Reflections on Language: Joi T. Arcand in Sobey Art Award 2018
In the photography of Joi T. Arcand, kids pedal their bikes down the sidewalk, buses queue for riders and neighbours chat on a building stoop. In these images, weedy plants slowly overtake the lot of an auto garage and the Maple Leaf flies from atop a town hall. For her series Here On Future Earth, the artist snapped such everyday scenes in Saskatoon, North Battleford and Prince Albert, but they could have been found anywhere in Canada. For their utter regularity, the images’ irregularities are made to stand out. Signage — the marquees, banners and window decals that announce a hotel or a bakery and form the wallpaper of our streetscapes — is present in all of these images, but instead of English or French , it appears in Cree syllabics.
Arcand describes the photographs not as Indigenous future imaginary, but instead as scenes from an “alternate present”. It was an exercise in picturing “what the world could look like,” she says. While textual elements had already figured in her photography, the series created in 2009 was her first to explore the written Cree language. The visibility of Indigenous cultures in public spaces and Indigenous language revitalization have since become major focuses for her practice, incorporated into works across multiple media that have been featured at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre and SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art in Montreal. The Ottawa-based artist is originally from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 Territory, and is representing the Prairies and the North as a finalist for the 2018 Sobey Art Award.
Arcand has been learning Cree since she was a child. She grew up around family members who spoke it and had Cree language classes in school. She continues to study it today and has had many teachers, including Darryl Chamakese who often helps her with translations for her work. Cree is not a dead language. Recent census information from Statistics Canada identifies it as a “viable” (as opposed to “endangered”) Indigenous language, with roughly 100,000 speakers across the country. Arcand encounters Cree every day, she says, just scrolling down her Facebook feed. But in her family, fluency ends with her grandmother, who is the last fluent speaker. “It’s really up to me and my generation to keep it going in my family,” she says. “I look at it as a responsibility.”
Here on Future Earth, then, might be read as a hopeful project, envisioning the language and the culture flourishing despite centuries of suppression by settler colonialism. Arcand made the project nearly a decade ago, however, and her thoughts have shifted. “If I were to do that project today, it would look a lot different," she says. "I think I would probably dismantle most of the buildings. It wouldn’t be so cheery.” The photos have rounded corners and appear as if shot on vintage Kodachrome or some similar bygone film technology. While referencing the future and an alternate present, they also invoke the past. “Another aspect of my work is playing with ideas of nostalgia and what that means for Indigenous people,” she explains. “I often ask the question: when were the good old days?”
In 2016, the signage campaign begun in Here on Future Earth made a leap from the photo frame into the real world. An illuminated sign installed on the exterior of the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff was one of the first to be realized. The LED-lit channel letters fixed to the gallery archway read "ᓇᒨᔭ ᓂᑎᑌᐧᐃᐧᓇ ᓂᑕᔮᐣ,” meaning “I don’t have my words” in Plains Cree. Instead of duplicating existing signs, she now wanted to hang reflections on the language in their place. “I don’t have my words,” for example, expresses her frustration in not being able to speak the language of her ancestors, yet “knowing also that the language is in there somewhere”. Similar installations of different phrases in LED and neon, part of her Wayfinding series, were shown in Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg. There was a moment in 2017 when they were all lit up at once, spanning the country and “talking to each other,” she says.
The luminous media makes hyper-visible that which has historically had low visibility in dominant culture. Arcand puts it in practical terms: going to cities and looking at all the signs, she has never seen a Cree sign. She also finds it compelling, she says, to take these intensely private thoughts — “the kind that might be seen in a diary or a journal” — and blow them up on the wall in giant, glowing neon.
For the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Insurgence/Resurgence exhibition curators invited Indigenous artists to take over the gallery space in new ways. For her commission, Arcand applied Cree syllabics in custom-cut gold vinyl stretching up the gallery's main stairway. The work is titled ᐁᑳᐏᔭᐋᑲᔮᓰᒧ (ekawiya akayasimo), meaning Don’t Speak English and the artist will be creating a similar vinyl staircase intervention for the Sobey Art Award Exhibition in October.
As with the WAG installation, Arcand doesn’t always make English translations of her work readily available. “Why should I make it easy for anybody?” she asks. In a predominantly Anglophone country like Canada, English speakers often express an entitlement over communications and their access to it. Arcand's work challenges these presumptions: If you want the answers, you have to look, you have to do the work. At WAG, she placed translations strategically in the elevator: “I always say, if you want the easy way, you take the elevator.”
Joi T. Arcand is one of the five finalists of this year’s Sobey Art Award. Her work will be on view in the Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from October 3, 2018 to February 10, 2019. The winner will be announced on November 14, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.