daphne, Montreal’s newest art center : Interview with the team
Indigenous artists now have a space all their own in Tiohtià:ke / Mooniyang / Montreal! Its name? daphne. A new art center opening its doors in 2021 on Saint-Hubert street, in the dynamic Rosemont–La-Petite-Patrie neighbourhood. But more importantly, it is Quebec’s first Indigenous artist-run center, cofounded by none other than artists Hannah Claus, Caroline Monnet, Nadia Myre and Skawennati. And it was well about time, since many were eagerly awaiting a space like this one!
Interview held on January 21, 2021, with Lori Beavis and Skawennati, respectively executive director and co-founder of daphne. The conversation explores their career paths in relation to their new role, the specificities of this new artist-run center and the principles that will guide its upcoming programming.
Answers have been edited for clarity and concision.
In which ways do you feel your background and career path have and will influence daphne’s mission and activities?
Lori Beavis (LB): I’m of Michi Sagiig (Mississauga) Anishinaabe and Irish-Welsh descent. My background is in art history and art education, at Concordia University. I have worked as an exhibit curator and I have been involved with artist-run centers, particularly Artspace in Peterborough, Ontario. I was on the board there for a number of years and also I participated in many of its activities: fundraising, catering, etc. So since the spring 2020, I have brought together all the things that I have done and my knowledge of Indigenous art into helping to run daphne.
What has been helpful for my new role is the curatorial work that I have done, but also the art education, because in particular I feel very strongly about the strength of programming that goes with exhibitions. In any of the curatorial work that I did, I always worked really hard to make sure the programming was really strong, that it actually introduced people to Indigenous artists and their art practise, gave them a space in which they could gather some knowledge and go off and learn more as well, take themselves further. Because I think that’s really important if we are going to ever develop a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. And this is particularly the case where the arts are concerned, since Indigenous art has so much to tell us about social and political issues and it is all the more important that people come to a meeting point.
But then it’s also that particularly non-Indigenous people need to take the next steps to learn more. I’m very excited about the exhibitions and the programming that we are going to be running at daphne because I feel very strongly that it will be a good starting point for many people. For these reasons, we are very interested in having our audience be Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
Skawennati (SK): I’m Mohawk from Kahnawá:ke. After I graduated in Fine arts at Concordia University, I did two things: I completed another diploma in institutional administration specializing in the arts and I co-founded, in 1994, with two other Montreal-based artists, Ryan Rice and Eric Robertson, a first nation artists collective: Nation to Nation.
We were all Indigenous and we just wanted to make work for each other and with each other, and show it to Indigenous audiences and lots of people. Nation to Nation never left my mind, it was a very formative, exciting and important time in my life. We made art and we made shows; we were curators; these shows travelled… One of the shows, Native Love, even travelled to Artspace, where Lori worked.
And then, because of this diploma that I mentioned, I had to do an internship. And I ended up doing it at the artist-run center Oboro, in Montreal. And that is how I learned about artist-run centers. It is a very particular thing and you need to know what an artist-run center is to understand that “world.” So when we started to think about daphne, to me and I think to the co-founders, it made sense to make daphne an artist-run center, since that was the world we were evolving in.
Nation to Nation also talked about having an Indigenous artist-run center here in Montreal. For all kinds of reasons it never happened. And one day, Hannah [Claus, daphne cofounder] approached me and told me: “Now is the time, the planets are aligning; we can make an artist-run center.” I felt: “this is my dream!” I had been wanting to see it happen since the 1990s!
The part of the story for me to tell too is I met Nadia [Myre] and Hannah [Claus] around 25 years ago, and sometimes in the past 10 years we started to get together and we started having these evenings that we jokingly called “Ladies Who Art.” We also called ourselves “The Axis of Praxis”! It is during one of those evenings that the idea of daphne was born.
What is your vision of the programming at daphne?
LB: In terms of our exhibits, we will be showcasing work in the space that can be two dimensional on the wall, or sculptural, media, video, etc. So we will be able to accommodate different art practises. But we are also very interested in daphne becoming a place where people come. And there are a lot of different reasons for people to come and gather at daphne. That’s why we are thinking about a weekly programming.
At the moment, we are doing online programming every thursday night from 7 to 9 PM. It is a beeding night that we are calling daphne beads ; perler/parler. It’s wonderful because people are joining us from across the country every thursday night! It’s a way for us to carry out this idea of actually having programming that is related to the exhibitions that are up but also having other programming happening, and pretty regularly at that. We really want people to start coming and thinking about daphne as a place in which they can gather and learn more and see more things than they were actually expecting. We are thinking of film screenings, readings, talking to people over food, sharing… It’s definitely an important characteristic. It will definitely be a gathering space!
Are there specific themes you wish to tackle or particular media you want to focus on through the programming?
LB: The way we are working is that we are not going into this with any prescribed ideas about the themes. As far as I’m concerned, the ongoing and underlying theme or issue in terms of presenting Indigenous art is giving people a chance to tell their own story, to represent themselves in the way they have chosen to represent themselves. Because for so long, the lens has looked onto Indigenous people and Indigenous people have not had any say in how they are represented.
We already have four solo exhibitions scheduled for this year, starting mid-spring hopefully.
Some of them will touch on the issue of identity or the use of art as empowerment and healing. But the artists and curators will be the ones bringing their themes to the table. We don’t have anything set beforehand as our approach as an Indigenous artist-run center is to have no hierarchy in the curatorial process. We are talking together, working together and making decisions together. That is really important and that is what keeps coming through in what we are doing.
Sometime in the next few months, we will put out a call for proposals as artist-run centers generally do. We will see what comes to us for next year’s programming. We hope that our call for proposals will spread really widely and that we will get back some really interesting things. We are looking forward to forming relationships within the city, within the province, accross what’s now called Canada.
SK: Definitely, the themes which Lori mentioned are what we are going to see and what we are still interested in seeing: identity, self-representation… They are super interesting.
As far as I’m concerned, I also hope to see artwork about Indigenous futurism. I’m particularly interested in the connection between Indigenous futurism and afrofuturism, as well as fashion. I’m starting to hear certain people calling themselves “fashion artists,” which is very interesting to me. There is certainly an evolution happening at the moment.
There are so many Indigenous artists who are taking things that were called craft by the rest of the world, and bringing those traditions into their work and breathing new life, or giving a new perspective, or looking at them in a different way. And I think what is really exciting about what we are doing as Indigenous artists is that we are creating our own thing. We were left out for so long from your thing, that we have been doing our thing. And we really have! And now the things we are creating are so different in a way.
They certainly can fit into all kinds of museums. But we didn’t try to fit in that Western way. We didn’t try to just fit in. We held on to some of the things that we thought were great, that our ancestors did, and we are incorporating it into, yes, a Western way. And yes, many of us have gone to universities and learned about that and been inspired by all kinds of artists and technologies. But I do think that we have taken those tools and we added them. They are just more tools in our toolkit.
Skawennati, many of your projects have focused on the intersection of Indigenous art and the digital. And among other things, you have worked with AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories and Cyberspace). New media, technology, digital storytelling… Are these things you wish to explore through daphne’s public programming?
SK: Since the 1990s, I have been doing media work and I have been creating spaces for new media artists and Indigenous artists, and talking about the connexion between the two. That’s where I do a big part of my work.
So certainly, between the 5 of us [the 4 co-founders and the Director], we have a wide range of interests. And we definitely have already thought that, yes, we would have media work, new media work, but also more traditional work —all ranges of traditional work— traditional visual arts and traditional Indigenous arts.
How do you think the “artist-run center” model and networks will support the mission of daphne?
SK: daphne will work with a membership base, as do artist-run centers. Those who become members have a say. They can perhaps become part of the programming committee. Each member has to put in the work, be on the committee to have that show or that idea come in. Membership has a price: 25$ a year and 4 hours participating in a daphne activity. And if you don’t have money, you can also volunteer for a few hours. We are still becoming; and I think members are going to help daphne become what it can become.
LB: In order to prepare our by-laws, we looked at other examples of artist-run centers. Urban Shaman Gallery [Aboriginal contemporary artist-run centre in Winnipeg] has been a great example for me for the past few months. I’ve also been approached by Urban Shaman to be part of the Indigenous “region” of ARCA [the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference, the network of artist-run centers of Canada], which is entirely regionally based. So there’s the East region, the West region, the North region, etc. We are going to be ARCA’s Indigenous region, a section that will include centers from across the country. We also have had wonderful help from Clayton Windatt, who has just been appointed Executive Director of ARCA. So we do have a family of artist-run centers around us!
And we are especially lucky to be part of the artist-run tradition because so many of these centers have a wonderful history of showing work that is outside of the mainstream. Right from their very beginning in the 1970s, these centers have consistently shown Indigenous and Black artists —not only European or American artists. I think we are in the right place!
As an Indigenous artist-run center, how will daphne distinguish itself from other artist-run centers in Montreal?
SK: We want to contextualize everything we do within our Indigenous frameworks. For example we want to start every event or activity we do with our protocols. We give the thanksgiving address and the territorial acknowledgments. And we all do it together. That is the main effect that it would have.
LB: During events, people will speak in any language they feel comfortable in. When we will start to host our exhibitions, we will have texts available in the language of the artists showing their work. Because we need to show that there is a diversity and that there are many different languages. And it’s also part of the whole native language revitalization movement going on at the moment: people are learning their languages again. We can think of a place like Native Montreal which is consistently offering languages classes because people really want to reconnect with their culture through language.
daphne’s mission is to “increase the visibility and understanding of Indigenous contemporary art in Quebec.” What are some differences between the provinces regarding the contemporary Indigenous art scene? Why position daphne in Quebec and what are the challenges to expect?
SK: Through my experience working with the collective Nation to Nation and the artist-run center Oboro, I saw more and more artwork by native artists but I also observed many differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada when it comes to Indigenous artists.
LB: At daphne, we are very interested in having Quebec-based artists, both French-speaking and English-speaking Indigenous people. Our intention is, certainly in our first year, to show Quebec-based artists because we really want them to be part of the conversation that is happening about Indigenous art across the country and across the world.
Often, Indigenous artists and curators from outside of the province are not brought to Quebec. So again, that would be something that we can think about in the future: bringing artists here from across the country, as well as the other way around. We want to build relationships and break down provincial frontiers.
I think I built relationships with some interesting artists from across the country. And some of them I’ve worked with more than once, like Shelley Niro, based in Ontario, for example. She is very excited about coming and doing something at daphne with us, whether it’s one of our beading nights, or actually presenting one of her films, and also maybe, in time, an actual exhibition.
Tell us a bit about daphne’s physical space…
SK: We wanted to be accessible in a number of ways. When we saw this space we kind of fell in love with it. It was Nadia, Hannah and I; we went for a walk, we saw this place and we could just imagine people standing outfront, with their glass of wine from their vernissage, looking inside… It felt so welcoming. And especially for those who are not “initiated” into that world, this extra feeling of “welcoming” that is provided by the building itself and its surroundings becomes all the more important.
LB: We looked at a lot of places. And I think we all felt that that was the right space. We could envision being there. Certainly having the front and the back as spaces that can open was a plus. We were thinking about summertime vernissages where people would be there till the evening. The proximity to the Rosemont metro was really important as well. The fact that people could just step right in, and that wall of windows in the front across the facade. There is a possibility that we are going to be doing a projection on the windows, as part of a project we are doing. We want to bring people back out of their houses after the curfew is over, bring life again back to the neighbourhood streets.