The focus for this year’s Queer Arts Festival arrived at the same time as the announcement of Canada’s 150th-anniversary celebrations. “I think I literally said, ‘Ew, more like 500 years of colonization,’ ” says festival director SD Holman in an interview with the Georgia Straight at the Roundhouse Community Centre. “It seemed obvious to focus on two-spirit artists.”
Two-spirit is an umbrella term that many indigenous people use to describe their gender, sexual, and spiritual identity. Often inclusive of all indigenous LGBTQ identities, the term is a reclamation of precolonial, traditional ideas regarding gender identity.
Holman reached out to Siksika artist Adrian Stimson, curator of the festival’s featured exhibition, UnSettled. The show, curated by and for two-spirit artists, includes the work of Ursula Johnson, George Littlechild, John Powell, and Raven John, among others, in visual-art pieces that explore the many facets of two-spirit identity.
“We’re hitting a time when there’s a bit of an explosion of artists who identify as two-spirit,” Stimson tells the Straight over the phone, on a drive into Vancouver. “It’s time to delve a bit deeper into it and look at that as a particular movement.”
The festival will run from Saturday (June 17) to June 29 at the Roundhouse. Aside from the visual-art show, events include Cris Derksen’s orchestral powwow, an urban weaving walking tour with artist T’uy’tanat Cease Wyss, and a performance of electronic music and poetry with Kinnie Starr, DJ O Show, and Tiffany Moses.
Stimson says UnSettled will offer an opportunity for the queer community to assess its historical attitude toward two-spirit members.
“The LGBTQ community, while it’s very inclusive, does have history of racism towards two-spirit people,” says Stimson. “This is an opportunity to hopefully educate, enlighten, and open some minds.”
The festival’s thematic emphasis is also a nod to its history. The Pride in Art Society, the organization that produces the Queer Arts Festival, was founded in 1998 by Robbie Hong, a two-spirit person.
This year’s festival is also meant to honour the long history of two-spirit identity in indigenous cultures. Two-spirit people were widely accepted by their communities centuries before the arrival of Europeans, a truth that Holman thinks should be spoken loud and proud.
“Our job is one of looking back, restoration, and reclamation,” says Holman.
Wyss has worked in media art and ethnobotany for over 25 years, but for UnSettled, she’s presenting an art form she’s recently rediscovered—traditional Coast Salish weaving.
“There’s always this disbelief that queer culture existed before contact,” Wyss tells the Straight over the phone. “This is a way of honouring that culture and ancient weaving practices that have existed from time immemorial.”
Wyss will be presenting two traditional Coast Salish shawls side by side, a homage to the dual identity of two-spirit people. Her pieces will be set up beside a floor loom, so visitors can participate in weaving a third art piece.
Wyss hopes that returning to traditional community art practices can help combat the bullying and lack of acceptance that two-spirit and queer individuals face.
“If we go back to the oldest systems of connectivity, in a longhouse there would have been many people working on a project,” says Wyss. “So it’s that idea of carrying one another, weaving our energies together.”
Holman points out that the queer-specific focus of the festival is important, because while many of the masters of fine art were queer, their identities have been erased from history.
“That does a huge disservice to the society,” says Holman. “Art comes from the same part of us as desire and sexuality. It’s a huge part of who we are. It’s difficult to have a festival called ‘queer’, but it’s also very important.”
Juno Award–winning singer and electronic producer Starr will run the Technical Knockout workshop, in which DJ O Show and Tiffany Moses will join her in teaching youths the tricks of electronic music and poetry. Starr tells the Straight that she’s looking forward to sharing her decades of expertise with interested young people, but the part-Mohawk performer is also wary of prematurely celebrating the recent spate of indigenous-centric programming.
“If I see native people represented like that front and centre, 20 years in a row, then I’ll say Canada’s changed,” says Starr. “But you’ve gotta start somewhere.”
For the full Queer Arts Festival schedule, visit their website.