut Instincts combines the bright neon colours used in land surveys with the texture of the woven basket to create an optical effect of shimmer. In this way, Willard draws attention to the basket while subtly probing the differences between Secwépemc relationships to land base and the ideology associated with resource surveys. Using a digital collage technique, motifs are layered in such a way that foreground and background are interwoven, implying a sense of temporality in which past, present, and future collapse into one another. When installed as a mural, the architectural scale of the work allows the image of the cedar-root basket to envelop the viewer. Willard’s futuristic aesthetic prompts a consideration of the basket vessel as a spaceship, capable of holding us within it while travelling into the future and bringing with it the precious knowledge of the land that is woven into its very structure.

Tania Willard speaking in Secwepemctsín: Weyt'k, re skwest Tania Willard, st̓ek ke te Legwiké ne Secwepemcúl̓ecw.

I just wanted to introduce myself in my language. My name is Tanya Willard, I'm an artist in the exhibition and glad to greet you here from my studio in Chase BC, which is in the territory of my people, the Secwépemc people, and I'm of Secwépemc and settler ancestry. I grew up in the interior here, within my traditional territory bordering on the Syilx Nations territory, but somewhat displaced from my home community due to a number of factors. But my father lived here on Neskonlith Reserve his whole life and returning to build a family home after I had children meant a real shift in my artistic practice. Being embedded within my home territories was very different than being an uninvited guest in other Indigenous territories and so, my work, I think, changed. I also live quite rurally now so these ideas of land base and rural ways of working seasonally with materials from the land—but framed within a contemporary art practice—has been a lot of my focus. And that naturally extends to Indigenous land rights as well, because in British Columbia many Indigenous territories are unceded and so British Columbia, in many ways, has been imposed upon Indigenous territory, and we don't recognize that authority. So, Indigenous land rights and Secwépemc land rights have become an important way that I think of my art practice. So when I do artwork on my land, I think of it as a land claim.

The work in the Canada House exhibition is called Gut Instincts and it references photographs of what is called ‘material culture’ from an anthropologist’s language but what we call ancestor artwork. It's an image of a cedar root basket—a really beautiful cedar root basket—in a rectilinear form. And imbricated on that basket is a design, which was recorded by an anthropologist as referencing an “entrails design” it was called. I was quite intrigued by this design, having lived more rurally and my dad is a hunter, taught by his grandfather (my great-grandfather). And the importance of the reciprocity of that relationship when you harvest an animal: that even the entrails—the viscera— those are taken in and recycled by the crawlers, by those that scavenge a carcass. And then we take that meat and survive as our families for the winter. So, I was interested in the archive, interested in this provocation of this entrails design, and the idea of intuition: the idea of intuiting your way around an archive, which is sort of like the exact opposite of a historical approach! But it is the approach that I have used in several instances of both curating and researching archives, particularly of Indigenous materials. I'm sensitive to the way that, as my friend says, I talk about it as intuition, but he says, “it's your ancestors talking to you.” So, I also acknowledge that there's a process involved there that is, it's not clear cut and it is kind of an intuitive way of approaching the material. So, this idea of entrails, of viscera, of guts as gut instincts, was a parallel that I was drawing. So I worked with an image of one of the baskets—this one in particular that Livingston Farrand talks about as an entrails design—and I replicated that in the artwork in the exhibition, and also used a lot of hot and pop kind of colors to reference the ways in which Indigenous material culture—ancestor artwork—has found itself largely in museum collections and largely attributed as an ethnographic or anthropological reference, whereas I'm trying to see it with an aesthetic reference: “what is the visual language here?” And to me, our land claims are inherently part of this idea of harvest from the land, and our intuition is a kind of a connection to the lands and ancestors. All of that is sort of read in and contained by this cedar root basket, which makes up these kind of columns in the artwork.

I've similarly thought about this cedar root basket and wanting to make it larger than life. My instinct about it is it contains so much, not just food, or fish oil, or cultural resources, but knowledge, knowledge of the land: when to harvest, how to prepare the material, how to imbricate it together, how to prepare the material to design, some of the design elements on the exterior. Then all the iterative knowledge following that of harvest to fill it with the material that makes your home, makes your relationship to land, is your health and wellness: sustains you. I think that really this basket recorded by Livingston Farrand in this anthropological text and its photograph from the museum is a universe, it's a universe of knowledge that is implied in this object, in this basket, and a universe of aesthetic possibility within that, in many ways.

I consider this all in my artwork because I'm concerned with and think about land base. And I can't think through land without this concept of Kweselktnéws, which many Indigenous peoples talk about as “all our relations.” It literally is a connected, familial, governance-based system that recognizes the inherent value and beingness of other kinds of creatures other than humans. So, if you start to think through projects like the proposed TMX pipeline—that Canada bought that runs through a majority of our Secwépemc territories—if you think through a lens that sees us as interconnected, that values and holds up the resource of wild salmon—an incredible legacy, an incredible species that has huge ways in which it affects so many of us—the proposals to drill under rivers, the potential of a spill: that makes no sense. That is against all the kinds of ways in which we try to promote abundance. You know, humans, we want to benefit from abundance on the land, but it's an abundance with the land that allows other species access and other species opportunities and other species sustaining themselves. It's only with that lens that we can start to correct the emergencies and the critical situations we find ourselves in.

Indigenous Futurism is a really important response to Indigenous extinction as expressed in Canadian policies. The Indian Act system is based on extinguishing your claim to Indigeneity. The Indian Reserve system is based on extinguishing any further land claims. And futurity is a refusal of those things, that we refuse to see ourselves as the vanishing culture that was introduced into the popular imagination. We're not vanishing: our birth rates in Canada are the highest growing population demographic. And I think artists have a role for envisioning the future. So, I think Indigenous Futurism is not a trend: Indigenous Futurism is part of a continuum of what our ancestors expressed. My great-great-grandparents wanted me to be here today, right? On my dad's side of the family, my great-grandparents Isaac and Adeline Willard, and Adleline’s sister Aimee August, they worked really hard to preserve our Secwépemc language. And they did that not for themselves, not for the anthropologists (though at times they paid them, which was important when you're living in extreme poverty in Canada), they did that for their great-great-grandchildren. That Indigenous Futurism has been with us the whole time and is a resistance to the ways in which settler colonial policies have attempted to erase us, and attempted to extinguish us, and attempted to end us. They didn't, they failed, and our spirit lives strong and is strong into the future.

The cedar basket, though it's a “traditional” form, that form of course was innovative, and is innovative to each user currently making them. For example, there's a Secwépemc artist Dolores Purdaby, who continues to make beautiful cedar root baskets and I have had a chance to learn from her for birch bark baskets, and a little bit in cedar root baskets. And I want to assert that it's also a kind of futurity to think about this material from the land. I don't want to imagine a dystopian future! I don't want to give more time and energy and intention to that vision. My vision is that we have natural resources still, that we can have beautiful integrations of material from the land and material from contemporary society. Currently the late Arthur Manuel wrote extensively about poverty of Indigenous peoples in Canada and how that can be linked to the ways in which we have control of 0.2% of the land, set aside as Indian Reserves, in Canada. And so, the futurity of Gut Instincts is to continue to be in place, to be part of my lands, and to teach my children that. And to know that those artworks—those knowledges of our ancestors expressed in something like the cedar root basket—are part of the future as well. And they are weaving it: that basket is weaving the past, the present and the future to a shimmering, glittering, futurity that I can't see today, but that maybe my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren can see, and so I want to make it colorful for them!