Nocturne spotlight: Ursula Johnson: Elmiet

Watch for the masked Mi’kmaq artist parading downtown, in preparation for a symbolically violent ceremony.

The headpiece rests on a bust in the window, a superhero's costume without a secret compartment in the hideout. Facing the street, it's perhaps being hidden in plain sight. Passersby don't recognize the mask, which will be worn by Ursula Johnson during Nocturne, as part of the Prismatic festival. It'll cover her head and eyes, while trailing down and off her back, like a cape.

Inside the front room, Johnson gestures to "the monster." Caped crusaders commonly struggle with their transformations, the beastly burdens of responsibility that come with the outfits.

The space is Johnson's studio and her sanctuary. Other beasts of the house saunter and sleep in here. There's April, a lean, rambunctious and affectionate (mostly) German Shepherd who eventually releases a saliva-slickened toy in the visitor's hand. Two Bits, a four-legged cat, sleeps beneath the bust. Allister, who walks on three legs, is somewhere else right now.

A friend, Chelsea Legge, sits at a table weaving parts of the headdress to be applied. The entire piece is made of strands and bands of maple, black and white ash, sweetgrass and cane reeds.

Strips and ribbons lay coiled and plunged in dye buckets, presaging the symbolic violence to take place soon.

Ursula Johnson will be scalped on the stairs of Grand Parade around 9pm during Nocturne, following a traditional Mi'kmaq song performed by Nathan Sack. The artist's performance, Elmiet, a Mi'kmaq verb meaning "to go home," culminates in this ceremonial removal of her headgear, which represents the artist's hair.

"In First Nations culture, the longer your hair is, the more you're considered to have a spiritual connection to everything around you," says Johnson. "It comes from Cree teachings." She's been growing it for the past couple years.

"The selected participant, whoever that may be, would be asked to step up to the podium and participate in a scalping ceremony," Johnson explains. "They're going to be told how it needs to be done, what it symbolizes, how significant it is [as a] last moment of history: it'll be the last Mi'kmaq scalp taken. And then we'll try to make change to have it removed from the books."

Scalping was used by all sides (French, English and Mi'kmaq) immediately preceding and following Halifax's founding in 1749. Agreements to stop were made and broken. These were bounties by British governors Edward Cornwallis and, finally, in 1756, by Charles Lawrence put on "not just warrior scalps, but men, women and children---everyone," points out Johnson.

That order still stands on the books. It's dormant, but still present.

"It's no longer in effect because in 2000 the government of Nova Scotia apologized for it and said it was no longer in effect," continues Johnson. "But it's still on the books and it's going to stay on the books until the federal government says we're going to take it off. And that hasn't happened."

Despite its dormancy, the words harm, Johnson says. "A lot of First Nations people are really affected by it, upset by it. It's not like we're running around holding our heads. But, you know, it's a step towards progress."

To arrive at the steps at the Grand Parade for the ceremony at 9pm, Johnson will have left that same square five hours earlier, at 4pm, to walk the city. The 30-year-old artist---the first from Eskasoni First Nation to have graduated from NSCAD---will make this journey while wearing runners, jeans, a black long-sleeved shirt and her headdress. The headgear will cover her head and eyes. Johnson's vision will be compromised from the start. When night falls, she won't see a thing, but will be accompanied, guided and protected by a league of agile accompanists.

"I have a group of parkourists who are joining me," says Johnson. "They're all wearing headlamps. They're parkouring around and beside me, making sure that traffic is stopped when I need to go through an intersection."

The members of Halifax Parkour play a practical role, and a symbolic one, says the artist. They embody and express "the idea of energy flowing around you, being aware of your surroundings," the subconscious and conscious minds. These figures extend from and connect to the costume itself. Though she dismisses the idea of "pan-Indian" culture in Canada, Johnson says many Mi'kmaq spiritual, political, economic and cultural practices were disrupted and disappeared during contact (with the English mainly and the French) and the colonization that has continued.

"The Mi'kmaq people have adopted values, religious practices, economic ways from other First Nations people across Canada," says Johnson. "They say, 'Well, that's probably how we used to live.' They're pretty much the door next door."

Family, language and basket-making course through Johnson's life.

"I'm the grandchild of a residential school survivor," she reveals.

Her grandmother and great aunts were sent to the Shubenacadie school. After a short time, they returned home.

"They didn't lose their language. When they came home everyone was still speaking native and they understood so they just jumped right back in," says Johnson. She points out her first language is Mi'kmaq. "I'm fluent in English," she says, smiling slyly.

For Elmiet, Johnson reuses a basket to fit on her head. The mind's eye motif is taken from another piece. From shelves of woven pieces, she pulls down a fluted form and a cross between a fishing creel and fashionable handbag. She shows a basket of brain-bending folds and contrasting tones that her great-grandmother, Caroline Gould, made. (At 91, she's still working.) Johnson recognizes her weaves and other techniques, such as tying off.

Meanwhile, Chelsea Legge continues to weave. She welcomes the "repetitive" nature of the work. "I put my headphones on and just go," she says. Legge studies ceramics at NSCAD and graduates in December. "I'm starting to incorporate beading patterns in the glazing, trying to combine the two," she says.

As for the fine, intricate work at hand, Legge was taught by members of Johnson's family.

"Yeah, she learned if you do something wrong," says Johnson, "you take it apart and start all over again."

Grand Parade, 9pm, Zones 1, 3, 4

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