Exhibition Reviews

Woven In: Indigenous Women’s Activism and Media. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, BC. November 19, 2022 – May 7, 2023. Curated by Gerry Ambers, Marianne Nicolson, and Siku Allooloo

  • Genevieve Weber

…more information

  • Genevieve Weber
    Manager, Heritage Programs and Services, Heritage Branch, Government of British Columbia

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Cover of Number 96, Fall–Winter 2023, pp. 6-187, Archivaria

When entering the exhibition Woven In: Indigenous Women’s Activism and Media, the first thing the visitor notices is the sound of laughter and voices. Other spaces in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria are quiet, or have soft music playing, but this room fills with the sound of children playing and talking. The audio is coming from a screen showing a short film directed by Slts’lani (Banchi Hanuse) about Nuxalk Radio, the station out of Bella Coola created to “help keep the Nuxalkmc language alive and broadcast the laws of the lands and waters.” It is appropriate to engage all the senses in an exhibit featuring Indigenous archival research and materials. Indigenous records come in all formats, but oral/aural records are particularly important. As Kim Lawson states, Indigenous peoples not only create and use information, they “also have their own knowledge systems rooted in complex oral cultures.” This difference in terminology – knowledge system versus knowledge institution – represents a fundamental difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous approaches to archives. In a culture in which everything – governance, the marking of social and cultural occasions, the capturing of history, education, and more – is centred on orality, the documentation of that culture that is preserved in a repository can only ever represent a fraction of the true record. Activism is the use of intentional action to bring about political or social change. Curated by Gerry Ambers, Marianne Nicolson, and Siku Allooloo, this exhibit demonstrates activism in its fight for basic human rights. The right to land, language, and control over traditional knowledge are all ratified in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Many people enjoy these rights without giving them any thought; they take them for granted. But Indigenous peoples are forced to prove their rights and entitlement. Accessing archival documentation, which is often created and almost always managed by non-Indigenous people, is key to this process. This establishes the archives as both a place that can wield power and control over Indigenous users and a place in which those same people can reclaim language, identity, and control over knowledge. The exhibit is therefore both an illustration of activism and an act of activism in itself. By taking archival materials, removing them from their context as records preserved in a repository, and exhibiting them in a way that tells a specific story, the curators/activists have turned the documents into tools that aid in subverting the common narrative and enhancing the voices of the underrepresented. With every sense engaged, the visitor experiences the exhibit rather than simply observing it. Through headphones, the sounds of the Nuxalk language provide a captivating soundscape as visitors read through Native Alliance for Red Power (NARP) newsletters. The newsletters include NARP’s mandate, beginning with the statement “We will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.” The station played through the headphones features Nuxalk Radio segments recorded entirely in the Nuxalk language. Being immersed in this language while reading articles, written in English, that relay Indigenous authors’ experiences at the Kamloops Indian Residential School or describe instances of police violence against Indigenous people is jarring. The juxtaposition of the language, the vehicle for the transmission of intangible cultural heritage and the instrument for keeping the culture alive and thriving, against the written word, which was often weaponized by colonial oppressors, is powerful. The resulting message is subtle but clear: after years of fighting for survival, Indigenous people are not only here; they are thriving. Lawson describes the Indigenous knowledge found in archives as “precious fragments”: pieces of information …