Call and response | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Call and response

Mi'kqmaq artist Ursula Johnson responds to 19th century explorer William Hind's artwork

Defiant mapmaker Mi’kmaq artist Ursula Johnson responds to white explorer art.

In the summer of 1861, British-Canadian painter William Hind accompanied his explorer-brother Henry on an expedition, led by Innu guides, to the Labrador peninsula and produced a large body of work. More than 150 sketches, watercolours and paintings make up a current exhibition at Dalhousie Art Gallery, part of a citywide series of exhibitions, Creative Diversity: Artistic Perspectives on Immigration to Canada, planned to coincide with the Metropolis 2008 conference.

Director/curator Peter Dykhuis describes the Hind show, Defiant Beauty, “as a cautionary tale about the recognition that all colonizers were ‘immigrants’ to a country that was inhabited by First Nations cultures for up to 10,000 years before contact with Europeans.” 

Dykhuis asked Halifax artist Ursula Johnson to create a response to the Hind exhibit. “I worked with Ursula before at NSCAD and knew that she was young, smart and 
cheeky---with a good sense of humour and political play,” he says. 

Johnson, 28, a Mi’kmaq artist originally from Eskasoni, Cape Breton, came to Halifax in 2001 to take a job at the Micmac Native Friendship Centre, a native community and resource centre on Gottingen, and to attend NSCAD, where she graduated in 2006.

Her work, The Urban Aboriginal Guide to Halifax, takes the form of a large wall map and a guidebook. Both show the way to aboriginal newcomers to the city, covering where to find food, shelter, culture and history in Halifax. The project draws from her experiences and work with aboriginal youth, says Johnson, who became director of the Friendship Centre’s youth branch in 2006. 

“I’m somebody who’s a migrant as well,” she says. “I moved from the reserve to the urban centre I had problems financially, finding where to buy good, healthy foods I was used to back home.” 

Though the guidebook doesn’t lack a sense of irony, the artist hopes aboriginal migrants will use it in earnest. “I wanted it to be more than just an art piece: it’s something that can be really useful to somebody, especially aboriginal youth. I don’t want people to have the mentality of giving up.” 

Johnson’s inversion energizes the work, explains Dykhuis. “Ursula very cleverly turns the tables. She’s the immigrant to a new land, the colonizer of an existing culture, but not for economic purposes.” 

Johnson’s project is especially timely, given that recently published 2006 census figures show that there are now more aboriginals living in cities in Canada than on reserves---a point native outreach workers, Johnson says, have been making for years.

The Urban Aboriginal Guide to Halifax parallels similar material Johnson created in her day job, specifically a guide for at-risk native youth. There’s likely few more versed in the design and delivery of the programs and services for aboriginals in the city, via the Friendship Centre, than Johnson. She sees more to it than that: “There’s a sense of community in these places,” she says. 

On moving to Halifax, Johnson lived with a cousin, who helped introduce her to the city and had many people offering to act as guides for her. “I was amazed at how people would jet around the city and I trusted them because they knew their way around.”

Negotiating streets is important for orienting to a new place, but Johnson emphasizes the importance of handling the variation in native identity from the reserve to the city, a concern she previously addressed in a student project. She exhibited photographs of native youth in the city and on the reserve and found viewers thought the urban photographs were of the rural teenagers, and vice versa. “The kids were all dressed like this in the reserve photographs,” she says, gesturing to the skull-print hoodie she picked up on a trip to St. John’s last week with teenagers from the centre. 

“They looked more urbanized and it was the urban youth who were engaged in more traditional, ‘culturally appropriate’ activities. There’s a need to go back and rediscover those roots while living in the on the reserve, I never participated in those activities.”

“You know, here people get really excited about having rabbit for dinner, and there it’s just ‘oh, rabbit again, we had that last Tuesday.’”

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