By Brittany Rudyck
EDMONTON – Artists who choose to have important conversations about race, gender or the social practice their work is imbued with often struggle to find a consistent home in artistic spaces, which are historically difficult to maintain and often inaccessible. To counteract this issue, McLuhan House in Edmonton’s Highlands opened itself up to be a space for emerging artists and their experiences to work and transform.
The McLuhan House Studio Residency program began in 2016, when the home of celebrated intellectual Marshall McLuhan became an interpretive space and historic resource within the city.
“We had an empty garage and decided to activate it,” says Chelsea Boos, the Community Programmer for Arts Habitat.
“We did an open call and received a great response. Now we’re entering our third year. We want to be a springboard for emerging artists to get their work out there. We want to help activate community and be a another space for people to showcase their voice.”
The very first artists to activate the garage behind McLuhan House were a group called Tennis Club. As a metaphorical sports team, they explored themes of femininity, sport, leisure and suburbia’s views of those issues. Their lasting legacy is a mural on the garage door, painted during their final weeks in residency.
Black Girl Magic were the next collective to occupy the space, examining the experiences of black women in Edmonton through poetry, dance, song and other various mediums. Spoken word poet Shima Robinson (Dwennimmen) reveals her experience within the collective, as well as the studio residency, to be immersive, challenging and overall great.
“It’s been a process of discovery breaking down some of the isolation that we experience as black femmes. We were working toward a more well rounded understanding of who we are as people, whether that’s through our preferred pronouns or the colour of an outfit we wear to a photo shoot. And artistically we balance each other out in beautiful ways.”
Black Girl Magic has performed as part of Black Arts Matter, SkirtsAFire (a multidisciplinary women’s art festival) as well as workshops based out of McLuhan House. While the collective is fluid and members swap out depending on their degree of activity, the members who began the residency included Nasra Adem, Medgine Mathurin, Mpoe Mogale, Ashanti (Karimah) Marshall, Effy Adar, and Lebogang Disele. In the true spirit of a collective, they have embraced various guest collaborations, including an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter at every performance they’ve done.
“I felt very welcomed by the Edmonton arts community as a result of this residency,” says Robinson. “This has been a very demystifying experience.”
They’re currently working on a documentary to create a dialogue around cross-cultural similarities with Indigenous women, which they are hoping to release sometime in the near future.
“Our main focus for the documentary is to be collaborative and create dialogue. There are gaps in the discourse between people of Turtle Island and people immigrating here,” explains Robinson.
“We rep those people as black women necessarily because of the way history has gone. It’s interesting and beneficial to create a discernible and visceral sense of the dialogue that’s going on between us. This documentary will show where we’re at, at this point in the conversation, as a key turning point.”
Extending the conversation at McLuhan House as the new Artist in Residence is Lauren Crazybull. Her work with portraiture seeks to veer away from the white gaze to create an honest depiction of her experience as a Blackfoot, Dene person.
Boos is excited to give Crazybull a platform for her active role as an Indigenous Advocate and artist whose range is expressed in various forms such as portraiture, comics, radio and more.
“She’s a community engaged artist whose work and social practice go hand in hand,” says Boos.
“The themes she’s working with are about difficult issues that we’re interested in creating dialogue around.”
Crazybull is a self-taught artist whose work is informed by her Indigeneity and the shared experience of colonialism.
“When it comes to my own painting practice, I am sharing a part of myself and my own experiences,” says Crazybull.
“Although it is deeply personal, it is also inherently political because of the history and current impact of colonialism. I’m not trying to tell anyone else’s story, but my own experience is so ingrained in colonialism. Of course that would resonate with people with similar backgrounds too.”
During her yearlong residency, Crazybull hopes to collaborate with other Indigenous artists and continue to engage within her community.
“I have heavily dedicated a lot of my time to fighting for justice for my late aunt Jackie Crazybull,” she says. Jackie, a mother of nine, was tragically stabbed to death on 17th Ave in Calgary in a murder that is still unsolved. Four other people were stabbed that evening in similar attacks, yet charges were never laid. To mourn their loss, the family has organized annual events dubbed the Justice Walk for Jackie, in honour of Jackie and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous Women in Canada.
Crazybull continues, saying she is “Working on issues of loss, reclamation and survival through organizing work, radio and the youth work I did for the past few years. The collaboration and work in communities born out of defying colonialism has definitely informed my work in a big way.”
Crazybull has been an outspoken activist on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women for about 5 years, which has evolved from hosting rallies to working directly with youth, decolonizing the way she shows up for her community.
“I want to gain the courage to really be able to pull what’s inside my head and put it out there. I’d like to carve some space out for collaboration with Indigenous artists in this community. The work I’m surrounded by is so exciting and refreshing and I’m honoured to be able to witness so many incredible artists.”
The McLuhan House Residency offers not only space for artists to focus on their craft, but administrative and moral support.
Having the space to create and exist is a huge component, as Robinson points out.
“Artist space in this city has been at a premium for years. The city keeps shutting down spaces and we wonder where we’ll go. Having a separate space for creation is so important so we can just show up. The benefits have been deeply intrinsic.”
Crazybull affirms the inherently valuable aspects of this program.
“Up to now, I’ve done all this work in my spare time – on evenings and weekends. It’s very exciting to me that I’ll be able to work full-time and really dedicate myself to creative practice,” she says.
“I made a promise to myself that I would always try to create work that excites me in the same way my favourite artists excite me. I have to keep moving forward with my art despite where I may find myself in life. There’s a Blackfoot phrase, “Iikaakiimaat” – it means persevere or keep trying and I take that with me wherever I go.”
McLuhan House is located at 11342 64 Street Northwest (Edmonton). Visit them online at http://artshab.com/spaces/mcluhan-house/ to learn more about upcoming eventsArts space, Highlands, McLuhan House