Indigenous artists and residential schools

“Artists are at the forefront to articulate…,” University of Manitoba Prof. Sherry Farrell Racette said while discussing Indian Residential Schools and the relationships between healing, understanding and art.

She began her presentation with a chronology of the truth and reconciliation process in Canada, beginning in 1990 with Chief Phil Fontaine disclosing that he experienced sexual abuse in residential school, and culminating in 2008 with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Farrell Racette notes, “This has been within public discourse in Canada for 18 years, but for First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, it has been much longer than that.”

Farrell Racette showed photographs, artwork, exhibitions and a video to showcase the work being done by artists to express the Indian Residential School system in Canada. She noted that the artistic discourse in the United States is different than in Canada, and that the traditional “before and after” photographs of Indian Residential School students originated in the United States. Today, these photographs are being re-contextualized by artists like Dorothy Grandbois’ Crucifixion (1994) and Steven Deo’s Indoctrination (2003).

“Who is making art and who are they speaking on behalf of?” Farrell Racette asked. She warned that many artists have created art related to Indian Residential Schools while lacking direct connection to the schools through either being a survivor or inter-generational survivor. “Who then has a right to tell their stories, if not themselves?”

Farrell Racette finished her presentation with Tanya Harnett’s exhibition The Lebret Residential Petroglyphs. Harnett’s mother attended the Lebret school and the mother and daughter visited the former school together in the summer of 2013. The exhibition is centered around a series of photographs taken during their time there. Farrell Racette says this was an important visual reconciliation between mother and daughter, and we must honor these spaces and stories.

Questions:

What are these artists having to deal with?

Sometimes artists are like therapists, and you can be involved within communities to let them express through their own work. When curating difficult knowledge, you are combining art and healing. However, with curating difficult knowledge, and specifically art surrounding Indian Residential Schools, visual artists have to question their ethics and foreground ethical considerations.

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