Artist Statement for Oki Niksokowa – Janice Tanton
I am an artist working in paint, sculpture, installation and film. My work examines relationships through a spiritual, cross-cultural and intergenerational framework. My research interests lie in examining how practice and process in the arts can influence our core humanity so we can co-exist in more sustainable ways. The ugly narrative of racism is looming larger in the Canadian lexicon. I hold that it is still Britishly difficult for us to talk openly about such things. Art is one way to have that conversation. Deep relational development and committed understanding are what I consider the key to this research. I am keenly interested in exploring my own life experiences and connectivity to indigenous traditional knowledge, language, spiritual practice and ways of knowing. I seek ways of reconciliation in the spaces in between my art practice, the teachings of Elders, ceremony and comparative analysis with my Euro-centric, colonistic roots. – Janice Tanton
My work is underpinned with a contemplative connection to the land, the Creator, and all other beings I encounter, for I have a deep relational connection to all of these elemental mysteries. Crossing a wide spectrum of styles; from structured, detailed and traditional to conceptual, spiritual and contemporary, visibly juxtaposing key elements from each cultural tradition to which I belong, I create works which have resonance to our shared core humanity.
Oki Niksokowa means, “Hello, All My Relations” in Blackfoot. It is a concept that encompasses all beings in the category “relations” and simultaneously recognizes a familial relationship of the highest order to all that exists. It opens the door by it’s simple ‘Hello! to humans, animals, birds, water creatures, spirit beings, land beings, unknown beings – the full gamut that we may imagine and know. Close your eyes for one moment and imagine the deepest relationship of love that you have with someone – perhaps a family member, spouse or lover. As a Mother, one of the deepest bonds of love I have is with my children. I ask you for a moment, to take that fierce love and imagine a river…a bison…a wolf….a rock…a falling star… a blade of grass…being your child, your loved one – our relation. Think of how that may change about how you consider that animal, place or cosmos. That is how I consider ‘All Your Relations’ and grow my love and respect for all that is around me.
In Oki Niksokowa – All My Relations, I have worked for over a year, preparing paintings for Canada House Gallery that are very, very personal to me. They may also represent some pretty common themes for Canadians. The works represent relationships that I have with just some of the beings, things and places that have touched my life. In some cases, the objects remind me of a significant place on this land that is related to me, that I have come to love unconditionally and wholly. In some cases, the animals represent the spirit of a loved one as well as the ‘relation’ that they are… in and of themselves. Place and home has deep meaning for me and this is reflected in the iconic image of the lodge. As a tipi bundle owner, I understand the meanings, the stories and importance of the lodge, the symbols of the land, the animals and the cosmos that are embedded with song and story – not to be separated, but as one bundle of sacred place and protection. Having a ‘home’ is an important relational element and the lodge bundle is symbolic of that as a base from which to grow.
In 2012, I was privileged to be one of three Artists in Residence in Gwaii Haanas National Park and was welcomed by Parks Canada, The Haida Nation and the people of Haida Gwaii to their rich, sacred land and waters. It changed my life with its vast, abundant and ecologically rich treasures and gave me hope to see a government agency and an indigenous culture co-managing one of the most life-giving places on this planet. I learned much from our Haida guides and hosts, and this had a great spiritual effect on me. I began to understand the Super Natural beings – those that occupy the space in between the tangible world and the world of the spirit beings. I could see them clearly on the island as the trees and growth in the forests moved and accelerated around me – everything was crawling with life of some kind. I understand what it means to occupy space between cultures, and it is difficult. Much of that goes unseen, somewhat like the Super Natural beings. The pieces that I paint of the carved poles of Haida Gwaii with the moving, changing anthropomorphic rainforests around them are my attempt to capture that spiritual piece of movement – that space in between worlds where even more of our relations inhabit and where they make themselves known. It is a given for any who will deeply listen to the land. ‘Tanuu Rising’ specifically uses Bill Reid’s pole carved as the first new pole in Skidegate. I married the painting together by using a place I visited on Tanuu near Mr. Reid’s resting place. The work Mr. Reid and those that followed created a catalyst for the rise in Haida cultural practice after a period of decimation due to colonialist assimilation policies, sickness and industrial commodification of the land.
Canoes have always been deeply imbedded in my life. Metaphorically, I’d say I was conceived in a canoe in the east, born in a barn, raised on the back of a horse and thrown to the wolves in the West. All of these are sacred space to me. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that there was a much deeper history to the canoe than sentimental warm summers spent paddling on the lakes and rivers in Ontario. What strikes me most about the red canoe now is it’s formidable duality. It’s an awful, bloodthirsty, iconic symbol of colonialism (as is the Hudson Bay Blanket) that none of us wish to discuss in proper societal conversation or governmental nation-to- nation negotiations.
Indigenous by design, the canoe has never been improved upon except perhaps for constructive materials after thousands of years. Form and function are perfectly in sync. It harbours many nostalgic memories for the modern-day white folk such as myself who remember idyllic paddling on the shores of Lake Kashagawigamog, Algonquin and Killarney Parks. However, at its origin, it was a tool of transportation and survival for indigenous cultures, shared (usually) graciously with early traders to ensure their survival in this punishing county’s formative years. As a matter of honour, we need to recognize this “Canoe Treaty” and work hand in hand with the indigenous peoples of this land, honour those treaties and go beyond, as human beings – beyond racism, beyond litigation and beyond fear, to become ourselves again – human beings. That is what a red canoe is to me. It is a treaty – to be honoured. My relationship to the canoe is reverent and thankful…hopeful and peaceful as I look on my two families and as we look toward reconciliation as a nation. And yes…our family care for a white canoe and a red canoe…on purpose.
Oki Niksokowa – All My Relations also debuts a new body of work featuring a marriage of animal beings and Blackfoot tipi symbols in a healing way. Using a more representative style of painting for the animals – moose, buffalo, bear, wolf and coupling them with the more graphically designed glyphs of the Blackfoot, I’ve sought out a way to meld my traditional Eurocentric painting roots and upbringing with the more abstract use of graphic indigenous symbols. A ceremony of mark-making was used to denote my relationship with both the animal and the symbology and is marked by my own handprint in each of these paintings. It forever links us together and recognize those relationships, thanking them for their healing. Anthropomorphic relationships also exist in these paintings to some extent. “Makoyii Itsikin” is Tom’s Blackfoot name, and so this painting represents Tom as I see him, as a whole with the colours and places that I associate him with. All of the animals are healers and people for me, and represent some relationship with me through my life, helping me through illness and difficult times.
Gilda Radner said, “Cancer is probably the most unfunniest thing in the world, but I’m a comedian, and even cancer couldn’t stop me from seeing the humour in what I went through.” I agree with you, Gilda. The importance of humour became more real to me when I was sick, and it made me learn to look at the lighter side of a dark situation. No other place than with my indigenous family, have I ever found more belly laughing. When faced with difficult social issues, suicide, missing and murdered women and girls, racism…there is somehow always this respectful, leavening humour that balances the family and community. I admire this greatly, and thought – how do I honour this humour and humility in paint? How do I find more joy in my work? Hence – “Don’t Forget the Eggs”, “Zippity Doo Dah” and other such pieces in the “Ever Real” series.
The most important and most personal piece in this show “The Promise:: Sacred Bundle – Stonechild” remains unfinished as I write this and may not appear at the show opening at all. It was the piece that was started first, and it will be the painting that is completed last, if ever. A 60×60 oil on linen with my daughter Grace as the model, wrapped in a Hudson Bay blanket in the Banff woods, on the side of Buffalo Mountain in Banff, it was conceived last October during my residency at The Banff Centre where I created “Undercurrents” (exhibited at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies to October 18, 2015). Stonechild has presided over the studio for a year while these other pieces were imagined and created. She remains the symbol of promise for me – the promise that we can follow the Seven Grandfather Teachings – wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth; the promise that we can come together; the promise that we can laugh at our troubles while finding new ways to live together; the promise that we can honour the spiritual and the scientific and the space between; the promise that we can honour the canoe and all that it means to us as Canadians; the promise that we can find healing, together…in many forms.
Oki Niksokowa – Hello, All My Relations.
To View more of the upcoming show, please visit:
Canada House Gallery
Artist in attendance September 25, 1-3 pm
This Post Has 4 Comments
Your words and sentiments are as powerful as your works. You amaze and inspire. Your talent abounds.
Thank you Karrot – that’s very kind.
i was drawn to the presentations of wolf, moose and buffalo. their direct stares at me were part of the connection of course. But also the strange juxtaposition of white polka dots in the background caused some of the captivation. I wondered about the open hand with the hole through the palm, presented in two of the paintings.
It is good to reconnect with your art and your writing after some time.
Congratulations on this fantastic exhibition.
Hi Dan. Thanks for your comments. The direct gaze was intentional. I wanted the animals to have as close an encounter with the viewer as possible, and as the saying goes…the eyes have it. The white circles are a Blackfoot tipi symbol, representing thunder…snow….stars, all included in the paintings to signify the relationship between all things. The animal paintings are all marked with my handprint. I painted my hand and chose a spot in the painting as the last thing that I did, to mark my own relationship or covenant with the painting, the animal and the cosmos. The ‘hole’ is just the centre of the palm where the pressure on the linen is perhaps not as strong as the outer edges and fingertips. If you try this – you will see what I mean.
Thank you again for your observations and intelligent questions.