WE CALL art installation

Cathy Busby: WE CALL. Installation view Teck Gallery, 2017. Photo: Blaine Camp

ACT NOW on Reconciliation

By Mandeep Wirk

Artist: Cathy Busby
Teck Gallery, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
May 20, 2017-April 28, 2018
Curated by Amy Kazymerchyk

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Cathy Busby's, WE CALL creates awareness, understanding, and dialogue around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's (TRC) recommendations for reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and settlers.

WE CALL is a powerful work with an urgent message.

WE CALL is a continuation of Busby's work on public apologies. In WE ARE SORRY, she used text from the apologies made by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia to Aboriginal people in their respective countries. The installation WE CALL presents two wall text paintings comprised of selections from the TRC’s calls to action to redress the catastrophic damage inflicted on generations of First Nations peoples by the Indian residential school system. In WE CALL Busby extends the 2015 media announcement of the TRC Final Report and its 94 Calls to Action which she says would otherwise have just been a fleeting media moment.

In my interview with the artist, she noted: "I see it as a temporary memorial to the efforts of the commissioners and to all those people who made testimony to the TRC Commission." Busby positions herself in relation to the issues in her artwork by stating, "I try to come at this with utmost humility because I didn’t go through the residential school system. I'm not suffering from intergenerational trauma. I know I speak from that privileged position (settler) but I also listen carefully to the Commissioners of the TRC, and I hold hands with them."

In this site-specific installation, located at the North end of Simon Fraser University's Harbour Centre downtown campus, in the Teck Gallery space, Busby has selected those calls to action that are directed towards government agencies responsible for education, post-secondary institutions, and cultural organizations.

WE CALL art installation

Cathy Busby: WE CALL. Installation view Teck Gallery, 2017. Photo: Blaine Campbell

The natural light from the big picture window strikingly illuminates this large installation placed on the East and West walls of the gallery. It creates an atmosphere of hope for the difficult work of reconciliation. The North Shore mountains, visible at a distance, with the waters of Vancouver’s harbour in the foreground, frame a Canadian landscape which becomes an integral part of the installation. The viewer enters this space from the South, drawn in by the view and all the light that reflects on the text based art pieces on either side. The artist's use of colour bands to highlight the text serves to draw attention to the importance of the tasks at hand. The black text on coloured bands reminded me of how students use markers to highlight the text in their books. The choice of Helvetica font and the scale of the works create a feeling of monumentality. The text cannot be evaded or avoided. They are billboards for change. I think this is a part of her creative message.

The text on the East and West wall relates to different aspects of the calls to action. The West wall refers to those calls of action dealing with the legacy of the residential schools (top to bottom: 7, 8, 10, 11, 16, and the start of 57). The East wall refers to those calls of action dealing with reconciliation (continuation of 57, 62, 63, 83, and 86). Busby says she abridged the text to counter the legalistic language so people can understand it at a glance.

WE CALL art installation

Cathy Busby: WE CALL. Installation view Teck Gallery, 2017. Photo: Blaine Campbell

Reconciliation is the greatest issue facing Canadian society. For the TRC, reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. For reconciliation to happen, there has to be an awareness of the past, acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behavior. As the TRC notes in its Summary of the Final Report, "[n]ow that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?"

WE ARE SORRY art installation

WE ARE SORRY, Cathy Busby, two polyduck fabric panels, two ink-jet prints, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2010 (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

In my view, many post-secondary institutions are ivory towers, removed from social reality. However, SFU has a history of social activism which it takes pride in as Canada's most community engaged research university. Busby feels that contemporary art like hers can contribute to the facilitation of social change based on justice. WE CALL supplements and resonates with the reconciliation efforts already underway at SFU to decolonize and indigenize the university. Busby says she will be working with faculty and students from disciplines addressed in the TRC Calls to Action about how they can take up these calls through curriculum, critical dialogue and engaged learning.

"I think it's a long-term process. People are now talking about the Indian residential school legacy having been one of cultural genocide. That language would never have been present ten years ago, and now it's fairly common. What does that mean? I think it means a deeper understanding of why so many indigenous people feel at a loss in contemporary society," says Busby. At the same time, she emphasizes that there is so much achievement going on in the indigenous community in visual arts, music, sports and television.

Indigenous peoples have much to teach us. Humanity is in dire need of traditional indigenous wisdom to save itself from the abyss.

Mandeep Wirk

Mandeep Wirk was born in Kenya and as a little girl immigrated with her family to England. Then in 1972, the year that multiculturalism became official policy in Canada and the doors of immigration opened up to people of colour, she immigrated again with her family settling in British Columbia. Besides being a writer and journalist, Wirk is also a visual artist, photographer, educator, and social activist. View bio.

Cathy Busby

Cathy Busby is a Canadian artist and activist based in Vancouver. Since the 1980s, her practice has addressed local political conditions and social structures as they express critical global issues. Busby was a Fulbright Scholar at New York University and holds a PhD in Communication from Concordia University. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Visual Art at UBC. View bio.

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