Although the Relational rEvolutions visual-arts exhibition sounds like it might offer controversy and confrontation, that’s definitely not the point. Instead, says curator Elwood Jimmy, the Queer Arts Festival show is the very opposite of a Twitter flamefest.
“We’ve lost the ability to disagree with each other without relationships falling apart,” he notes in a telephone interview from UBC, where he’s presenting at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. “It just feels like we’ve ended up in this very peculiar space.”
In this pressurized time, he goes on to explain, racism, nationalism, and especially environmental collapse are dividing families, communities, and countries. Discourse is growing ugly; witness Alberta’s recent demonization of environmental activists and, by extension, free speech.
So when he was given the opportunity to curate Relational rEvolutions, Jimmy began by wondering how he might facilitate asking questions about our future—but “in a gentle way”.
“There are really many of us thinking about our environmental future: what does that look like, and what does that feel like, and what does that sound like?” he says. “And the question I ask myself, as an individual, is ‘What is my personal responsibility in this?’ I’ve been working in the arts for 20 years, and I just started thinking ‘Well, if this is the skill set I’ve cultivated within myself, how do I use the arts to further deepen my engagement with environmental issues and climate change? What does that look like on a human level? And how do we work together to do this, even in times of extreme polarization?’ ”
As its title suggests, then, Relational rEvolutions stresses the relational and the evolutionary over the revolutionary; address how we treat and mistreat each other, and change will come. And Jimmy’s “we” is inclusive. Not only does it include queer and straight, Indigenous and settler, it incorporates the nonhuman as well.
“There are a lot of works that are done in collaboration, and sometimes collaboration may not be so obvious,” he says of the upcoming show. “I’m thinking of some of the work that’s really in collaboration with the land. There’s an emerging artist from Toronto, Jessica Karuhanga, who does these lovely video works. She calls them collaborations, and I would call them collaborations as well—collaborations with the land. They’re performances and dance pieces within water and within reeds and these kinds of things. And I guess, for me, those works show how our bodies actually move through and navigate the Earth. You know, how are we interacting with the Earth and the nonhuman with our own bodies?”
Jimmy, a member of the Thunderchild First Nation of northern Saskatchewan, also cites two-spirited Ojibwa artist Raven Davis’s work It’s Not Your Fault, a video response to the vicious white supremacism that’s found a home online.
“It’s just a very simple video of somebody in ceremony, and they have an audio track of them singing over it,” he explains. “But it’s quite jarring, because they take some of the comments that they’ve read online and contrast the gentleness and the tenderness that they’re trying to cultivate within themself and within their community with this avalanche of absolute hatred coming from regular Canadians. The contrast is quite jarring, and….You’re left wondering ‘How can we ever bridge this chasm, this emotional chasm?’ How do you make people have compassion? How do we even begin to bring people’s humanity back, and how do we get people to see other people as humans again?”
For now, Jimmy adds, neither he nor Relational rEvolutions can offer any conclusive answers to these hard questions—but by asking them he hopes that we can at least begin to value the land, the “other”, and ourselves.
The Queer Arts Festival presents Relational rEvolutions at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Monday (June 17) to June 26.