Authorization for the fire: between possession and embodiment

Helena Martin Franco reflects on a Primary Colours residency
By Helena Martin Franco
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Image credit: ZS.
Banff Centre for the Arts
Primary Colours Residency #1
April 15-28, 2018
In the spring of 2018, I had the opportunity to take part in a unique residency at the Banff Centre1The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is an internationally renowned Canadian cultural institution founded in the 1930s. The Banff Centre supports creation through its various disciplines, innovation in the arts, interdisciplinary and intercultural encounters. https://www.banffcentre.ca, thanks to an invitation from Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires2PCCP https://www.primary-colours.ca (PCCP). Over two weeks, I was able to expand my perspective on the Canadian art scene, with all its current tensions and challenges. PCCP is an initiative that aims to bring together Indigenous and POC artists and other cultural workers3In Canada, the term “Indigenous peoples” refers to the first inhabitants of the territory now known as Canada, that is, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/fr/article/peuples-autochtones Visited on June 19, 2019. within projects that reposition Indigenous art-making at the centre of Canadian art.

Montréal-Baltimore, March 2019

During the train ride to Maryland, where I was to participate in a new artist’s residency program, memories began to resurface and take on narrative form. In this residency, I would be reunited with the Elephant Woman4The Elephant-Woman: http://fe.helenamartinfranco.com/; that mythical beast born out of bitter cross-cultural trysts. I couldn’t help but reminisce about Banff, and the paths that led me to meet the other artists participating in Primary Colours. This voyage was for me an interlude marked by the rhythm of the train and the breathtaking North-American scenery, indeed, the perfect moment to put into words the cross-cultural encounters I had experienced in Banff. Writing this text wasn’t easy; many events have transpired since, events that have sometimes changed my perspective and convictions.

Prior to the residency, I didn’t know much about Banff, the town, the national park, nor the mythical Banff Centre, as a site of creation and cultural exchange. My expectations were considerable: idyllic landscapes, exceptional conditions for art-making, living with artists from all over the world, a context that would be both fragile and welcoming. All of this, and more, was indeed the case, but something seemed off. As they say, life is no picnic, nor is it a grand celebration; every incredible experience has its dark side. In this sense, our desire to build community, to forge alliances and to solve shared problems was boxed in both by impressive waves of snow and ice, and by a two-tier institutional structure.

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Image credit: ZS.

The Underground Border

So, what is really going on behind the Rocky Mountain postcard that is Banff? Sacred land, occupied land, land of sight-seeing and attractions, a place rich in natural beauty and in history. In this idyllic place, our workshop is a metaphor, a subterranean hideout where Indigenous and POC5In the context of current debates around identity, the category “person of colour” (POC) raises the question of why I, a light-skinned Latin-American woman, might identify this way. Of course, what this category means depends on the territory where it is used. In this sense, I subscribe to the views of Argentine philosopher María Lugones, who, from a feminist perspective, describes "of colour" to be an open coalition. As she puts it, "the term 'woman of colour' does not point to an identity based on separation, but rather to an organic coalition between women, be they Indigenous, Mestizo, Mulatto, Black, Cherokee, Puerto Rican, Sioux, Chicana, Mexican, Pueblo, in short, coming from the complex fabric of victims of gender-based colonialism. However, we organize not as victims, but rather as protagonists of decolonial feminism. This is a resolutely open coalition, with much intercultural interaction. Lugones, María, "Colonialidad y género", p. 13. Tábula Rasa. no 9, Bogotá, July/Dec. 2008. artists can meet. The context defines us like an invisible, underground force. We honour difference, dance dispossession, meditate migration, recount uprooting. We have nothing to prove; the words and works of each participant are heard, seen, and respected. We come together without having to market ourselves, without hierarchies between generations and cultures. For two weeks, this was all possible, and it was wonderful.

The residency started out with us trying to answer our own burning questions. For me, it was also a matter of how to build bonds of trust between people who were so different. How can this become possible when we have to navigate around such deeply ingrained categories? We are, of course, aware of the fact that we have been assigned competing layers of colour, culture, and origin. This process of reflection began at the first PCCP session, which took lace in Victoria in 2017. It was here that I first truly gauged the enormous diversity of communities living today in Canada, as well as their invisibility, and their respective struggles for autonomy. It was also here that I experienced first-hand the incredible force that can be produced by coming together. It was a privilege to be witness to and take part in other possibilities, other dynamics, other dialogues devoid of assumptions of so-called universal or neutral perspective, where different points of view can truly coexist and cooperate. In this sort of context, active listening is absolutely indispensable, and new temporalities, narratives and ways of knowing suddenly become possible. And, at the same time, there is still a place for differences of opinion.

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Image credit: ZS.

Saying

In order to speak about encounter, Fritta Caro6Fritta Caro, my immigrant alter ego: http://frittacaro.helenamartinfranco.com/ uses the word VISIT7http://frittacaro.helenamartinfranco.com/fr/mes-salons/. She redefines this social experience between newcomers as an ephemeral space where each narrative alters the identity of its narrators. In sum, Fritta Caro reflects the weight of migrant identities embodied in actions taking place in public spaces.

How to redefine ourselves and accept our differences

For this occasion, Fritta Caro organized a VISIT where different art practices could enter into dialogue; here, the statement became a narrative she herself could recount.

Our interactions gave birth to a process of decentering. We were able to tell our stories without alienating, without seducing, without predetermined answers. We shared rituals, vocations, trajectories, struggles, remedies, doubts. Embodiment emerged as a necessary way of understanding through and within the body, to escape from the hegemony of discourse, reason, and rigid categorization of identity. Our bodies were taken into consideration, honoured, and cared for.

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Image credit: ZS.

The Possessed

Elwood and I would often sit and smoke, contemplating all the order surrounding us, an ultra-modern campus where a very clean and controlled form of comfort is first and foremost. I’ve heard that much of Western Canada is like this. We would wonder out loud to what extent this environment’s design and the ubiquitous hum of ventilation shape human interactions and creation in this place. Images of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining come to mind. In the popular imagination, the classic film was shot at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This is, of course, a marketing ploy, a mendacious little fantasy that fuels the local tourist industry. So, while listening to the heavy breathing of this invisible entity, I also wondered if the horror stories we are experiencing in today’s art world aren’t the result of cultural policies being contaminated by corporate relationships?

Of SLAVATA and other demons8This subtitle is inspired by the Gabriel García Márquez novel Of Love and Other Demons.

Many points of rupture surfaced in the weeks following our Banff experience. Upheaval surrounding public call-outs of racism and oppression gave rise to the summer of SLAVATA9SLAVATA is a neologism that came out of a conversation between Hannah Claus, Zab Maboungou and myself on SLĀV and KANATA, two plays by Robert Lepage. We had met in a Montreal restaurant. Our discussion seemed to provoke discomfort at the neighbouring table, so Hannah wrote SLAVANATA on a piece of paper, and then SLAVATA — which got the seal of approval! Montreal, July 27, 2018. and the administrative overhaul of La Centrale galerie Powerhouse10La Centrale galerie Powerhouse is one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres. Since 1974, its mission has been to support the dissemination of women artists’ practices. At different times in its history, La Centrale’s membership has reevaluated its feminist perspective in keeping with social changes, and with the goal of finding coherence between discourse and practice. In the fall of 2018, La Centrale became the epicentre of complaints of racism and exclusion in the context of the visual arts, which prompted a radical change in the centre’s administration and staff. Now, the gallery is run by a majority of women of colour. I believe that the challenge now is to unmask and dismantle the coloniality of power, a fundamental step in actualizing the horizontal structures we strive towards. http://www.lacentrale.org/, these being the most eloquent expressions among many shaking the foundations of Montréal’s cultural milieux. Wherever one was situated, the rifts between cultures, colleagues and friends widened. Indeed, conversations were becoming more and more painful. Now, as debates around cultural appropriation and exclusion in the art world remain unresolved, maintaining bonds of trust is more important than ever. And how to do this within a “diverse” community, one that is hurt and confused? A community that is too often divided between us and them?

Among all this frenzy, and the resurgence of intergenerational trauma that comes with it, PCCP became a lifesaving context, one that could provide relief and new tools of deconstruction for salvaging ideas of coexistence, dialogue, and support. When the residency was over, I realized it had essentially been an invitation to be together, to coexist, to share time and space. Over fifteen days, we were able to get to know each other, and to form bonds of trust and professional relationships. We learned that, despite our differences, our perspectives were quite similar, as they often caused discomfort, questioning as they do the colonialism deeply embedded in the policies and power structures of cultural institutions. We were able to acknowledge our role as artists, and as bridge-builders between disciplines and cultures. We aimed to create platforms that foster artistic exchange, and the creation and dissemination of our artworks. As such, this space, torn between the spiritual, the corporate, and the creative, became a seedbed for our projects, some of which were brought to fruition, other which continued to grow. Many burning questions remain. And there is no doubt that we also kept certain parts of ourselves hidden.

A year later, I reconnected with Soleil Launière at La Centrale. We reminisced about our time at Banff, and realized how lucky we had been to meet and participate in the enriching experience that Primary Colours turned out to be.

A huge thank-you to France Trépanier, Chris Creighton-Kelly, Breanna Fabbro, Annie France Noël, Ashok Mathur, Ayumi Goto, Charles Campbell, David Ng, David Woods, Elwood Jimmy, Hannah Claus, Haruko Okano, Michele Emslie, Michelle Jacques, Peter Morin, Soleil Launière, Zab Maboungou, and Zool Suleman.

Many thanks as well to staff at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for their care and hospitality.

Notes

  1. The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is an internationally renowned Canadian cultural institution founded in the 1930s. The Banff Centre supports creation through its various disciplines, innovation in the arts, interdisciplinary and intercultural encounters. https://www.banffcentre.ca
  2. PCCP https://www.primary-colours.ca
  3. In Canada, the term “Indigenous peoples” refers to the first inhabitants of the territory now known as Canada, that is, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/fr/article/peuples-autochtones Visited on June 19, 2019.
  4. The Elephant-Woman: http://fe.helenamartinfranco.com/
  5. In the context of current debates around identity, the category “person of colour” (POC) raises the question of why I, a light-skinned Latin-American woman, might identify this way. Of course, what this category means depends on the territory where it is used. In this sense, I subscribe to the views of Argentine philosopher María Lugones, who, from a feminist perspective, describes “of colour” to be an open coalition. As she puts it, “the term ‘woman of colour’ does not point to an identity based on separation, but rather to an organic coalition between women, be they Indigenous, Mestizo, Mulatto, Black, Cherokee, Puerto Rican, Sioux, Chicana, Mexican, Pueblo, in short, coming from the complex fabric of victims of gender-based colonialism. However, we organize not as victims, but rather as protagonists of decolonial feminism. This is a resolutely open coalition, with much intercultural interaction. Lugones, María, “Colonialidad y género”, p. 13. Tábula Rasa. no 9, Bogotá, July/Dec. 2008.
  6. Fritta Caro, my immigrant alter ego: http://frittacaro.helenamartinfranco.com/
  7. http://frittacaro.helenamartinfranco.com/fr/mes-salons/
  8. This subtitle is inspired by the Gabriel García Márquez novel Of Love and Other Demons.
  9. SLAVATA is a neologism that came out of a conversation between Hannah Claus, Zab Maboungou and myself on SLĀV and KANATA, two plays by Robert Lepage. We had met in a Montreal restaurant. Our discussion seemed to provoke discomfort at the neighbouring table, so Hannah wrote SLAVANATA on a piece of paper, and then SLAVATA — which got the seal of approval! Montreal, July 27, 2018.
  10. La Centrale galerie Powerhouse is one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres. Since 1974, its mission has been to support the dissemination of women artists’ practices. At different times in its history, La Centrale’s membership has reevaluated its feminist perspective in keeping with social changes, and with the goal of finding coherence between discourse and practice. In the fall of 2018, La Centrale became the epicentre of complaints of racism and exclusion in the context of the visual arts, which prompted a radical change in the centre’s administration and staff. Now, the gallery is run by a majority of women of colour. I believe that the challenge now is to unmask and dismantle the coloniality of power, a fundamental step in actualizing the horizontal structures we strive towards. http://www.lacentrale.org/
Helena Martin Franco is an artist from the Caribbean region of Colombia who has lived and worked in Montréal since 1998. Her transdisciplinary practice explores mixing traditional technique and new technologies. Through autofiction, she sheds light on the porousness of identity — whether cultural, national or gender-based — in the context of migration. View bio.
 
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