Métis artist uses art to encourage conversations about decolonization
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
- Toni Morrison
In April 2021, the world was buckling under the strain of COVID-19 and racial unrest was tearing through the United States. And then the discovery of unmarked graves at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., hit us out of nowhere. For Métis installation artist Tracey-Mae Chambers, it was the last straw: “This is bullshit. I can’t not say something.”
She saw a world divided, shying away from the difficult conversations that needed to be had about colonization, settlers, and Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis communities. So, she got to work in the only way she knows – art. Since July 2019, Chambers has installed her #hopeandhealingcanada exhibit in 135 locations across Canada. She wants her work to encourage people to have the uncomfortable conversations they may have been avoiding around structural and societal injustices and discriminations. Her goal is to educate and maintain these discussions of reconciliation and decolonization, so the stories we tell include everyone and not just the settlers.
The locations of her art installations are deliberate. Residential schools, historical sites, cultural centres, museums, art galleries, and public spaces are where you will find them. Many (but not all) of these spaces present a colonial viewpoint and speak about the settlers who arrived and lived in these places, but not the Indigenous peoples who were displaced along the way. Chambers wants to change that, so we get to hear the stories we are missing out on. She admits the decolonization of these places is an onerous task, but one that can be accomplished if we shoulder it collectively. And her work can be the first step.
For Chambers, it is always important for her work to be beautiful. “But there’s little value unless it says something,” she says. The crocheted circles in her exhibit represent family, and the threads woven between represent all of us. If you remove too many of those threads, you lose stability. Each circle is connected to other circles by webs and single lines, signifying people outside the community with whom we have connections. And the empty circles are for those who have left us and for those yet to come. Chambers wants us to really introspect on what truly connects us as communities, but her message goes beyond that. At the end, the installation will be dismantled and repurposed at another location in Canada, reminding us that there is a way to take something down, throw away the parts that don’t work, and rebuild better.
The Métis artist is well aware that the conversations she hopes to spark will cause discomfort. But to make her art approachable so this dialogue will take place, Tracey-Mae uses yarn and thread, which are inoffensive and calming media, to spark potentially difficult conversations.
This is also the right time to be having these conversations in families. “It’s great the education system in Canada is talking about this in schools,” says Chambers. “So, when they come to something like this, lots of these children already know what a residential school is, and this connects the adult (perspective) with the child.”
Chambers believes artists are uniquely situated to encourage these conversations and introspections through their use of non-traditional mediums. In a world plagued with political rhetoric, she thinks artists can be “the voice of reason.” A moderate view that says we can all get along.
But above all, artists are passionate and committed to the message. They don’t stop when it gets hard. They recognize the need to keep pushing when there are debilitating misfortunes all around. Chambers lost her son to an opioid overdose in February 2023 and her father passed away six months earlier. And yet she stoically soldiers on because, to her, the message matters.
“Our role is to talk about the hard stuff, because it is easier to digest this (art) than it is some sort of a document,” says Chambers. “Most people couldn’t read the list of 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation document, as that was too much for them.”
The just and fair world Chambers envisions will not materialize overnight, and she doesn’t expect it to. She doesn’t have all the answers, either. But if seeing her work gets people to have a nuanced conversation, that’s a huge step in the right direction for her.
Tracey-Mae Chambers’ art installation #hopeandhealingcanada is a temporary exhibit in the Learning Centre at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum until October 2023.
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