Remembering The Remembered: In Conversation With Jordan Bennett
by Michelle LaVallee
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jordan Bennett about his art practice, the revitalization of Mi’kmaq visual culture, international travel, Indigenous ink, and being a multidisciplinary artist. Graciously taking a break from his work in the studio—vibrant colouring and carving on panels of birch—we shared our recollections of times past, discussed the value of Indigenous to Indigenous nation skill sharing, and envisioned the future.
I first met Jordan in 2008 during a trip to the Banff Centre to visit a large group of artists (Greg Staats, Edward Poitras, Alex Janvier, Rebecca Belmore and Adrian Stimson, among others) during one of the thematic residencies. During this time Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq visual artist from Stephenville Crossing in Ktaqmkuk (Newfoundland), was there on a work-study program. He was meticulously carving these amazing skateboard deck snowshoes and moose antler trucks (which you may have seen in various exhibitions over the years including “Beat Nation”).((“Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture” toured nationally from 2012-2014 and was organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery (based on an initiative of Grunt Gallery) and co-curated by Tania Willard and Kathleen Ritter.))
Since then he’s built up a substantial and diverse body of work, which has been included in exhibitions across Canada and internationally. A brief rundown of the list includes several locations in the United States like New York, Santa Fe, and Portland; and overseas in Australia, New Zealand, France, and Italy. He’s represented Newfoundland in the two-person exhibition “Under the Surface” during the 2015 Venice Biennale, and recently completed his Master’s at the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) with a focus on Mi’kmaq and Beothuk visual culture and histories. Mindful of a common narrative characterized by more established artists welcoming emerging artists, curators and youth, modeling generosity and collective support, I asked Jordan to reflect on the almost decade that has passed and how these and other experiences have informed his practice.
“The interaction and relationship building within the Indigenous art world, getting to spend time with artists that I looked up to and admired, who really took me under their wing, I think that’s really molded a big part of my process, from where I started to where I am now.”
He then described the impact Rebecca Belmore had on him as a young artist, the opportunity to work with her during his work-study, and what it meant to meet artists Greg Staats, Shelley Niro, Shirley Moorhouse, and Barry Ace during his undergrad in Newfoundland.
“All these amazing folks came as I was just starting to explore my own artistic practice, in particular my own identity, my own Indigenous identity, through art. And to have all these folks around me was reassuring to me, that what I was doing was important, to my community, and to who I was.
Jordan Bennett’s practice questions assumptions and myths regarding the history of his people and their relations with the Beothuk. In doing this, he utilizes Mi’kmaq visual culture, embedded with story and connection to the land, in favour of recorded history obscured by unreliable accounts and a western colonial perspective. Looking at the overlapping histories of these two nations, his artwork considers how they interact(ed) and co-exist(ed). Bennett describes his process as “looking at the untold, or forgotten and needing to be remembered histories, shared histories of the land of Newfoundland.”
Inspired by people, place, new materials, and responding to his conceptual needs, Bennett works in many mediums: new media, photography, drawing, painting, carving, installation and performance. He has utilized ink, paint, wood, skin, bone, audio, video and motion sensors to create a variety of two- and three-dimensional works. I asked him about the way he approaches his practice.
“With a lot of the work that I create, I don’t like to be stuck into a box. I just feel like ideas span mediums, and when I combine the mediums, it seems to work better. … I want to give someone a tattoo, and I want to give someone a painting, and I also want to give someone audio to listen to. Working with all the senses, and all the different mediums in different ways, it really can give you a better grasp on the entirety of our ways of being.”
Bennett’s research into the histories of Newfoundland has impacted the way he looks at landscape and Mi’kmaq visual culture. His experiences on the land and the iconography from porcupine quill designs, baskets, beadwork, clothing, and petroglyphs he has explored in collections across Canada, are a main source of inspiration.
“I refer to what I am doing as visual rememberings; they are visual interpretations of Mi’kmaq and Beothuk iconography and visual designs. I’m looking at a lot of the overlap, the differences … I believe through trade and interaction, a lot of Beothuk ways of being are still alive and well. Being that there was intermarriage between our communities, I believe the Beothuk people are not extinct, though I can’t deny a cultural genocide happened.”
Bennett isn’t claiming any Beothuk ancestry within his own familial histories when making the connection that the histories of these two nations are very intertwined. His work speaks to the continuing reverberations of this history at this moment in time, drawing connections between the past and present, and how he is both impacted and inspired by it. Bennett’s visual “rememberings” of a shared territory contribute to future dialogue and further the stories of his homeland.
His observations and commentary regarding historical and popular culture are discernable in works like tamiow tle’owin, 2016.((tamiow tle’owin is a Mi’kmaq phrase translating to “Where do you belong?” or “Where are your roots from?” This artwork was commissioned for the exhibition “With Secrecy and Despatch” at Campbelltown Art Centre, Australia, co-curated by Tess Allas and David Garneau.)) Standing on either side of a painting of the Newfoundland and Labrador coat of arms, two individuals hold official government-issued documents of acceptance or denial of their known familial ties to their Mi’kmaq heritage. Through the use of photographs on aluminum, video projection and printed canvas, the work addresses Indigenous presence in Newfoundland, commenting on the exotification, exploitation and commodification of Indigenous cultures, while drawing attention to the politics of validation and classification of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq.
Exploring both personal and communal connections to histories and place, Bennett is interested in providing an experience for the viewers, particularly those who may not be familiar with his territory. He likes to talk with people back home about “what they feel about where they are from and who they are and how the land informs that.” One of his most direct attempts to translate his own experience on the land is ice fishing, 2014, a short ten-minute film alongside a large installation of an ice fishing shack and multiple sculptural recreations of fishing holes on the gallery floor (they really do look like someone took an auger to the floor and pulled up the ice and snow).((ice fishing was first shown at Trinity Square Video in Toronto as part of the imagineNATIVE festival (created through a National Film Board and imagineNATIVE collaboration); from there it travelled to the 2015 Venice Biennale, and most recently to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the exhibition “if we never met” co-curated by Daina Warren, Director of the Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg, and Reuben Friend, Director of Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua City, New Zealand.))
“The short film, it’s a ‘how-to’ in a way, how to build an ice fishing shack. It’s a journey from drawing a plan for an ice fishing shack all the way to cooking and eating the fish. There is a lot of skills that get taught in the film, but also a lot of reflection about the territory and where I come from and how people interact. [For example,] I forgot how much of the community comes out and sits around on these salt beef buckets to fish, on the body of water right behind our house.”
Jordan explained that he grew up ice fishing every day after school and he wanted people to experience what he experiences, to see where he grew up, and what practices have been passed down. The body of water featured in the film is a place near where his family lives currently; it’s a place they’ve lived for countless generations: “We’ve been dependent on this body of water all the time, from my father’s generation, all the way back to my great-great-grandfather’s; it keeps going back, so no one remembers when we didn’t depend on this body of water.” He describes this work as being “about my family, about my home,” in addition to providing insight into the process, what you actually do when you are ice fishing: “sitting down, for hours and hours on end sometimes, next to somebody, and you share stories.”
The work speaks to this important practice of visiting, and the value of spending time with one another, and in particular, the learning that takes place between generations. “I learned a lot about who I am and where I came from by sitting next to my grandfather, and my dad and my mom, and everyone that I ice fish with. Just asking questions. You’re sitting in the silence, and all of the sudden, conversations are going to happen.” Layers of meaning build up over time, something we cannot access in an instant; it often requires repeated listenings, repeated visits, before you can really begin to understand what is being transferred. ice fishing then, is also about Bennett’s personal journey of learning, and how his experience around ice fishing contributed to his becoming an artist.
“The reason I wanted to become an artist is rooted in ice fishing weirdly enough; when I was a kid, I always used to be out in the shed with my dad making ice fishing shacks. We made a lot of ice fishing shacks for our family and we still do, so a lot of my building skills came from that.”
One thing he remembers most about ice fishing is the excitement in seeing the fish swim up to the hole, a perspective made possible by the ice one stands upon. ice fishing brings that experience into the gallery. Bennett filmed fishing holes so it looks like you are actually looking down into an ice fishing hole in the art gallery floor. Bennett enjoys watching people “lose their minds because they see a fish swim up to the hole. It’s a digital fish but it looks quite real, and when it bites the line, the line [in the installation] actually jerks, so it really gives people that sense of joy that I felt.”
The piece has acted as a conversation starter, in Canada and overseas. This had us discussing what happens when you transpose the experience of ice fishing to other places, especially those without the necessary climate. How does location affect the meaning or intent of the artwork? Though Bennett didn’t think about the work going outside of Canada when he created it, ice aside, fishing itself is a global experience along with depending on water as a source for food. Sharing his very specific experience, however, was particularly exciting for him. He explained how his community’s practice “is quite different than many other Indigenous communities, for instance, the way we build our shack can be different than say the town over.” We talked about the power of sharing a culturally specific experience in creating cross-cultural understanding and exploring parallels between communities. Bennett felt the experience in Venice was especially unique, watching the reactions of those that were visiting Italy or from Italy, and seeing ice fishing holes in that territory.
“People are used to fishing [in Venice], but it’s in a completely different way. And having the ice fishing holes in a building that is on top of water, floating basically, was trippy. That’s the only word I can really think of, because people were coming and seeing what look like holes in the floor, and water underneath; it really tied into the place.”
The work that followed continued his explorations into the shared territories of Newfoundland of the Mi’kmaq and the Beothuk. Bennett’s reflections on land and territory involve looking at and spending time on the land, visiting and listening as one does with family and friends. He feels strongly “that’s how you learn about who you are and where you come from.”
As fate would have it, the location designated by a moose-hunting license prompted a visit to First Pond “also known as Red Indian Pond,” the site of a local fishing weir. Bennett explained, “our community doesn’t know if the Mi’kmaq or the Beothuk created it, or if it was both of us.” Nevertheless, its significance to the artist is clear: “I got to walk out to the middle of this pond, maybe 200 feet, and just stand there and be like ‘this is made by our people’.”
The inspiration from this trip was immediate: “When I came home, I wanted to create a piece to retell this story.” He created a number of sculptural drawings including Nisqunamuk-kmtn and Wo’kin, referencing Mi’kmaq quillwork designs, and paired these with audio captured that day.((This work formed the greater part of Bennett’s thesis exhibition “Mniku” at Vernon Public Art Gallery, March 17-May 18, 2016.)) Bennett explained that he was “trying to create a visual language, to make these pieces become mnemonic devices in a sense, I wanted to be able to stand in front of these pieces with people, in a gallery or wherever, and tell them about this moment in time, and how that informed the creation of the work.” Referring to the works as drawings, the yellow cedar has both carved and painted areas. I asked him to speak further about the colour and iconography in these works, and those he is currently working on in his studio.
Drawing on Mi’kmaq quillwork and historical drawings from his research, he tells me a lot of the imagery comes from one particular book that he always has in front of him, “Mi’kmaq Quillwork” by ethnologist Ruth Holmes Whitehead. Bennett describes her as one of the leading researchers in the field: “she worked at Nova Scotia Museum and she spent decades looking at Mi’kmaq quillwork … in the 70s and 80s, building the trust of the Mi’kmaq community.” While a lot of the meanings behind the designs may be lost, he spoke about some of the specific visual designs he’s been working with, like “the eight-pointed star [which] is actually referred to in the community as the eight-legged starfish, ‘Kagwet’ … and the double rainbow, [which] is actually one of the earliest known Mi’kmaq quillwork designs.” He adds that sometimes, his imagery is his own interpretation of what other designs might mean: “I’m not saying they’re the truths, what I’m doing, but they are a way for me to reflect on images and look back at what they might have been.” Knowing many people will not understand or relate to particular designs, he wants people to be impacted by the vibrant colours, saying: “just as I was, the first time I saw some of the porcupine designs … they were bright pink!”
Despite some people’s expectations, he wants people to know and conceive that these bright colours are customary. While his inspiration is found in imagery or designs created 400 years ago, he also makes it clear: “I want people to take away that ‘tradition’ is not something that is always rooted in the past but something that can be built on.” He is interested in how he can adapt these images to mean something now, and that meaning may resonate in the same way, or it might reflect change. One example he gave was in looking at designs that may have represented mountains; he considers how they might represent buildings today.
In his search for meaning, Bennett realized the benefits of skill sharing across Indigenous nations, and acknowledged the impact that learning about motifs in Māori, Tongan and Samoan cultures in Aotearoa (New Zealand) had on his own efforts to make possible understandings of Beothuk and Mi’kmaq designs. He had similar revelations while working on the West Coast of Canada, experiences that emphasize for him now “how the forgotten can be remembered.”
Bennett had the opportunity to learn from master carvers Dean Hunt, Shawn Hunt and their father Bradley Hunt. They talked with him about Heiltsuk history, and the history of carving in their community, Waglisla (Bella Bella), British Columbia, and their motifs, designs and formline. This had an immense impact on Bennett, and he felt challenged to use what he learned to tell his own story. Literally.
“I kept on having dreams of north-west coast designs while I was there, and I told [Bradley] one day, and he said ‘they’re very powerful designs, they’re bold and in your face. I challenge you to make something that is as bold, and can tell a story from your nation like we have done here. And you’re going to be one of the first people who have done it again in a long time.’ And I was like ‘holy shit.’”
While his original goal was to recreate sculptural objects that were drawn by Shanawdithit (Beothuk staffs she drew in 1828 thought to be about six-foot high), he soon realized this would not happen. ((These and other drawings by Shanawdithit have been of particular interest to Bennett and have been a main source of inspiration. Shanawdithit is widely considered the last of the Beothuk. She is believed to have been either 29 or 30 years old, around the same age that Jordan is now, when she died of tuberculosis in 1829. Bennett explains “her creativity and technical proficiency in utilizing and experimenting with new materials of European design are well documented, but at the time never quite understood.”))
“I felt they were way too important, to the community and the land, especially for me to make and put them in an art gallery. I don’t know if they would have been sacred objects, but at this point in time I believe they are sacred objects that should be shared and made within the community.”
He did, however, have a friend tattoo Shanawdithit’s line drawings on his forearm. Bennett spoke about his interest in having these as reminders: “I wanted to look at this every day and think about home.” These markings were meant not only to serve as indicators of culture or where he comes from, but for him, they also help him “to remember that I don’t understand, and I don’t know if we will ever understand what these are, their meaning or purpose.” For Bennett, they are a reminder to keep searching.
While Jordan Bennett was learning to carve cedar, he thought “if I can learn the properties of this wood from the Hunts, about this wood that they have been using in their community for thousands of years, it might give me a better understanding of how I could work with the wood from home.” This encouraged him to visualize how his ancestors might have worked through wood, knowing they would have had a practice of creating with wood as well.
“My mind was kinda blown; here I was standing in this amazing shop on the West Coast of Canada, a guy from a small town on the East Coast of Canada, and I’m learning from folks that, back in the day, we would have never had contact with.”
Adding further to this amazing experience, the pieces of wood that he ended up getting for his carvings came from trees that were over 1,000 years old.
“So here I am, getting ready to work with this wood and thinking about how much knowledge is being passed through this wood, the languages that have been heard, how many stories have been heard, and how amazing it is for me and Dean to be standing here together, from one side of the country to the other, and them gifting me this wood that I could bring back to tell a story of my people. It was really unreal.”
Interestingly, Dean Hunt was among the four artists (including Bennett, Amy Malbeuf and Jeneen Frei Njootli) that were trained in Indigenous tattoo practice by reputed tattoo artist Dion Kaszas, who specializes in traditional tattooing and the revival of hand-poke and skin-stitch techniques. They trained as part of a four-week “tattoo school” that took place during the O k’inadas residency at UBC Okanagan in July 2016.
One of the main things they learned is the importance of safe practices within tattooing, including cultural health and cultural safety: “what things you are allowed to tattoo and what things you aren’t. A lot of us don’t have the knowledge of what was and what wasn’t allowed, but there’s been a building up of it.” Bennett feels strongly that tattooing has really propelled his practice in a lot of ways, including his 2D and 3D work, having pushed his research into Mi’kmaq quillwork and designs.
“Realizing that [Indigenous peoples in Canada] had our own tattoo culture has really informed what I am doing now. I started looking at our designs and our clothing in different ways, and the placement of our designs on clothes in different ways, and considering how they could have mirrored tattoo designs and placement.”
Tattooing each other and many others, alongside Dion Kaszas, Bennett and Amy Malbeuf have since formed the Earthline Tattoo Collective. But this was not really the beginning of Bennett’s tattoo journey; “the power and permanence of tattooing” was impressed upon him back when he had his treaty card tattooed on his upper arm. Bennett’s Status performance in 2012 stemmed from a desire to recreate a work that impacted him earlier in his career (a tattoo and accompanying video in 1995 by curator, media artist and scholar Steve Loft entitled 2510037901, in reference to his status number). Bennett related that his own status performance referenced Newfoundland’s distinct history regarding the recognition of Indigenous peoples and occurred around the time his particular nation finally received their status. ((When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, the Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador were not recognized under the Indian Act. Art historian and curator Heather Igloliorte summarizes this history noting: “While the Mi’kmaq Samiajij Miawpukek Indian Reserve was ultimately recognized under the Indian Act in 1987, Bennett’s band, the Qalipu First Nation, was only officially formed in 2011 after more than forty years of struggle and frustration.” See Heather Igloliorte, “Visiting/Echoes and reverberations from the land,” exhibition essay for Jordan Bennett’s thesis exhibition, Vernon Public Art Gallery, March 17-May 18, 2016, accessed February 19, 2017, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/505e2918e4b0c88c3599a2de/t/573c04e837013bec12dd909e/1463551216279/HEATHER+IGLOLIORTE-+Visiting.pdf))But he was now waiting to find out if his status was going to be revoked!
“The timing is unreal right now for this conversation, because soon I will find out if my status is revoked. There were such a large number of people who applied to become status in Newfoundland that the Canadian government is now revoking the status of some people and denying the applications of many others. In my case, it is possible simply because I don’t currently live in Newfoundland, because I went away to get an education, I could possibly lose my Indian Status. So, you might be hearing about a new performance coming up soon about removing my tattoo or adding something to it yet.” ((Since the initial interview, Bennett confirmed that his status was not taken back: “Things were stressful with the status situation; I still have my status, and so do my parents, siblings, niece and aunts and uncles. Thousands of people who had theirs, lost them; 4,000 people finally got theirs; 13,000 who had status still have theirs; and approximately 80,000 people have been denied because they were either not eligible or for other reasons. It’s a very psychological and unnerving thing to be a part of.”))
Recently, the Canada Council funded a trip to Auckland, New Zealand, for Earthline Tattoo Collective to learn from Māori, Tongan and Samoan artists, to help them further Indigenous tattoo practice in Canada. Bennett talked extensively about his experience in Aotearoa:
“It was really eye opening. Tattooing has become so accepted and is such a part of the everyday; you walk down the street and see men and women with full face moko or moko on their arms, chest and hands, in very visible places. And they’re walking around in business suits, or working for the government. So, it was powerful.”
In his conversations with peers, he found “there was this revitalization and remembering of language around the same time tattoo culture started to come back. And a ‘normalizing’ of Māori language in the everyday; now you walk down the street and you can even hear non-Indigenous people speaking Māori.” Bennett discerns the connection between language and revival of customary practices, expressing: “once you have the language to articulate what you are trying to say, then it is easier for people to understand where you are coming from with the tattooing.”
Stories of the people and the land are imbedded within the tradition of moko, and hearing Indigenous language everywhere, and the prominence of Māori visual culture throughout the country—we agreed—is amazing, empowering, and inspiring. Jordan discussed the contrast with Canada: “I think it has been forcibly hidden for so long … that we’ve forgotten about our own traditions of tattooing. When I mention Mi’kmaq people had our own tattoo tradition, people resist the idea, so it’s gonna be a long road.” He wants to believe that the revival of Indigenous tattoo practice in Canada could be as strong, but he recognizes there are differences and feels “our remembering is going to be quite different.”
Speaking about remembering, and thinking about the future, certain words kept coming up during our conversation: translating, transforming, revitalization, reclaiming, and remembering. He spoke to his interpretation of these words, whether in reference to culture, tradition or history, and how they apply to his practice.
“For me, one word that I like to use a lot is remembering. I think through travelling and through talking to folks, and through looking at the land, and through [our] languages, it’s getting easier and easier to remember these designs and what they meant.”
Jordan discussed his idea of reclamation and of reclaiming the imbedded histories in objects and quillwork produced for commercial sale and sent overseas, like “seat covers and European style baby baskets.” For him, it is important to “visit them, and remember what those things might have meant,” and he aims to add to that dialogue too. “Those objects that are living in this world, I think about how we can give them a voice again.” For Bennett, by bringing these designs back to this land through his own artwork, he is reclaiming those objects and the designs that are important to his nation.
Celebrating collective and untold stories, Bennett’s work encourages viewers to be attentive to complex histories, Indigenous technologies, and relationships with one another. In referencing Indigenous visual design and imagery, whether quillwork or historical drawings, he is re-translating and creating new meaning, new forms and imagery. They embody potential and the continuation of the stories of his ancestors and the land that informed them. There is more than a reconnection taking place in the revitalization of Indigenous traditions or technologies; the translation and transformation that takes place in Bennett’s reimagining, his recovering and placing the past in the present, creates and supports continuity.
To end our conversation, I asked Jordan Bennett about the future: “When you think of the future, in 30 or 50 years from now, what do you envision? For yourself? For your community? Or for the future of Indigenous technologies and visual culture?”
“Oh man. I’m hoping that our languages are heard every day. People can walk into a gallery and hear Mi’kmaq or Cree or Maliseet or Inuktitut. And understand it. That’s what I’d like to see, even if people only understand a few words. And I’d like to see Mi’kmaq patterns on more things. I want to see all of our patterns everywhere and I want to see our youth really embracing it. I want to inspire someone 50 years from now to think about what they’re gonna be doing 50 years from then. Yeah.”
I am left with a vision of a flourishing. Our inevitable flourishing.
Michelle LaVallee (Anishinaabe) is Curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery (Regina, SK). Since 2007, her curatorial work has explored the colonial relations that have shaped historical and contemporary culture through exhibitions including: 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (2013–2016); Moving Forward, Never Forgetting (2015); 13 Coyotes: Edward Poitras (2012); and Blow Your House In: Vernon Ah Kee (2009).
This Interview was originally featured in BlackFlash issue 34.2.