Lindsay Nixon: On Curation, Mentorship, and Indigenous Art

Interview by 
Brandi Bird
Lindsay Nixon

Photo credit: Stacy Lee

Room is currently calling for visual art submissions for our Annual Cover Art Contest as judged by Lindsay Nixon! The first place winner will receive $500 and publication on the cover of an upcoming issue. Contest will close in January 2020.

Lindsay Nixon is a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator, editor, writer, SSHRC doctoral scholarship recipient and McGill Art History PhD student. Nixon won the prestigious Dayne Ogilive Prize in 2019 and has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, an Indigenous Voices Literary Award, and several National Magazine Awards. Namely, Nixon was nominated as the lead editor for the summer 2017 issue of Canadian Art in the “Best Editorial Package” category—an issue on the theme of “Kinship.” In 2019, Nixon won a digital publishing award under the “Best Editorial Package” category—alongside several other formidable writers and editors who contributed to a digital issue of The Walrus on the theme of “Sex Ed”—for their article “#MeToo and the Secrets Indigenous Women Keep.” They currently hold the position of Editor-at-Large for Canadian Art and previously edited mâmawi­-âcimowak, an independent Indigenous art, art criticism and literature journal. Their writing has appeared in Malahat Review, Room, GUTS, Mice, esse, The Inuit Art Quarterly, Teen Vogue, and other publications. Nixon’s first book nîtisânak is out now through Metonymy Press. Born and raised in the prairies, they currently live in Tio’tia:ke/Mooniyaang—unceded Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe territories (Montreal, QC).

To mark the opening of the 2019 Cover Art Contest, we invited Saulteaux and Cree poet and Growing Room 2019 author, Brandi Bird, to interview the judge about their writing and art practice. They spoke about what exactly Indigenous art can mean, curation as creation, and how mentorship makes all the difference.

ROOM: How do you deal with people’s expectations of what Indigenous art is supposed to be? Or queer art? How do those expectations intersect and/or contradict themselves?

LN: We are witnessing a moment where the aesthetics of Indigenous art are very much in flux. The generation ahead of us might say that aesthetics are what define Indigenous art. However, we now know that the aesthetic focus of Indigenous art past emboldened appropriators such as Jimmie Durham. And now there is a younger generation of Indigifems and Indigiqueers who don’t want to contend with the signifiers of cultures in their work—who just want to make work that is interesting to them without having to contend with culture and identity always. Queer art is much more open with its aesthetics but has suffered from a Eurocentric lens, and one largely comprised by the perspectives of cisgender white gay men. I often think of Robert Mapplethorpe as the personification of how white settler worlding perpetuates Black and Indigenous death. I know it’s such a cliche, but I still feel pushed and pulled between these two worlds to the point where I’m beginning to think that the problem is disciplinary and identity-based—it’s not me, it’s you. How can we supersede the boundaries of colonial control (race, gender, etc.) if we are constantly forced to appeal to them to define our lives within their rigid parameters? What is exciting about the queer futures movement is that there is increasing space to begin discussing what it would mean to undo identarian categories and truly undo the systems that uphold them.

ROOM: How do you create? What is your process when it comes to sitting down for the day to write?

LN: Honestly, I know it’s not sexy, but creation for me is just discipline: it’s making time to write, every day if you can, and then submitting that writing to publishers as often as you can. I know that’s difficult to hear for folks who aren’t afforded the privilege of time to write for a whole myriad of reasons. But I also think we do a disservice to emerging writers by not being honest about the conditions that have created some of the most successful writers in Canada, and that’s why really flourishy and romanticized answers to this very question always get under my skin. Creative industries often attribute success to “genius” and “talent,” while paying little attention to the systemic conditions that privilege certain writers: time, economic security, white supremacy, and misogyny. Often “successful” writers such as Ernest Hemingway had daily rituals that centered their creative practice. So the measure of a successful writer is not creative energy itself, born from an ambiguous moment of inspiration, but how creative energy is harnessed. I truly believe that ANYONE could be a writer, that everyone is a writer, especially with solid peers to evolve their writing practice alongside and, yes, by writing often, though it might sound simple, even if it’s not perfect at first. And "showing up to do the work" is not a value statement. Because for many BIPOC “showing up to do the work” has meant working well beyond their capacity, and to the detriment of their own health, to make up the economic difference between them and their well-situated peers.

ROOM: How is curation a generative process for you? Is curation a tool you use in your own work?

LN: Curation is part of my overall practice; it’s another way for me to be creative and ground collaboration in the ways I work. I was also called to curation because I felt a responsibility to represent queer and trans Indigenous artists I saw being pushed out of gallery spaces. I view my shows as labour I take on to create visibility for, and return care and love to, the artists who let me write about their work and think alongside them. I think curation of Indigenous art past was very focused on a model of reproducing single blockbuster shows again and again, often for touring, or showing the same legacy artists every single time there was an Indigenous art exhibition. This is why I’m very much done with this idea of the “big Indigenous art exhibition.” It’s just a model that I don’t want to be forced to contend with anymore. I want us to move beyond a space of exceptionalism so that we are no longer appealing to our otherness and segregating ourselves within institutions using performative identity politics. I refuse the scarcity model that Indigenous art within big galleries seems to abide by—the idea that there can only be a few successful Indigenous artists and curators, and that we are all in competition with one another. I want more and more expansive representation of Indigenous life, that isn’t made alternative or other, and I think part of begins with ending rhetoric of Indigenous exceptionalism. I don’t just want to reproduce the scaffolding of a European art world that so obsessed over celebrity and is often void of ethics and relational ontologies. That’s not Indigenous to me. What curation has allowed me to do is witness emerging Indigenous creators from all over, who are in conversation and movement with one another, and showcase that beautiful space. Art and curation are a form of knowledge production that is often overlooked in Indigenous Studies, especially considering artists are often way ahead of the discourse because art is so immediate.

ROOM: Who are the most exciting artists to you today? Why do they appeal to you?

LN: Oh gosh, I have so many. Justin Ducharme, Evan Ducharme, Whess Harman, Lacie Burning, Kablusiak, Dayna Danger, asinnajaq, Arielle Twist, jaye simpson, Kali Spitzer, Fallon Simard, ziibiwan—and I feel like I must still be missing a few! We are witnessing a movement of artists who want to work in ethical ways and who are really messing with the boundaries of what is and isn’t Indigenous art—art period! They embody everything I have been talking about.

ROOM: How important is mentorship to you in your creative process?

LN: Extremely important! You can’t step into roles like the ones I have without seriously considering mentorship as the main function of your work, and yet so many do. I think intergenerational friendship, collaboration and support is the revolution. And I’ve experienced enough scarcity early in my career that I now know I never want to reproduce for those who come after me. So, I think about mentorship daily! With everything I do, whether it’s writing, curation or within the academy, I’m always asking myself what this does for a generation of creators after me, outside of my own ego. Because ego kills kinship including our kinship to ourselves. We are all sick with ego and bad medicines. Can’t we all just stop being so mean to each other? I need that to live. And those coming up after me need that to live.

Brandi Bird is a Two-Spirit Saulteaux and Cree poet from Treaty 1 territory currently living and learning on Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their poetry has been published in Poetry is Dead, Prism International, The Puritan and they have work forthcoming in The Fiddlehead. Their chapbook I Am Still Too Much was published with Rahila's Ghost Press in Spring 2019.

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