Queen’s teaching fellow discusses role of urban art in Indigenous communities

Camille Georgeson-Usher reflects on her art and research

Georgeson-Usher’s mural on the side of the Agnes depicts her and her grandmother.
Supplied by the Agnes.

Camille Georgeson-Usher thinks a lot about how street art can foster a sense of belonging in Indigenous communities living in colonial urban spaces.

In an interview with The Journal, Georgeson-Usher, a teaching fellow and PhD candidate in Queen’s Languages, Literatures and Cultures program, discussed her art, passions, and field of research.

“I wanted to do a teaching fellowship [at Queen’s] to think about ways of talking about tense or difficult subject matters in a way that was a little bit more easy to enter into […] using a framework that made it a little more accessible,” she said.

“One thing that has always been consistent through my life has been hip hop. I love hip hop. I love street art. I love graffiti. All of it has been a part of me, and how I grew up, I suppose, and so I thought about how great it would be to teach a class that brings this interest that I have and how I have become who I am—interested in politics and interested in how policies or how a city affects us as humans—I was able to enter into these really intense conversations because of this form of artistic creation.”

At Queen’s, Georgeson-Usher has been able to explore both passions at once, through her class on Indigenous women in hip hop and her dissertation on the role of street art.

“I teach about predominantly Indigenous women in hip hop and how through the medium we are able to show a different perspective of a historically very masculine practice. So, it’s a lot of fun.”

Georgeson-Usher is drawn to both street art and hip hop because, in each, the artists transgress social norms in creating a space for necessary self-expression.

“The overarching way it allows for really intense conversations to come forward is because in the nature of hip hop or graffiti or whatever transpires from it, it never asks for permission to do what it needs to do,” she said.

“Graffiti artists aren’t asking for permission to tag a building. Thinking about some of the original hip hop OG’s, they weren’t asking to say these things. They were just saying them because they needed to be said, and because New York City was crumbling and they wanted to protect it. So, I think that that kind of history of this practice is really important for Indigenous women right now. Just having the ability to say things that need to be said that is unharnessed and just the way that it needs to come across is really powerful.”

Georgeson-Usher grew up in and around Vancouver.

“I’m from Galiano Island, B.C. Nobody knows what it is,” she said.

“But it’s the first island that you see just off the coast of Vancouver so as you’re looking out west, there’s Galiano Island amongst all the other islands.”

Her grandfather’s side is a mix of many Coast Salish nations, a group of Indigenous cultures from the pacific northwest, and her grandmother is from the Northwest Territories. According to Georgeson-Usher, moving away from home led her to interrogating her Indigenous identity. 

“I moved to Montreal in 2010 to do my undergrad and my Masters, and when I was there it really helped me to figure out how I build community, and how a small, seemingly insignificant person—that’s how I felt at the time—can make a change in a city through the building of community, and so that’s when I started putting up stickers […] in the city of Montreal just to see a part of myself reflected back at me from this very colonial city,” she said.

Most of the stickers were images of herself—her favourite, a picture of her on a bike as a child. Later, she formed an Indigenous women’s biking group in Montreal that put up art installations over the city.

In her PhD and teaching fellowship, Georgeson-Usher is continuing the project of fostering community.

“What I try to look at is how we communities in urban spaces as racialized people and the way we move through urban spaces is much different than [how] non-racialized people will move through urban spaces. So, I look a lot at street art and how that helps us feel protected in spaces, or how it helps to show a history.”

Georgeson-Usher explained that living in Canadian cities with a history of colonialism is not always easy for Indigenous people.

“I think there needs to be more conversations around street art as a marking of territory and how problematic that can be from an Indigenous worldview and from Indigenous land specificity,” she said. “So, just thinking about what it means for me as a Coast Salish woman to create artwork in Mohawk territory, and if I am tagging Mohawk land, what does that entail? Am I using the tag as a form of dominance or am I using the tag as a form of respect for that land? That’s a complication to it that I’m thinking about.”

“But also, the way I see it is the buildings don’t reflect us,” she said. “The buildings of a city don’t reflect humanity; they reflect capitalism […] even a home reflects capitalism in the fact that individuals own land […] so what can art to do mark these spaces that make it feel less capitalistic? Even just seeing languages on the side of a building […] you can read a bit of yourself in that language.”

Currently, Georgeson-Usher has a mural up on the side of the Agnes, which depicts her and her grandmother.

“The mural itself is speaking to […] these places in between where we don’t necessarily know who we are or what we’re trying to do, and Kingston to me is very representative of that,” she said.

“You don’t see a lot of spaces for Indigenous folks on the campus other than Four Directions, and you see huge amounts of racism in the University. [I was] trying to add to racialized bodies [being] visually depicted on the side of a building […] so people would see that we actually are here.”

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