Salt Spring Arts Council strives to include Indigenous voices

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Salt Spring and the southern Gulf Islands are known for their thriving artistic communities, but visitors may often be left wondering where the work by local Indigenous artists resides.

The Salt Spring Arts Council (SSAC) has been asking itself the same question for a number of years, and what it could do to redress historic wrongs with continuing modern-day ramifications. With support from a multiculturalism grant from the Province of B.C., the council initiated a pilot project this year that hopes to address both points. It extends Artcraft’s usual artist criteria to include Indigenous regional artists for whom the southern Gulf Islands are traditional territory. 

The 2021 summer art show and sale, which opened on June 11, includes works by printmaker and storyteller Eliot White-Hill, carvers Doug LaFortune, Perry LaFortune and Bear Cat Sam, potter Faye Oakes, and visual artists Chazz Elliot and Charles Elliot.

Two key collaborators the arts council engaged for this work are Rose Spahan, an artist and curator from Tsartlip First Nation who has 30 years experience showcasing Indigenous art, and Sarah Jim, an emerging artist from the Tseycum village. 

“Salt Spring and the southern Gulf Islands were the ancestral territory of the SENĆOŦEN and Hul’q’umi’num’ speaking peoples. We went there as our summer homes. That was common back then, and right now it isn’t common with Salt Spring. It’s a missing link,” Spahan told the Driftwood. 

“There are a lot of artists on Salt Spring that aren’t Indigenous,” she added. “This inclusion [in Artcraft] is so important, to hear our voices and share stories, and it’s important to bridge the gap.” 

The arts council has recognized the history of colonialism on the southern Gulf Islands means Indigenous peoples were removed from their ancestral lands. Artcraft manager Sarah Hyams said there are just a few Indigenous artists living on the islands today, which is why the show’s participation guidelines needed to be expanded. 

To research how to best include Indigenous artists, Hyams and SSAC executive director Yael Wand consulted with local MLA Adam Olsen, who is a member of Tsartlip First Nation, and with Salt Spring-based Ojibwe beader Krysta Furiosa of Only Child Handicrafts. Ellie Langford Parks, who coordinated the Indigenous Arts & Craft Market on Salt Spring in 2019, was another local resource. 

Following on that beginning, Hyams made efforts to contact every First Nation with ties to the southern Gulf Islands, and every artist listed on the WSÁNEC Leadership Council website, which is how she got in touch with Spahan and Jim. 

“I was concerned about doing a good job and setting the tone as best I could as a settler, but having Indigenous jurors and working in consultation with them felt really good,” Hyams said. 

Spahan was recently guest curator for the Reconciliation exhibition at Prince George’s Two Rivers Gallery, among other projects. She worked to encourage Indigenous artists to submit to Artcraft and was named senior Indigenous juror. Jim came on board as junior Indigenous juror and offered suggestions for removing participation barriers. She shared her passion for the proper acknowledgment of Coast Salish art. 

“Salt Spring is located on traditional Coast Salish territory. The art is informed by this place and the culture and teachings are based around the natural laws of these lands and waters,” Jim said. “Many Salish artists were sleeping after colonization, so it’s important to showcase the resurgence of Coast Salish art practices because the art is representative of who we are and what we believe. The resurgence of this art practice is to be celebrated.”

Acting on suggestions from Spahan and Jim, the arts council worked to remove the 35 per cent sales commission for participating Indigenous artists this year, and waived the usual membership fee. They discovered some other barriers for participating related to artists living off-island at the same time COVID restricted travel, so the arts council allowed photo submissions for jurying for the first time. Hyams said there were additional issues for some older, less tech-savvy artists, so she offered to complete their application forms if need be. 

Hyams noted the high-quality artists working in both traditional and more contemporary formats that have joined Artcraft this year. Doug LaFortune’s carving can be seen at the University of British Columbia and The Butchart Gardens, as one example. 

“That’s the level of work we have,” Hyams said. 

All of those involved hope the pilot will turn into a continuing project. The arts council is seeking funds to create a position for Spahan, who is hoping to bring in more female artists in the future as one goal. Wand said there are other ways to shift regular practises to decolonize art institutions, as well, such as the simple step of extending the participation requirements.  

“I think we really have to change the way we do things to make these things possible,” Wand said. “There is probably lots more that we can do to make things more accessible.”

Artcraft is open daily at Mahon Hall from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with COVID safety protocols in place. 

In related news, the arts council is also working with the Salt Spring Public Library to bring Indigenous art to the island, together with School District 64, the Stqeeye’ Learning Society and MLA Olsen. A call for Indigenous youth artists (ages 13 to 19) to work on a mural project at the library in August has been extended. Applicants are asked to submit a short biography and three to five samples of recent work to khudson@saltspringlibrary.com by end of day on June 30. 

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