There’s no denying that the Vines Art Festival is well-named. Vancouver’s annual summer celebration of environmentally oriented art is as tenacious as ivy, as sprawling as honeysuckle, and sometimes as prickly as that bountiful bane of every Pacific Northwest garden, the Himalayan blackberry. Its blossoms are sweet, however, and one of its fruits will be a deeper collective understanding of the place where we live—its ecology, its human history, the way it continues to grow, and the way we might change it for the better.
Loosely speaking, the themes of this year’s festival are cultural exchange, migration, transformation, and personal growth—and there’s no better exemplar of those qualities than Kin Balam, who’ll perform at the Breaking Borders event at Creekside Park next Thursday (August 15). Balam, who was born Balam Axayacatl Santos Antonio, is Indigenous, hailing from the Nahua people of El Salvador, and he’s a highly skilled flamenco guitarist, having trained with Roma masters in Spain. His music also incorporates Mesoamerican rhythms and political hip-hop. His activist father was abducted and tortured by right-wing death squads during El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which qualified the Santos family for political asylum in Canada. And after spending time on the streets of Winnipeg, he’s become a focused and articulate spokesperson for Canada’s growing Latin-American population, especially youths.
“What got me out of the street life was the political and cultural awareness of my parents,” Balam explains, in a telephone interview from his South Vancouver home. “That influenced me to really see things differently, because we come from a people that has a long history in rebellion and revolution. That implies an awareness of the land, an awareness of community, and an awareness of empathy. You know—love, kindness, peace, and harmony.…So I changed my life completely—and what I held on to was music, because I had always had music in my life.”
He adds that his search for his own musical sound coincided with the need to connect with the culture his family had, unwillingly, left behind.
“We can’t allow our identity to be erased, and so I began this search for what Indigenous music was,” he explains. “And then I started creating my own flutes, my own whistles, and learning the archaeology behind it—the history, the meaning, as well as the cosmo-vision, which is the way our ancestors saw their world. Their philosophy, basically, which is related to music, which is related to spirituality, which is related to the way you live.”
Part of that Mesoamerican world-view, Balam continues, is an identification with the natural world so intense that some people actively seek to incorporate forest archetypes into their nature. His own given name means “jaguar”; Kin Balam, then, is “the way of the jaguar”, an apt analogy for the fierce passion and sinuous elegance of his hybrid music.
“In our culture, our native culture, the jaguar is a very ancient symbol,” he says. “For thousands of years, through archaeology, there are jaguar heads in stone, on instruments, on the pyramids and the temples. There are temples dedicated just to jaguars. And so, for me, the way of the jaguar is the way to our true identity as a people.
“But it’s not just about Indigenous people from my culture,” he adds. “I think it translates as, I guess, a way to a deeper truth.”
WHEN THE Georgia Straight catches up to Raven John at their Vancouver home, we somehow forget to ask the Coast Salish and Sto:lo artist how they embody the not-so-hidden message encoded in their given name—but its appropriateness is obvious. In Northwest Coast culture, Raven is an emblem of intelligence and transformation, among other things, and John brings a very bright eye to a wide assortment of disciplines. The recent Emily Carr University of Art and Design grad is a sculptor, media artist, comedian, storyteller, jeweller, puppeteer, poet, advocate for gender fluidity, and more; on the day of our interview they’re wearing their couturier’s hat, working on the regalia they’ll don for their two Vines showcases, at David Lam Park for the Eco-Runway on Tuesday (August 13) and at Trout Lake Park for Resilient Roots next Friday (August 16).
Part of their look, John reveals, will be the raven helmet they’re already known for wearing to significant events. Other aspects of their garb might be fairly traditional, like a loosely woven cedar-bark cape—or not. One aim, John imparts, is “to have regalia be something other than what you see through the lens of the ‘noble savage’ that the Vancouver tourism board wants you to see through. It’s not all hand-carved wooden masks. If you brought an Indigenous person to our time now from 500 years ago, they would use whatever materials were available to them to make their regalia. To think that they would not have used any of the technologies that we have now to do so would be a bit silly.”
Wearing regalia outside of a ceremonial setting is one way of amplifying and reinforcing an Indigenous presence in a multicultural world, and John’s storytelling and spoken-word performances are another. Transformation plays a role here, too, for the artist as well as for their audience. “It’s not just about reiterating a single story, but rather bringing the lessons that are needed to the space,” John says, adding that for someone like them, who has a close family member among the ranks of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, those lessons can be painful.
“A lot of the work that I do can be a little bit harsh,” they explain, “but I feel like there’s also a big opportunity for people. Indigenous people aren’t the only ones that need to grieve what has happened and what is continuing to happen through colonization, and I feel like I give space for settlers to come into that space as well.”
BEAUTY IS also worth sharing. One of the beauties of the Vines Art Festival is that it takes place outdoors, in some of the city’s most scenic parks—or, as John points out, in territory that has been used for come-one-come-all gatherings for thousands of years. Those gatherings have always had a ceremonial aspect, and Vines is following suit with opening and closing ceremonies at Jericho Beach Park tonight (August 7) and Trout Lake Park on August 18.
The theme of transformation looms large in both. In the closing Unsettling Ceremony, Musqueam activist Cecilia Point and Anishinaabe Kwe singer and ceremonialist Sara Cadeau will invite non-Indigenous participants to become better allies in the ongoing battle against injustice. And in the opening ceremony, Tr’ondek Hwech’in choreographer Michelle Olson and Raven Spirit Dance will embody the generous spirit of the festival in The Gift, a work for 13 dancers—10 Indigenous, three not—inspired by the Japanese choreographer Yukio Waguri and his work with Raven Spirit more than a decade ago.
“I always felt that it would be lovely to go back to that material, because at the end of his two-week workshop he had said, ‘This material is yours. Do what you want with it,’ ” Olson explains, reached at her downtown office in the Woodward’s building. “Hence, we just named it The Gift, because it was a gift from him to us—and I think some of that material really sparked the inspiration for other work we’ve done since.”
Waguri was trained in butoh, Olson and the other Raven Spirit dancers in contemporary western choreography. But they found common cause in their shared interest in human-animal transformations, and in the blurring of the boundaries between the human body and its surrounding environment. Which, of course, makes the south shore of the bay known to the Coast Salish as Ayyulshun (“Soft under feet”) the perfect place to kick off Vines.
“We’re always [dancing] in response to our environment,” Olson says. “We’re always in response to the edges of ourself and to the edges of our world, and I think that’s how this fits really well within the festival.”
The Vines Art Festival takes place at various Vancouver locations from tonight (August 7) to August 18. For a full schedule, visit the fest's website.