Pushing Canada's arts system in anti-racist and decolonial directions

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Image: Used with permission of Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires

France Trépanier is an artist and curator of Kanien’kehá:ka and French ancestry. Chris Creighton-Kelly is also an artist, and is of Anglo-Indian descent. They are the directors of Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires, a project that has been working to bring Indigenous art to the centre of the Canadian arts system, and to support work by artists of colour. Scott Neigh interviews them about their efforts to shift Canada's arts system in decolonial and anti-racist directions.

To those of us who are not ourselves artists, it is common to think of "the arts" as all of those practices through which people create the work that we look at, listen to, and otherwise experience as art. This is true, but it misses the fact that these practices, particularly when done by professional artists, are generally embedded in a system of institutions -- an "arts system," as today's guests put it. In addition to working artists, this encompasses all of the institutions and professionals responsible for curating, hosting, presenting, circulating, reviewing, studying and perhaps most importantly funding the arts, and all of the associated discourse. This system exerts tremendous power over what arts practices get treated as legitimate and important, and to a significant extent shapes which arts can even happen in a sustainable way.

In Canada, as in many places, the arts system has its roots in a deliberate and conscious nation-building project. The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, commonly known as the Massey Commission after chair (and future governor-general) Vincent Massey, released its final report in 1951. In the words of one critical observer writing in 2018, the Massey Report is "an out-of-date document premised on elitist, Eurocentric, 19th-century notions of culture but that, in the strangest and most distressing manner, continues to define Canadian society." In the decades following its release, there was substantial state support for the development of a wide range of cultural institutions related to visual arts, music, theatre, and lots more. The arts system that resulted -- and that, despite ongoing challenges over several decades, continues to exist today -- is one that centres whiteness and elite European notions of what constitutes art.

Trépanier and Creighton-Kelly have spent a lot of time working for core institutions of the Canadian arts system -- including for the Canada Council, as cultural diplomats in Paris, and (in Trépanier's case) for the Department of Canadian Heritage. At various points over the course of their careers, their work has included efforts to push for equity and decolonization in the arts system, and they started Primary Colours in 2016. They currently live and work in the territory of the Lekwungen and WSÁNEĆ people on Vancouver Island. 

After a process of consulting with elders and artists from a range of different communities, they hosted a large number of Indigenous artists and artists of colour at what they have come to call the Lekwungen Gathering, a four-day summit in Victoria in 2017. It was a space for artists who face racism and colonization to speak with each other about their work, about their communities, and about the issues that they face. It served as a baseline and a starting point.

They have developed ways of work for the project that they describe as not Indigenous but Indigenous-influenced. The strive to work in ways that are intercultural/racial, intersectional, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary. The centre values of respect, responsibility, relevance, relationality and reciprocity.

Over the subsequent years, they have held round tables, workshops, residencies, artist presentations, and other forms of engagement with artists and communities in different parts of the country. They have commissioned essays, articles, videos, a podcast, and various other kinds of work. They have also engaged in an ongoing way with institutions within the arts system, to push for anti-racist and decolonial shifts in the system in terms of funding priorities, program design, and the various other elements that comprise it. They have given seed money to what they call "incubation projects," as a way to kickstart decolonial and anti-racist work in the arts in specific communities. And perhaps least visibly but most importantly, they have brought together countless Indigenous and racialized artists who didn't previously know each other, and set the groundwork for all manner of collaborations, shared projects, and relationships going far beyond Primary Colours itself.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join their weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires. Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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