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Massy Interviews / Mike Alexander

From Dec 21st to Feb 24th, the Massy Arts Gallery hosts a new show by emerging Anishinaabe visual artist and writer Mike Alexander. “We Are the Land, We Are the Water” is a visual investigation of a quiet search amongst the rubble of colonization, and showcases ten new pieces by the artist.

The Massy Arts Gallery is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 5pm, at 23 East Pender Street, in Chinatown, Vancouver. Entrance is free and masks are mandatory.

Click HERE to register for the Opening Night

Click HERE to know more about the exhibition

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To celebrate “We Are the Land, We Are the Water”, Community Engagement Coordinator Rafael Zen interviewed Alexander for Massy Arts, investigating the themes around the painter’s artwork, and his earnest attempts to discover forgotten pages of Canadian history.

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Mike Alexander: Art as a place of solace

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Rafael Zen – Your work is deeply connected with themes around decolonization and cultural revitalization. What does it mean for an Indigenous person in Canada to be able to find a voice through artistic practices? What do you hope this encounter – between your artwork + the audience – may provoke?

Mike Alexander – For me, art is a place of solace, a place of grieving and a place where I gather strength and find healing. I am a product of the Sixties’ Scoop, I was adopted out of my community, language, and culture.

My generation is the one whose parents attended residential school. Everything that I have learned about racism, willful ignorance, and the erasure of our narratives from the record seems to suggest that it’s highly unlikely that I find my voice let alone find an audience for it.

I hope that this encounter can convey the strength required to create these works.

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RZ – In your bio, you say you are a part of the fourth wave of the Woodlands School of Art. How was this experience in a school that has an ongoing commitment to change the conversation about what it means to be native?

MA – I think that art is about the most articulate way I can express my identity and I have come to understand that my work is congruent with the Anishinaabe worldview of interconnectedness between human and non-human beings.

There is an inter-dependence in the natural world that the Anishinaabe have been a part of, and I have known this in a political context, but the spiritual aspect to this worldview is what makes the visions of shaman artists of the Woodlands school sacred.

My experience learning the art form has been to understand the inherent connection between me and the medicines that previous generations of Anishinaabe artists have left for me.

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RZ – Your new show “We Are the Land, We Are the Water”, to be presented at the Massy Arts Gallery in December 2021, showcases several paintings in the Anishinaabe style. Could you explain to our readers the concept of this specific type of representation? What kind of dialogue are you trying to make possible when you experiment with this particular category of Canadian art?

MA – Thunderbirds are hunters of Beavers and on one occasion, a Sacred white Beaver was snatched and carried off by a Thunderbird. The claws dug into Beaver and its blood fell to the earth where it turned the sands red along Lake Superior.

My ancestors mixed this sand with fat to paint stories with red ochre on the rocks and these cultural memories have been passed down. These paintings have always brought us together, to understand the spirits and our past.

Norval Morrisseau introduced Canadians to his visions that were extensions of the old stories left for him. In the same way, generations of storytellers continue to come across the same medicine left by Beaver who has charged us with the responsibility of articulating the relationships we have with the natural world around us.

For me, the dialogue is internal, and it involves creating a bridge between this and a spiritual world. I am happy that my work might serve to maintain and renew relationships within Indigenous communities and beyond.

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RZ – You say your work involves earnest attempts to discover forgotten pages of Canadian history – as well as your own family history – in hopes of hearing your ancestors sing, drum, and pray. Is there some kind of apprehension/tension when you open a show that is so close to your trajectory as an Indigenous person in Canada? 

MA – I think that the tension used to come from being afraid of what I would find if I did reach out to my biological family. This fear was introduced by the attempts to assimilate me into a white supremist notion of colonization, and that fear kept me from my ancestors for too long.

Apprehension is an instinct that doesn’t serve me in expressing my experiences, and I need to always remind myself of that.

I don’t think my story is fundamentally alien, and I really hope that people can see themselves represented by someone who understands both the pain and the ability to overcome incredible challenges in life.

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RZ – Why this title? What do you think it evokes from your career as an artist? 

MA – I think about the various responsibilities detailed in the traditional clan systems which governed our societies. The Anishinaabe lived in balance with the world and that deep rooted knowledge and way of being made it so that we don’t see ourselves as being greater or of more significance than the four legged, the winged, the finned, the earth, air, fire, and water.

We depend on these things and in this way, we truly are the land and the water. For me, this will be an ongoing theme in my work for the rest of my days. I don’t feel like I can separate myself from exploring relationships anymore.

There will certainly be new mediums to experiment with and new emotions that I will need to articulate, and I plan on being open to things that occur to me.

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RZ – After this show, what themes do you see yourself researching through your art?

MA – I think it’s about refining my skills and allowing time for the work to develop. I have been lucky to receive support and encouragement to do so and I look forward to what happens next. There is no doubt that I have found what I want to do with my life, and it certainly brings comfort and purpose.

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