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Interview With Joseph Tisiga

Joseph Tisiga is a First Nations artist based in Whitehorse.  His art looks at the “conditions of First Nations people and how indigenous communities are adopting to the modern world”.

Part of Joseph Tisiga's "Indian Brand Corporation", 2009

Q: Why is there always this underlying implication (or maybe not so underlying) that Canadian art is different/distinct from First Nations art?  For example, we never say Quebec art or Ontario art, but we do say First Nations art.

A: There are probably a lot of reasons for the distinction, so I’ll stick to what initially comes to mind.

First, I think that everyone is still trying to figure out how to understand and appreciate First Nations art. Both First Nations people and “non”  First Nations alike. It seems to me that we are still making the transition from a tradition of art making seen as “craft/curios/artifact” into a “modern” form of creation that everyone can feel comfortable just calling “art”.

Another distinction might arise for the same reasons we specify culture, race, nationality, school of thought, medium…etc, when we talk about any artist. I think it’s our impulse to classify, and within that notion of classification we have people who are identified (or self identify) as First Nation and are inspired by the stories, symbolism, history…etc, that they as artists relate to as being “First Nation”. I think having this context is important, but for some First Nation artists I know it can be frustrating because at times you can’t escape the labeling and association to history and the current condition many First Nations live in. These influences inevitably create a distinction within First Nation art, for better or worse, but I think that increasingly artists feel less restricted by this and are allowing these influences to exist as a piece among the many pieces that compose an identity.

One consideration however, when discussing the context of First Nation art, is that there’s a lot of diversity within what is considered “First Nation”. It’s like saying anything made by “white” or Occidental hands is European art, regardless of medium, process, inspiration or intent.

Joseph Tisiga's and Kyle Caslen's installation for Red Wagon Union Art Collective's "Dark Days" exhibition

Q: There are several pop art references in your art – on the one hand they offer a contemporary commentary on Western iconography juxtaposed against First Nations references and yet, on the other hand, the out of sync juxtaposition of the two is reminiscent of the historic “white man’s” invasive introduction of measles, booze, and Christianity to the First Nations – do you see a forseeable point where the two (First Nations and Western) can meet harmoniously?

A: I think that harmony is circumstantial and ultimately a personal sentiment. It is impossible for me to ignore the necessity of First Nation and Occidental influences coexisting in whatever I make, and although I experience moments of peace and resentment with the marriage of these realities, it is a circumstance that I have grown to understand more and more. It’s like trying to find beauty within brutality, a basic human conundrum that everyone will approach differently. I find that kind of harmony in so many artists, like Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman, Sonny Assu, Annie Pootoogook, Jim Logan, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and many others. Then there are non First Nation Artists who’s work I feel is inspired by elements of the Indigenous spirit and that is just as important. Harmony may simply be in embracing each other and seeing how the Indigenous can inspire the Occidental and how the Occidental can inspire the Indigenous, not leaving it to one or the other to conform.

Q.: How vibrant is the First Nations art scene and why don’t we hear more about it?

A: I’m not really to sure how vibrant it is. I live in Whitehorse, so I’m somewhat removed from anything that could be considered a “scene”, although I do get out and travel sometimes, most of what I’m exposed to is whatever I read. I’m definitely aware of all the amazing people out there making great work, but I don’t see there being much a “group” mentality within First Nation art. Probably because everyone is spread out all over the country, and I don’t think that there are a ton of contemporary artists to begin with, so it’s hard to connect and keep up on what people are doing. That said, I think that for everything that’s going on for First Nation arts, there is a billion other things happening throughout the world of art, and media being as limited as it is and as focused on certain elements of art as it is, it makes sense to me that we don’t feel like we hear a lot about what’s going on in First Nation art because it may be overshadowed by everything else.

Q: What would it take to bring it to the forefront of Canadian art?

A: If First Nations art is to be at the forefront of Canadian art I think it would have to be something that happens naturally, because the public feels compelled to see and identify with it. Possibly focusing less on racial themes, not that we shouldn’t talk about those things, but considering the spectrum of influence that can exist within a work. Also, artists becoming less inhibited with experimenting/exploring medium, motivation, symbolism and other cultural perspectives. It’s really hard to say what, ultimately would attract more attention to First Nation work, but it seems to me that attention would be a natural result of the public identifying with what they see. I don’t know how that happens, but if there were more artists making more work, showing more, more representation however that looks, more resources… then the likely hood of work that is sought out will be better.

Joseph Tisiga's "Anthropomorphic Antler", 2009 (one of the RBC runner-ups)

Q: In his book, A Fair Country, Saul talks about a civilization’s ability to survive depends on its ability to describe itself.  Is First Nation art a victim of its own identity/history or is it this that gives it such power?

A: I don’t know if it would be right to say that it’s a victim. Identity and history are what give us orientation, then when we’re orientated, determining our direction is clearer. That manifests in how we make decisions and how/why we respond to the world as we do. This ultimately allows us to describe ourselves, unfortunately not everyone will enjoy it and not everyone knows what to do with it.

Q: Thomas Highway talks about Coyote, the trickster.  Is there a trickster in your art?

A: I’d say that the very nature of illusion created by an artist is the nature of the trickster. But I think that today we live in the trickster’s world, where we are saturated in illusion and absurdity. I don’t think it can be avoided, and though he manifests in so many ways I think we can invoke his different qualities. I like humor and uncertainty.

Q: Kent Monkman made an interesting comment concerning abstract art’s exclusion on First Nations’ artists in its denial of “storytelling”.   Your thoughts on this?

A: Not knowing the context in which the comment was made, it occurs to me that it may depend on the definition of storytelling we’re considering. It also seems to me that anything can be abstract if you don’t know what it is, it’s still “something”, consequently it must exist within some kind of context or story. It can be denied and the conversation ends there, but I don’t think this can reasonably exclude a culture from participating in the act of making art abstractly. I don’t think there are really any steadfast rules to making any form of art, and should an individual feel excluded for any reason, it may be their responsibility to consider why. Not that I’m saying exclusion doesn’t exist, but that it is ultimately illusionary and can be challenged.

Q: If you could use only two words to describe your art, what would they be?

A: Two words is difficult but I guess I’d say absurd and uncertain.

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