The story of Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett’s public-art exhibition in downtown Vancouver is well-known to those who closely follow the visual arts.
A photograph of a 19th-century porcupine quill basket triggered a series of events that led to a colourful lens-based work of art on the wall of the Dal Grauer Substation on Burrard Street.
This image is particularly evocative in light of current conversations about colonialism and the repatriation of First Nations cultural property.
Bennett shares the fascinating story of the creation of al’taqiaq: it spirals in an interview with curator Kate Henderson in the Capture Photography Festival magazine.
But how Henderson decided how to present this work at the festival is not nearly as well known. And it says some things about how the role of a curator is evolving in the 21st century.
“I think it’s really important to work with local Indigenous artists—Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh artists—but I also thought it would be interesting to work with an Indigenous artist from the East Coast,” Henderson, the former festival director, said.
She wanted the Capture Photography Festival to reinforce connections and create a narrative between Indigenous communities across the country. It's now called Canada but it is also known as Turtle Island to many Indigenous people and their allies.
“That’s why we asked Jordan Wilson, who’s a Musqueam curator-writer to write an essay on [Bennett’s] work for the magazine,” Henderson explained.
The porcupine quill basket was created between 1860 and 1890 by one of Bennett’s Mi’kmaq ancestors. It was in a 1930 photograph of items for sale at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver before it ended up in the collection of the Museum of Vancouver.
Bennett photographed a moose skull in his home community, painted in designs found on the basket. It’s displayed on a wall owned by B.C. Hydro, which has displaced Indigenous people from their traditional territories in pursuit of hydroelectric power for the broader community.
“That simple porcupine quill basket that he used for the design on this piece—that he painted on the moose skull—comes from his home territory but exists in the confines of the Museum of Vancouver on Musqueam–Squamish–Tsleil-Waututh territory,” Henderson noted.
It’s common for curators to write essays about the art that they’ve brought forth for public viewing. Henderson, on the other hand, wanted Indigenous people to tell the story, which is why Wilson wrote the essay and Henderson simply interviewed Bennett.
“I’m a white settler, woman curator,” Henderson said. “I didn’t feel like I wanted to sit down and write a critical essay about his work. It didn’t feel like it was my place.”
She felt that the interview was a better format for amplifying Bennett’s voice.
“The term curator can be quite loaded,” Henderson emphasized, “and there’s like this hierarchical kind of structure embedded in the definition of a curator.”
She, on the other hand, saw her role in al’taqiaq: it spirals as a "facilitator". That meant giving space to the Mi’kmaq artist and Musqueam essay writer by stepping back so that she could listen, learn, and provide feedback.
The Straight asked what led her to work in this manner. Henderson replied that she has been a studio artist and her training was in photography.
“I understand what it is like to be an artist working with curators—and how that can be challenging sometimes,” she revealed.
Henderson added that when she was studying for her undergraduate and master’s degrees, it could get lonely. In those days, there was an expectation for solo artists to become geniuses who could create masterpieces on their own.
“I found so much more joy and so much more productivity in collaboration,” she said. “And I think I bring that spirit into my curating.”
Bennett is a Sobey Art Award–nominated artist known for creating geometric, graphic images. But he has also ventured into sculpture and was hoping to include more lens-based work in his practice.
“A lot of artists are working with photography in very different ways than your standard, straight photograph," Henderson said.
“What I thought was interesting about this piece is it combined his interest in sculpture, it combined his interest in installation—his interest in painting and design—and then brought it into photography.”