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Q&A: Tania Willard (Vancouver)

by Ryan Ming

Tanya Willard  is a Secwepemc Nation artist and graphic designer. Her work includes oil and acrylic painting, printmaking, pen and ink drawing, watercolour, mixed media and collage. She is also a curator, and co-curated the notable and nationally touring Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture. Most recently, Willard created the cover art and collaborated on the design of award-winning Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel‘s forthcoming artist book, Un/inhabited (Project Space Press and Talonbooks), which will be released as part of Artists’ Books Week with a launch party and performance as part of the 2014 Vancouver Art/Book Fair.

Project Space: How did you become involved in the Un/inhabited project and can you describe your collaboration with designer Jaz Halloran?

Tania Willard: I think all the inspiration for my contribution really stemmed from the actual concept of Jordan’s book. Originally I was asked to perhaps write something, but I really felt like this was a chance to work more on the creative presentation of the book, since I was really into the concept behind Jordan’s work. This idea of how he pieced together the text really speaks to firstly the dominance of the narrative of extinction or erasure of indigenous people, as well as this contemporary expression of sampling and of using mainstream stereotypes as a tool to expose our current socio-political situation.

Jaz was very involved and pieced together the design from some concepts and the ideas in the cover art.

PS: Can you tell us a little more about the cover art you created?

TW: Collage seemed the natural choice here. I think it simulated Jordan’s concept to collage an image made up of western genre pulp novels.

PS: How do you think your formative years contributed to your artistic development? Are there particular historical, social or regional inspirations that define your particular artistic style?

TW: I grew up in Armstrong, as well as back and forth to my dad’s reserve where I live now, which is close to Chase, British Columbia. Growing up in rural BC I think I have long had to respond to a western genre that excluded indigenous peoples. In terms of artistic styles, I think they are diverse—I am really conceptually inspired by contemporary Indigenous artists, formative work with Aboriginal youth media Redwire Magazineand activist struggles and ideas, as well as an interest in printmaking and sampling from visual culture around me. I think this may also be linked to growing up in a small town and as a person of mixed cultural background—small town, mainstream white culture and then rural First Nations reservation. I think it means I have always excavated visual culture to find my own reflection. I see this in Jordan’s art book as well, this sampling, mining, excavating for meaning.

PS: Your curatorial work with Beat Nation has been touring the nation since 2011 and has been received with rave reviews. How is First Nations art represented internationally and received?

TW: I don’t actually have a lot of curatorial experience internationally. Beat Nation toured from Vancouver to Toronto, Kamloops, Montreal, Halifax and Saskatoon. It was a really important journey to take this exhibit to different places; the context of the exhibition is to present indigenous artists today who respond to both socio-political states of indigenous peoples and struggles, as well as use a mix of quite contemporary mediums and ancestral ideas.

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Tania Willard, Underlying States, New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society Collective, produced as transit shelter ads by the City of Vancouver Public Art as part of the year of Reconciliation, ink and pencil crayon on paper, 2014

PS:  Are you currently working on multiple projects at once?

TW: Definitely. That is the social condition of the artist, designer, curator I think—LOL!

PS: What mediums do you work in?

TW: Printmaking, painting, socially engaged practice, curatorial and digital media.

PS: What projects have you been working on recently?

TW: I have a curatorial residency with Kamloops Art Gallery until summer 2015 and am planning an exhibition for summer 2015 that looks at conflating ideas of “traditional” and contemporary as it relates to Indigenous art practice.

I am also working with the Museum of Anthropology for an upcoming solo exhibition of  an artist who has been very influential to me, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.

I also held a small artist residency with an art collective I am involved in, The New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society, on my family land on reserve. It is part of a conceptual project called BUSH Gallery that looks at ideas of how to create art spaces or possibilities that respond to Indigenous concepts of land.

I am also starting a new public art project, Rule of the Trees, that looks at memorializing forests that were logged to make room for public and city infrastructure.

I am working with the Graphic History Collective in Vancouver to produce a suite of relief prints that illustrate a comic about the history of Indigenous Longshoring on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, BC, Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land.

I grow organic garlic at Red Hawk Acres Farm.

And I am building a house next year. I also have two boys ages six and three who keep me on my toes!

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Tania Willard, Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land, relief print on paper (series), 2014

PS: Are there any particular writers, artists, etc. that you suggest we check out?

TW: Oh boy, so many. So many that the question leaves me blank—LOL! I still follow many of the artists I curated in Beat Nation, they are always doing new and exciting things.

Urban Shaman Gallery has a great exhibition coming up with Tanya Lukin-Linklater and Ursula Johnson—who are really interesting artists.

And there are some interesting Indigenous art collective projects happening—The Ephemerals, 007 Collective and the collective I am working with, the New BC Indian Art and Welfare Society Collective.

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PS: Is there anything else you want to add?

TW: DOWN WITH IMPERIAL METALS, the mining company responsible for the Mt. Polley mine tailings spill in Likely, BC. People should know the crisis is not over. The tailings pond continues to leak and this affects our watershed and our salmon. Salmon are freedom, food, culture and love for our people—I think for all people.