It’s perhaps too easy to start off by calling the multidisciplinary artist Ursula Johnson a star, but the term fits. Not only because she was the first-ever Atlantic Canadian artist to win the Sobey Award (the biggest national prize for visual arts) or the first to translate contemporary art discourse into Mi’kmaq, as she did for the booklet of her groundbreaking 2019 Saint Mary's University art show Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember), but also because her works are a constellation of permuting ideas and big-as-the-night-sky themes.
This has always been the case, since she burst onto public consciousness in 2010 with her piece Elmiet, a symbolic scalping she performed at that year’s Nocturne festival, and has stayed the course with shows calling attention to the unseen labour of landmark maintenance (2017’s Toqolu’kwetijik) and preserving traditional Mi’kmaq methods of Ash splint basket weaving (her 2012 MSVU artist residency).
That luminance still shines bright now, with her latest show, ITHA: The Livingroom. Johnson’s first solo exhibition in Nova Scotia since 2014, ITHA is being shown at The Blue Building, the gallery located at 2482 Maynard Street. Here, we’re catching up with the artist from her home studio in Nova Scotia’s south shore to talk about how the exhibition came together. Want to watch and/or listen to this chat instead? Tune into the talk on our Youtube or Instagram page.
The Coast: ITHA—which stands for Indian Truckhouse of High Art—has been a work you’ve evolved over time, from a makeshift vendor booth where, in an act of public intervention performance in 2011, you sold tourist knick-knacks while speaking mostly Mi’kmaq. The knick-knacks were purchased, replications of appropriated Indigenous cultural iconography—like mass-produced dream catchers. Then, in 2017, you created a series of video artworks called ITHA Home Shopping Network, bringing the study of purchased cultural appropriation to armchair shoppers. How does the newest show build on these past works? How does it differ?
Ursula Johnson: Yeah that's a great question. So it's been interesting to watch the trajectory of this work—and I say “watch” because while I'm in it and the one creating it, it's kind of become a creature on its own: It just evolved as time progressed.
That first intervention performance, I created this character from the 1800s that was kind of the peddler, that was peddling their products. It was during Treaty Days, so it was actually an intervention on the relations of Mi’kmaq and the crown. And so this work is all about treaty relations and the crown, but also asking about: “Well what are other treaty relations between the rest of the country or even other international countries within those member states?”
And so, as this project has evolved, it's kind of like, OK, so there's the booth, the vendor booth, and if that's situated in the 1800s, what if we move like, way beyond? And then think about something where we also consume, and go to a place because, you know the Halifax market in the 1800s was the place you went and you took all your things that you needed. So then, being a child of the ‘80s, I was like well we have to use the shopping network.
Then, when we had an exhibition in Ottawa with Central Art Garage, the shopping channel was featured there, but then we made a fully immersive installation called The Retail Store. On my way home from The Retail Store opening, back to Nova Scotia, I was like: Hmm, I wonder who would shop from The Retail Store, or from the television network. That’s what lead to The Livingroom project.
The work is very immersive, and one thing that, as a settler, immediately struck me about the space was how curated it was to feel warm and inviting. I could’ve stayed for hours! But, the thing that really set lightbulbs off in my head was how this space—which is curated so minutely down to the finest detail—would maybe not feel comfortable to an Indigenous person, because of all the appropriated items sprinkled throughout it. How do you hope or suspect different people will feel inside the space?
I think it's really different, you know, thinking about the people. So all of us, especially us Maritimers, we walk in and we're like, Wait a second. I know this living room. I've been in this living room. I've grown up in this living room.
I really wanted to create that sense of coziness and comfort.
But, also, thinking generationally, it is very different. Like people that are children of the ‘80s, that's the sort of home they grew up in. The children of the ‘90s? Maybe it was the Grandpa's room. And then we have like these young ones now where they're like, “Whoa, this is wrong.”
So it's a whole different circumstance, not just because of the environment it’s created in, but the social setting, and the access to information and media. So that people from the ‘80s and ‘90s will go in there and feel totally comfortable and at home and just want to hang out and wait for Judy and Al to return home so they can have a cup of tea.
But then, those who maybe did not grow up in that environment and weren't subject to the Home Shopping Network? They come in, and then right away it’s like signal, signal, signal, signal. Anybody who's under the age of 25 will go in there and they'll be like This is a very traumatizing space, as they see the icons that they're studying in school, of how all of this is not right, and how it’s culture that has been appropriated, how treaty relations are not right or in the place.
And there's a very big sense of responsibility, not just for Indigenous but non-Indigenous people when they walk into that space—especially that age demographic. But they also did not experience the same things that we did, [those of us] that are in their 40s and 50s and 60s, where we're like: Oh yeah, well that's nothing. You should have seen what it was like 50 years ago. So it's kind of looking at that social circumstance.
I created that space so that Indigenous people do feel like home. And so that non-Indigenous people also come in and be like: This is super comfy. I feel like it's like my family's home. And then the time you spend in there and you kind of look around and then you start seeing like the key signifiers and different things and then it aids in that conversation.
But I would actually encourage your viewers to lead them to other places as well if they wanted to learn more about the context of the show. On my Facebook page, there's a link from the artist talk we did a couple of weeks ago. And then on my bio on Instagram if you click on it, there's a PDF that has a bunch of links that will take you to information if you want to learn about the residential schools, Mi’kmaq treaty rights—all of that information is available on that link in my bio. But I think it’s important also to find, you know, a place of comfort in discomfort. And that's something I've been really looking at. I always hope that people question that intuition that comes to them where it's like, this doesn’t kind of feel right.
In the installation now showing at The Blue Building, a lot of the works on ITHA Home Shopping Network are priced at numbers that are significant dates in history—items selling for $17.52 because of the 1752 treaty, for instance. How did you choose these dates, and how do they relate to the casual appropriation of the items “for sale?”
Yeah, all of the dates in the original performance, in the peddler booth, were all treaty prices: Treaty dates that were changed into prices. A lot of people who aren't Mi’kmaq and may not be well aware of treaty relations, they often just hear 1752, 1752. But there's treaties dating from the 1720s into the 1790s. So all of those prices are treaty dates.
In a 2017 article with The Coast–when you were being interviewed for your big Sobey win–you said: “I like to create situations that make people a little bit uncomfortable—my artistic practice is known for that. I'm not trying to make people feel uncomfortable because I want to make them bad or I want to make them feel guilty. I want to make them feel bad so that there's a bit of an emotional response. Where it's like 'Oh, this is intense.' Well, why is this intense?" Does that intent still hold true for ITHA: The Livingroom? What is your hope people will leave the exhibit thinking, feeling and discussing?
Yeah, I think it definitely does hold true, kind of for everything. That's kind of one of my almost like a recipe, I guess, on how it just works: Like, OK, how do I create this space where people are kind of pulled in, but then also in that process of being pulled in, they feel that kind of spidey sense of like, I don’t know if this is what I should be doing or kind of questioning what's happening in that space. Because I feel like it gives people the time to start thinking about their own values, their ethics, their relations.
I don't want to design something where I'm putting all my values, all my ethics and all my relationships in there—of course it's always going to be in there because it's my work that I'm designing. But making it so that it's open so that people can enter into that space, and then they're like: oh OK this is what's going on here, but then this is what I'm feeling. And I’m thinking of this, and I'm remembering when this happened. And then trying to almost make it open for a sense of relationality: Because—especially in the performance works that I create—it's all about that space in between us.
But then, something like the ITHA: The Livingroom, where my body is not physically in that space, I encourage that type of relationality between the viewers that come in, their bodies and that space as well.
But also one thing that I'd really like to mention is that ITHA: The Livingroom is the first time that I've created a structure that's fully accessible. I've been looking at physical accessibility for a while within different works that I create, and it started with a show that they did at St. Mary's University years ago, where I imagined wheeling my great grandmother through that space so that she could take in the show. From that point on, I was like: OK, you need to think about the space and how people move through there. But then also, what about accessibility for people with neurodiversity? Or accessibility for people who have hearing impairment or visual impairment?
So learning more about accessibility practices within art production, It's something that I've been very excited about and I feel like it's something that we should all be doing, as makers and cultural practitioners, to make sure that it becomes more inclusive for everyone.
The text greeting visitors at The Blue Building explains the show and its context, ending by saying “Johnson invites viewers to reflect on our notions of home, the conversations we have and the gifts we exchange.” Why were those themes significant to you?
I could say one sentence, just to kind of explain it all but we'll just keep chatting. If I was to just use the one sentence, it would be: Because we are all treaty people.
Especially here in Mi’kma’ki, where that sentence was coined and looking at the treaty relations: People often think treaty relations has to do with Indigenous people and the government, but that's not what treaty relations is. Treaty relations are the people who arrive, and the people who are here. And so that includes everybody: It wasn't just the government that arrived. And so, those relationships between settler and Indigenous people is what treaty relations is. And so by people looking at: What is my responsibility as a treaty person? As a Mi’kmaw person versus somebody who is of settler ancestry, then it's like: Well, what are your responsibilities as a treaty person? Because we are all treaty people.
So in looking at those responsibilities, one is learning our history. The history about the treaties, the history about Mi’kmaq culture, is not just my history but your history as well. I think that's something that a lot of people forget, and a lot of people don't really understand because then they're like, oh well that's not for me because I'm not Mi’kmaw, but know that it's the relationship that is a history that is under-represented. It's not shown within our history books that we learn, in public schools and private schools.
And so, the onus is on us to go out there and to find that information to share with our peers, to put within our own network, and to put pressure onto things like government, that are creating different curriculum, that are having policies and all different things that are kind of coming together. And so, with looking at the idea of the responsibility within treaty relations, The Livingroom is the prime place for people to come in and to situate themselves in these people's home, and to look around, to have that relationship of: Oh my goodness, this looks like my aunt's home or my grandmother's home. But then start to think: Well, what are the conversations that you’re having in your home?
And I’ve said it a bunch of times but I'll say it one more time, that if you go to my Facebook page and find the Artist’s Talk, I go into great detail about the conversations that did take place in the home that I grew up in. In my family's homes, we talked about fishing rights. We talked about hunting rights. We talked about land title. We talked about all that stuff because that's our history, but I know from settler friends that we've had those conversations, and they’re like “we've never talked about this.”
So The Livingroom encourages people that you can see in that context and think about what are the conversations we're having? To have that same relationship with the conversations that are taking place in Indigenous community and family living rooms, those same conversations need to take place in settler community and family living rooms. And then, that is when we take our responsibility as all treaty people.
This article has been updated to reflect Johnson's 2019 show was shown at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery and not the MSVU art gallery as was previously written. The Coast regrets the error.