Nancy King (Chief Lady Bird): Sisterhood, youth empowerment and decolonizing through art & healing

I had the absolute pleasure of visiting the studio of Nancy King, First Nations (Potawatomi and Chippewa) artist and all-around-maker from Rama First Nation. Nancy's Anishinabee name is Ogimaakwebnes, which means Chief Lady Bird, and her practice weaves together contemporary painting techniques with traditional Indigenous craft materials to navigate the intricacy of identity, representation and intergenerational knowledge. We sat down and had a thought-provoking conversation about empowering our youth, the power of sisterhood and decolonizing through art, collaboration and healing.

You graduated from OCADU a couple of years ago. What was your experience like?

I’m really grateful for the Indigenous Visual Culture program at OCADU. If it wasn’t for the safe space and mentorship they offered, I think I would have floundered a bit. Coming from the reserve to the city and finding this amazing community and being able to connect to so many people has been so important to me. Our ways of creating are obviously not westernized. There’s a huge focus on Western art at OCAD and I remember feeling very lost in the art history lectures. When you epitomize art history like that, you completely erase all of these other voices, and that’s just not fair. We have a lot of Indigenous students and people of colour that are fighting to be represented every day and to just feel comfortable… When I started my minor, I learnt to operate within the Western system but also to decolonize my thought process and use my art as a tool to further educate other students around me. Education is a circle. It’s not a pyramid.

What’s your opinion on the art scene in Toronto? Do you relate to it, what do you feel the general attitude is towards Indigenous voices?

I feel like it is very exclusive.  A lot of times, for an Indigenous artist’s work to be represented in those spaces it tends to be an Indigenous-specific show. It worries me, because if we have non-Indigenous curators bringing us into those spaces it can very easily become a spectacle. We need to be in control of how our ideas, art, history and culture is being represented because often times the dominant cultures take them and just throw them in the air like confetti for the sake of ‘inclusivity’ or ‘diversity’. I find it hard in group shows as well, my art is usually the only Indigenous voice and can become overlooked. Not to mention there’s a lack of funding to create our own spaces, and when we do, I wonder if people don’t feel welcome. Maybe it’s the general public recognizing that we need our own spaces but we definitely don’t want anyone to be excluded. If only our own people are coming in, it takes away from the educational component.

How do you respond to critiques of not being ‘Indigenous enough’?

One time, someone was critiquing my work and said something along the lines of “the colours you use aren’t really native”. I kind of stopped and looked at him and was like what do you mean? Red? So I can live in an urban space like everybody else but I need to make art a certain way? I remember feeling slapped in the face. We’re fighting so hard for our identities now with the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and Sixties Scoop and MMIW (Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women), we’re trying so hard to root ourselves so being perceived as not good enough is a deep pain that goes back generations. Whatever happened in our past with colonization and cultural genocide affects all of us every single day. When perceptions like this are said to me, it’s almost like being stomped on. Especially when I think about our brothers and sisters who don’t know where they came from and are trying to reclaim that and trying to figure out who their families are and are being told about blood quantum, being asked what percentage of Native they are. It’s less our problem, it’s more so other people not understanding or having their own pre-conceived notions that bring resentment towards us. We can’t really hold onto that, right? We need to keep moving forward and keep educating, and especially as creative people find creative solutions to battling that ignorance.

What are your thoughts on the role of public art in integrating communities, sparking conversations and social change?

Public art is so incredibly important. When you create public art pieces that represent communities - especially marginalized ones - it reinforces a stronger sense of identity. As an Indigenous woman, when I’m walking down the street and I see a piece that represents my demographic, I feel at home. I don’t feel as alienated. Especially for our youth, who are really struggling. I work with youth at the Native Learning Centre, I see them and I see them not being or feeling represented so I love finding spaces within which they can identify.

A lot of your work focuses on merging traditional art with more contemporary practices. What brings you to do this?

There’s a specific ‘Native’ art that the dominant culture likes to consume and prefers to put forth over other forms of art that we’re doing. I like to look past that and expand that by using spray paint and creating more graffiti-type work. I love woodlands art, for example, and think it’s important to keep that strong sense of traditional art… but I also think that in order to pave the way for us to understand and be interested in it, we should combine the two practices as much as possible and understand what has been constructed to bring us down. I think it’s harmful for our youth to feel like they need to be a certain way to be considered ‘authentically Native’. That pressure is huge. I want them to be free in who they are and not be encumbered by stereotypes or preconceived ideas that are forced upon us.

How have you found healing through art?

Art is everything. I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t an artist or how I would work through things and be my own therapist. My job has given me a larger perspective of what urban youth are living with. I grew up in the Bush, where we have our own issues, but being down here there’s so much exposure to so many different things. I think about how one of our youth's brother was murdered at Spadina and College during the time that I was teaching her… another student, a friend of mine, was murdered around that same time. Our youth are being taken at an alarming rate and being involved in these situations hit so close to home. Maybe it’s because our community seems smaller but it was so difficult to help the youth get through that. We ended up making a mural and painting that student into it, which was an act of healing for everyone. It seems like every day there’s a new issue coming up, and I had to learn how to not hold that as my own stuff but be able to heal myself in order to help heal them. Art is such a huge space to help people find their own voice.

When we feel discouraged, we need to remember the little moments that happen… moments like this, where we’re able to sit down and talk about it. These little moments make it all worthwhile even when you feel like nobody is listening, nobody takes you seriously, nobody wants you in these spaces… We create these moments for ourselves. We define our own way of how it’s healing.

Healing is a never-ending process, whether it’s individual or collective.

It’s a circle that never ends. It’s collaboration and relationships and working together. It’s kinetic, it’s constantly moving. Without collaboration, you become stagnant and other people can’t benefit from what you have to offer. I love collaborating, I love my little art fam. (laughs) We’re always working on stuff together. Especially Aura and I. Sometimes we don’t even talk, we’re just flowing through space completely in the zone.  My most favourite thing is having a sister to share all this with. Ever since we’re brought into this Earth we have our whole history on our backs and the importance of sisterhood lies with us standing unified so that weight is shared and our backs will never break.

As women, supporting other women is one of the strongest things that we can do.

It’s interesting that there’s a hierarchy where men are placed at the top and for women to be on that level we need to bring down other women. Quit climbing on top of a pile of women’s bodies to be seen at the same level. In order to elevate ourselves, we’re breaking the unity and putting down other human beings. We should all walk confidently down the street. I work hard every day to decolonize those judgmental thoughts of “oh, she thinks she’s better than everyone” and “having their head held high” and then I reassess it and we should all walk down the street like we’re the shit. We ARE the shit. (laughs) That confidence should not be shaken or shamed.

Could you share with us the latest series you’ve been working on?

My latest series is digital work crossed with painting and beadwork. I’m very excited to be working on it right now. I’m depicting portraits of strong Indigenous women and attempting to represent them in the way that they deserve to be represented and also combat cultural appropriation through fashion and beadwork. It comments on fashion and regalia, on being able to bring the craft that our ancestors made into our present and wearing that proudly. It’s about supporting our artisans and artists and saying a big fuck you to those huge companies like Urban Outfitters that are stealing and appropriating our designs and profiting from them. For me, there’s empowerment in being able to wear our designs and being able to do so proudly. Setsuné Indigenous Fashion Incubator, for example, is very focused on teaching youth skills such as tanning hide and beadwork and quillwork, all these things that people - especially in the city- don’t have access to. Especially if their families have  been removed through the Sixties Scoop and they haven’t been able to learn those skills traditionally through the passing down of knowledge through generations.

I also include little beaded glyphs in all of my paintings. Syllabics are based on sounds, so each shape represents a certain sound. I’m very interested in the idea of visually representing languages. I’m not fluent in my language, I speak a little bit and am slowly learning but a lot of us are disconnected and our future is dependent on being able to access that blood memory and traditional knowledge to reclaim those languages. The glyphs I put on my canvas are nonsensical, and when people look at them, they assume they mean something and get frustrated when they discover they don’t I want people to feel the frustration that we feel when we read or hear our own languages and can’t understand them.

This is my way of empowering our women and communities, especially when our women are being murdered at such an alarming rate. We need to follow their stories and elevate them and all stand together.

Do you feel challenged when people ask you why you only depict women?

Nope. (laughs) I do want to expand to include male voices though, because I think masculinity can and should be decolonized as well. Especially in Indigenous cultures, being proud of long hair and braids, accepting men’s role as protectors, standing beside us instead of in front. I think in Western contexts, men are elevated or seen as more important but I’m seeing a shift in our community where they’re realizing they need to work together and  protect our women as much as they’re uplifting themselves.

What advice would you give to young women interested in pursuing the arts?

Trust your heart. Don’t be scared. Often times, it can be really daunting to walk through life as entrepreneurs and artists and creators and not be validated for our ideas and opinions and what we have to offer the world. You have to rise above any challenge that comes your way and never stop, no matter what. The easy thing to do would be to give up, but as young women we have so much to offer and the work we do is so important. We should uplift ourselves and lose the fear of connecting with people who will empower us… and getting rid of those who will not. That decision is hard to make sometimes but it’s up to you to recognize who will lift you and who won’t. Lastly… recognize that every step we take is sacred and learn to honour that in ourselves, so we can help honour that in others as well.

You can follow Nancy's latest series and projects on her website and Instagram