Decolonializing culture through the arts

Q&A with artist and activist Leah Decter

Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac's (Official Denial) Trade Value In Progress (2010-2016) 
Supplied by Don Hall, courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery

“I hope to communicate in ways that encourage, move or incite people to pause and question ways of being, relating and thinking they take for granted,” Leah Decter, artist and activist, said in an interview with The Journal.

 Decter is a multi-media artist who combats existing colonial frameworks through art and social activism. When I first met the Winnipeg-based artist in a guest lecture, I was immediately drawn to the unique perspective embedded in her work and the passion behind every stroke and action that came to produce such powerful pieces.

 Decter has showcased and screened her work widely in Canada including at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Grunt Gallery, Dunlop Art Gallery, and MacKenzie Art Gallery, to name a few.

 She works closely with the Kingston community producing pieces that decolonize continuing colonial practices, commemorate and celebrate Indigenous cultures that once flourished on this land. Decter will be undertaking a new performance piece in Kingston this June.

Q: What triggered your career path in art and activism?

A: The short story is that I have always made things, both in professional capacities and recreationally. When a friend suggested I should go to art school, I enrolled in a couple of courses. I quickly recognized my affinity for communicating in this way and was further drawn to the capacity for art to engage in complexities of meaning in ways that can affect how we think and live our lives.

Q: What sparked your interest in decolonization and Indigenous reconciliation? Why do you think it’s important to tackle these issues?

A: There are a number of threads that led me to the imperative of contending with Canadian nation-building as an enduring settler colonial structure that stretches to the present. I’ll focus on one in particular: About 12 years ago, I was developing artwork in relation to the experiences of displacement that precipitated my maternal grandfather’s immigration to Canada. This led me to look critically at how such arrivals are linked to the goals of colonial ‘settlement,’ and consequently, the ways both my ancestors and I are implicated in Indigenous dispossession.

As I moved forward in this work from what I understand as a ‘critical white settler perspective’ I’ve been deeply informed by Indigenous and allied settler scholars, artists, communities and activists. I have a commitment to contending with these issues, both in my art and research practices, and in my everyday life. For me, it’s a matter of unlearning the ways I’ve been conditioned by colonial thinking, and working to enter into and sustain respectful relationships with and on this land.

Q: What specifically do you hope to achieve through your art and social activism?

A: My work takes many different forms and engages in different ways with different people. In some cases, I hope to communicate in ways that encourage, move or incite people to pause and question ways of being, relating and thinking they take for granted. In the best possible world, this would motivate people to take action towards change, however I don’t see the influence of my work as being tied to measuring or tracking this. In other situations, I look to engage people and communities in meaningful encounters, relationships and exchanges. As research-creation, my artwork is also a form of research and in that way it can contribute to advancing theoretical and methodological frameworks.

Q: What have been your favourite projects thus far?

A: I would say that the projects in which I have an opportunity to develop relationships, with curators, collaborators and/or participants, or with particular places, are the most meaningful to me. That describes most of my work over the last 12 years, so I guess I don't have any particular favorites.

Q: Official Denial: Trade Value in Progress is a very emotional piece. What was the process like in creating the series?

A: It’s challenging to reflect on a five-plus-year project that had hundreds of participants with brevity. One aspect of this project that’s particularly significant is the idea of listening. When I initially conceived of this piece, I was interested in devising a platform through which individuals would have an opportunity to deeply listen to one another in close and distant proximity, and to do so in an embodied way. I also saw it as a way for people to listen to, and hopefully reckon with, often troubling national histories and narratives. Jaimie Isaac’s involvement, first as a curator, and then as a collaborator, shifted the project and enriched the frameworks of listening. I can’t speak for those who saw or participated in the project, but for me the most meaningful part was working alongside Jaimie and having the opportunity to engage with all of the participants who contributed their thoughts and time, and to listen to the evolving, thoughtful and sometimes contentious dialogue.

Q: Memoration #2: Constituent Parts was a powerful piece designed for Sir. John A. Macdonald’s bicentennial. What was your intent behind the piece? Could you describe the process and learning outcomes?

A: This piece was created for Metis curator Erin Sutherland’s performance series, Talkin’ Back to Johnny Mac, in which she asked five artists to intervene in the John A MacDonald celebrations. When developing this work, I was thinking about how public memory, in the form of nationalist celebrations and monuments, is conditioned to tell certain stories and erase others. I also wanted to draw connections between the operations of these official forms of public memory and those harboured in our everyday spaces and familiar Canadian icons. As in much of my work I was interested in inviting and/or provoking people to reconsider and attend to what is erased or denied by colonial systems as we move through our day-to-day lives. I always aim to implicate myself within collectivities that inherently benefit from those systems — regardless of what I do as an individual — while at the same time working to enact resistance to them. It's a delicate balance. This was a nine-hour performance, so what I’ve said here just scratches the surface of my intentions in developing the work. How the viewers engaged with or understood the piece is equally complex.

The meaning of an artwork is a combination of the artist’s intent and the viewer’s reception. Any given artwork will convey and mean different things to different people at different times. Also, the ‘meaning’ may not be clear, definitive or absolute. In creating a work, I carefully consider and make decisions about every possible component, particularly given that I deal with difficult material. Having said that, I don’t want to spell everything out to the viewer. I leave intentional spaces of ambiguity that serve as vital entry points. These are what unsettle — what cause pause and provoke people to think and reconsider things they may otherwise take for granted.

Q: You have a new project coming up in the spring can you tell us a bit more about it, what can we expect?

A: I’m looking forward to a performance I will be doing at Thousand Islands National Park, Mallorytown Landing in mid June as part of LandMarks. In the performance, which will take place over the span of a weekend, I will, among other things, be gilding a canoe.

*These responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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