An interdisciplinary Cree/Saulteaux /Métis artist, Lori Blondeau’s main mediums are performance and photography. Her work revolves around the representation of First Nations women in popular culture and in the media. Managing editor Fiona Bramble speaks with Lori Blondeau about her work, her art, and the recognition of a Governor General’s Award.
First of all, congratulations on receiving a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. What a huge accomplishment.
Thank you. It’s all a blur—it’s just been so busy these past couple of weeks since it was announced.
Can you share a little about your heritage and your path?
I’m from Treaty 4, which is in Saskatchewan—it goes into Alberta and Manitoba too, but it is all southern Saskatchewan. My mother is Cree and Saulteaux and she is from George Gordon First Nation, where she lives today. My late father was Métis from Lebret, Saskatchewan, which is in the Qu’Appelle Valley. I grew up a bit in Lebret until I was eight years old, then we moved to Regina, Saskatchewan. I later moved to Montreal with my then-husband and returned to Saskatchewan in the nineties and raised my four children in Saskatoon. Now, I live in Winnipeg.
You have said before that your parents strongly influenced you—do you mean that in terms of your activism or your art—or both?
Both. I spent a lot of time with my mother and my grandparents, on the George Gordon First Nation. My grandfather was very artistic and a carpenter and my grandmother made quilts. My mother was very artistic also. My older brother is quite a well-known artist in Canada. Art-wise that is where the influence comes from. As for activism, my father worked for the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre movement in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. My mother worked for the Native Women’s Association [of Canada].
So, you would have grown up listening to their conversations around their work and understanding the importance of it?
Yes. My mother fought for Bill C-31 because she was status Indian and lost her status through marriage, by marrying a Métis man. They travelled a lot and, as children, we knew what they did and there were times they would go to Ottawa and they would be meeting with government officials about certain rights for Indigenous people. We knew that.
Did you always know that activism was going to be fundamental to your art?
No. I never saw my art as activist work. I see more of my everyday work that way, like starting an Indigenous artist-run centre in the nineties when there wasn’t any. Galleries were not showing a lot of Indigenous shows. There would be like one show a year—we used to call it the token show: oh, the token Indigenous show is going to be mounted…
I can understand how people would look at my art in that way, especially pieces like COSMOSQUAW (1996) and Lonely Surfer Squaw (1997), but activism is more something I see in my everyday jobs that I do.
Please tell me more about the Indigenous artist centre you started.
I co-founded Tribe, an artist-run centre without a centre, and ran that for quite a few years. We decided to shut down because everyone was burned out. Trying to retain Indigenous arts administrators after training them was very difficult because, obviously, if they went to bigger institutions, they would get paid more. When we started Tribe, we were aware that it could last for five years or twenty years. It could have become an organization if the younger generation was around to do it or not getting the big-paying jobs that arts institutions were offering.
You studied theatre at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre—then called the Native Theatre School—in Toronto. How did you get involved in performance art, and then eventually work with James Luna?
I realized theatre wasn’t my thing while in Toronto. I looked at schools all across Canada; I think there was one, a university out east that was teaching performance art. I had to figure something out. I knew of Rebecca Belmore and a few other Indigenous performance artists. And James Luna. I brought him up [from California] in 1996 to Saskatoon and he did a workshop and a performance for Tribe. At one point, I just asked him if I could apprentice under him.
I did my apprenticeship with him from 1998-2001 while at the same time completing my Masters Degree at the University of Saskatchewan. We did four installations and one performance.
In the Canada Council video produced as part of the recognition for the 2021 Governor General’s Awards, you show a pair of shoes with beaded elements that James gifted you, and I was struck by your comment that one thing you learned from him was about “taking an object and changing it.” You say that and then drop it as if it is obvious what you mean. I wonder why that teaching was epiphanous for you at the time.
He was a natural teacher. We would go and install our installations and he would be like “what if we moved this here,” like taking a pair of sunglasses and moving them somewhere else, and it would change everything. It was the same with objects. We were in Oklahoma one time for a show and we went shopping for bead work and different stuff made out of bead work. I had a beaded hair band, and he said, “what if you wore that more like a shield on your forehead?” A simple gesture that changed the object. That changed my whole way of looking at art.
In the photos of you two, there seemed to be a playfulness to some of the work you were doing together.
It was all having fun, but there was a very serious part to it also. That was another thing he taught me. I interviewed him when he came to Saskatchewan for an art magazine out of Toronto at the time called Mixed magazine. We talked about performance art. He talked about it being like a rollercoaster: you take your audience up and down. You bring them up and then you take them right down, using humour to go up and then hit them with the hard thing, then you go back up.
I think that’s a really interesting strategy to use because I think most cultures use humour in a huge way, and as a way of survival, especially for Indigenous people.
Wikipedia tells me—please don’t judge—that during his performance “Take a Picture with a Real Indian,” James is quoted as having said “And then I just stand there. Eventually, one person will pose with me. After that they just start lining up. I’ll do that for a while until I get mad enough or humiliated enough.”
Mad enough or humiliated enough. That really hit me. Like, how closely those two emotions sat together before one would rise forth. I wonder too why he would create that space knowing how it would make him feel. It seems vulnerable to me, and incredibly courageous. Can you relate to what he said?
Yes, I can totally relate. I get it. I know where he was coming from. I wouldn’t say he was vulnerable. He was just bringing stereotypes of the Indigenous man to people, you know, White people. That’s how they picture us as Indian people. And so I think he was frustrated because more people would go up [to have a picture taken] when James was dressed up with the loin cloth and the headdress than they would with just him in his normal clothes. He talked about that a lot. I think it was more frustration and yeah, anger.
It was a performance but then he made a video out of it. In the video, every time he leaves the platform and goes and changes into his next outfit, he talks about how he is going “up the ante” and that he’s going to come out like “the Real Indian.” The stereotypes are frustrating and they still get created today.
I am sorry for your loss, by the way. I assume you two were quite close. His passing must have been quite difficult for you.
Yes, it was a shock. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years now.
You have shared that James told you that “performance art is a medium that doesn’t compromise our Indigenous culture.” Can you explain how this is true and how that manifests in your work?
It manifests because we can play those stereotypes, but because it’s through performance art, we can unpack those stereotypes at the same time. Like, how do you paint a stereotype and then undo it in a painting, or in a sculpture? Do you know what I mean?
Performance is so immediate. Stereotypes and making stereotypes when you are an Indigenous person is a very slippery slope. But with performance art, you can present a persona and then unpack it because it is immediate. You can’t do that in other media, except perhaps through video or film. Performance art is so different from doing an installation, or photography. To me, it is very, very different.
There are many different themes and motifs in your art. I’d like to ask you about rock, as both a monument and as a tool. There are some powerful images of you standing on rocks, but also using rocks to crush berries. I assume the rocks you are standing on in the photos are of significance.
That piece is influenced by a very significant rock called Mistaseni (Cree for big rock). It was a buffalo stone that was blown up [dynamited in the construction of the Gardiner Dam in 1966]. Why they had to blow it up, I don’t know. I understand they couldn’t move it, but why not leave it? Governments do crazy things, especially when it comes to being Indigenous in this country. The rock I am standing on [in those photos] is a part of what was the Mistaneni. There have been a few of our sacred buffalo stones blown up in Saskatchewan. Clearing the Plains, right?
I work with stones because, as a child, we would go on holidays and we would go see Medicine Wheels. Spending the summer on the reserve, we would go up to where my mom grew up before there was electricity or running water; all the residences on reserves were put really far back from the main road and far from other people. They didn’t want us socializing.
Where my mother grew up and where my grandfather built his first house, there is an old trail. It was a place where people from my Nation would camp because you see forever. There were tipi rings out there. And rocks that were old tools. So, growing up, I was just really interested in rock art, Plains rock art. To me, the rock is our history in Saskatchewan, and still is. And a lot of it got tilled up when they were clearing the Plains. There’s still lots that exists; farmers and Indigenous people are finding these sites and getting them protected by the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society so that no oil company or organization can disturb the rock art.
Resilience is also a theme in your work. The word is used often, now especially. Do you still identify with the word resilience?
I was part of the Resilience Project that came out of Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) here in Winnipeg. They hired Lee-Ann Martin to create a billboard project in which she curated fifty of us Indigenous artist women and which went up across Canada. I really believe Indigenous people in this country have to be resilient or we probably wouldn’t be here. It’s not a word I am using everyday in my career, but it is a word I might use when talking about how Indigenous people had to survive.
I’ve been thinking about us going through this global pandemic of COVID, and I started thinking about how this is how my ancestors must have felt when they were starting to get small pox—being given small pox in blankets, not knowing what it was. There wasn’t even the common cold here before settlers got here.
You don’t have to answer this next question and I don’t have to publish your answer, but I am wondering, does it feel complicated to receive a Governor General’s Award?
No, I can answer this and you can print it. My brother got an Award in 2002, which I think was one of the first or second times they had given them out to visual and media artists. I’ve also had a number of friends who have gotten one over the years, and have had discussions with them, like what do you feel? And they have asked me. As a treaty person, our relationship is not with the federal government, it was with the Queen. Queen Victoria signed our treaties. So, there is this historical relationship that we have as Plains Indians, or probably all treaty people in Canada, a relationship that we have with the Crown. I don’t find it complicated in accepting this award. I’m very honoured to have received it along with the people who received it this year, and I am very honoured to be included with the people who have gotten it in the past who were Indigenous. I am honoured and overwhelmed at the same time.
edited for length and clarity