Jennifer Lee Smith
Jennifer Lee Smith is a Métis cis, straight, female. She is a curator and arts administrator in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the land she is from.
Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist.
Written transcript is below.
"Being white presenting, I find two things happen. Like one, either I've been questioned about like is this space I should be taking up at times, but not by Indigenous artists, by like, you know, white people running these spaces or working in these spaces or, you know, just other artists, white artists in the community; but flipside to that, I also find, being white presenting, I worry that people are asking me to do work because they think it might be easier to work with me. And I try to not be easy. I try to be really difficult..." [00:39:34]
Interview with Jennifer Lee Smith
Jennifer Lee Smith: Okay, so my name is Jennifer Lee Smith. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
I'm Métis. This is the land that my ancestors have always lived on in this general area. I'm forty
years old, I'm female, and I'm straight, I guess.
Louis Esmé: Could you tell me a bit more about your - the method of your artistic
Jennifer Lee Smith: So I mainly work as a curator and arts administrator; I feel like the arts administrator part most people wouldn't consider artistic expression, but for me it is a part of my practice as a curator. So as a curator, you know, I've been working for about ten years and I focused a lot in my early career on craft based work in textiles, not exclusively curating Indigenous work, but always including it in my projects. Over the last few years I've sort of come to a place where I'm focussing on my culture within my curatorial practice, and I think that really changed for me when I realized that there was potential for me to affect my community in stronger ways if I decided to sort of focus on that. It seemed like a bit of a natural progression with so much of my practice focusing on craft and that being such a huge part of Indigenous making, so being able to tell stories through my curating and through the artwork of other people or sharing other people's stories through my curation; and I'd say that has been a huge shift and sometimes a little bit uncomfortable in that I'm still finding my way a little bit. And I mean, I guess we're all on our journey through life and understanding the roles that we play within our culture and that our culture plays in our lives, but I feel at times I've, you know, been - I'm light skinned, so I feel like uncertain about the place I'm taking up within that role, uncertain about, you know, if this is something... Yeah, I don't even entirely know how to explain it, but just there's always questioning amongst all of it. But I think that it's been one of the best changes in my career that I could have ever made in the most fulfilling way of working that I can ever imagine, and I feel that it's changed my life completely in terms of the way I will work moving forward. And administratively, I feel the way that it affects my creative process also is that, for me, creative process is about community. So it's not about me getting to curate an exhibit that is like, you know, that revolves around me. It's about the artists. It's about the people they're supporting, that exhibit growing up. So generally, I try to only hire people who are doing contract work to help install the exhibit or take photos of it that are Indigenous. And if there isn't someone we can find, I always ensure that there's funding and so we can begin mentoring younger people to come into those roles. And so that's what I do administratively that I feel does support the creative portion of my work.
Louis Esmé: Heck, yeah. That's like some pretty awesome Auntie roles too.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: The responsibility of culturally thinking about people who are coming next.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah. I'm - I think I'm full Auntie.
Louis Esmé: So some of the questions like this - we're asking everyone the same ones, but how you interpret them obviously is like - and we're not, like, we're saying identifiers of gender and sexuality within an Indigenous concept, context, cultural context is also for you to self determine what those things mean, right? So, just take that with whatever that means to you.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Okay, okay, thank you.
Louis Esmé: So thinking about both of your practices with curating and also with the
administrative part and coordinating things, is there a piece or a time or a show or an event that stands out for you as being a very important part of your practice?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, I'd say last year I had, in 2018, I was the Indigenous Curator in Residence at Ace Art here in Winnipeg. So I took on that role for six months, and it was the first time that I just really felt comfortable in, I guess, completely allowing my cultural identity to takeover with my curatorial identity. And it was - there was challenging moments, like I think that acknowledging that I was hired as an Indigenous curator into a non-Indigenous space, a mainly white-led space, was challenging, but also it was the first time I was able to fully acknowledge like the... I don't like the word power, but I can't think of a better word. So, like the power that I could hold in saying "I'm not doing it your way," so for me, that was really significant in being able to go in and say, "I know you want me here and you think that there is value I can bring. So, in me coming into this space, we are doing it my way,". And so that was a really big shift for me and it made me feel empowered to question more things and spaces that I'm in.
So I also sit on the Public Art Committee of the Winnipeg Arts Council, which I've been finding really interesting, but also challenging and talking about like city land and places that public art can be placed. Ownership of land comes up a lot within the context of this committee and it's challenging to sit there and acknowledge that, yes, like, this is the way that things are actually working right now, but this isn't the way things really are. You know, like this isn't city land.
And so being able to have those discussions in those spaces and feel like I can really came from that that residency that I did and that I've, you know, through other work I've been doing over the last year or two, just really being able to assert myself and being able to hopefully do best for my community, I guess. You know, I - yeah, that's always my goal and my hope.
Louis Esmé: That's awesome that, like you just described a process really well, and like so much of your thinking and layers of thinking, was there a show that happened during your residency that you feel like you, like, put that into practice?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, well, so I created an exhibit called One Self in One Another, and it had started with me researching - Well, for me, it was about the diversity of the ways Indigenous artists work, because I think that that's not acknowledged enough. Like often there's these, like, mega shows of all Indigenous women artists. But like, no one's sitting down and saying, well, do you acknowledge that this person is Indigenous, but you don't look at their artwork and think that's Indigenous, or that this person is Indigenous or Two Spirit, and that there is like multiple identities that are being talked about within it, and this person is specifically focusing on what it means to work with tradition or etc, etc.
Like there's just so much diversity in the ways that Indigenous artists are creating artwork that isn't fully discussed or acknowledged, it's always so that it's about our culture and that's about it. You know, sort of the discussions don't get a lot deeper. And so that was where it started. And it sort of turned into, I think it changed a bit from that, where I ended up with a little bit more focus on ideas around kinship and community within it because when I started researching the word identity and what that meant there was a lot of discussion about identity - Or, I guess, not a lot of discussion. In this one article I read there was a lot of discussion about identity being about being yourself and not of other. And for me, that just didn't sound like what our community is, that so much of the work that we do is about doing it for each other. And so it morphed into a little bit of that, but I still kept that original conversation going as much as I could throughout the exhibit. And yeah, so that was sort of the major jumping off point of where these things began for me, I'd say.
Louis Esmé: Are there artists or art movements in particular that have influenced your practice?
Jennifer Lee Smith: I mean, yeah, I'd say - I mean, the first person who is probably on most people's lists is Rebecca Belmore, who just blows my mind. And I remember the first time I met her, I like walked away and I was like, "oh, my God. I just met Rebecca Belmore!" like -
Louis Esmé: I think many of us had that feeling.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah! And so, you know, Rebecca's always at the centre for me of sort of a guiding post like, you know, I feel like if I'm questioning something I often come back to like interviews or articles that have been written about her or that she's been involved in. And she’s just - she's amazing, but then I also feel like right now about like the generation that I'm sort of a part of women Indigenous artists is really influential on me.
So locally, I mean, Jaime Black is one of my really close friends, but before I met Jaime Black, I mean, I knew about the Red Dress Project and and her work there. And Niki Little, who is part of the Ephemerals, is, you know, an artist that I am so happy to get to call my friend, but also it's an artist that I really value and a curator whose work I really value, who's now the artistic director at imagineNATIVE. And it's cool, like, Jenny Western, who's a curator in the city and part of the Ephemerals, and I have known each other since we were 14 years old. And it's interesting to also, like, see this progression of friendship in life that, you know, comes to this place where we’re working in similar ways.
But I, you know, I can - these are a lot of local people, but I can also just say like it extends like it's just any time I'm moving across the country, like physically or like, you know, even just doing research, I do find that a lot of the work that women artists are doing, women Indigenous artists, are doing are just really making a change for our community. And I am so grateful for that. And so last year I was able to meet Meagan Musseau, who's from Newfoundland, who is just like such a wonderful, gentle human being. Caroline Monnet, who used to live in Winnipeg but is now in Montreal, is someone who constantly blows my mind. And then I think of artists who I've met, but I'm maybe not friends with, like Thirza Cuthand who - I can't even imagine a world without Thirza Cuthand, like I just feel like their work makes the world better.
So I do feel like there is something that keeps connecting me back to the work that women Indigenous artists are doing. And it really doesn't matter what medium they're working in or, you know, if there's specific influences they have, it's really just about the way those women work for each other, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, what you're saying also reminds me of like the online support community around earrings, just like beaded earrings.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: I feel like if that's like just one example literally of people just like women, Indigenous women and Two Spirit people trading and sharing and supporting each other.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah. Yeah. It's amazing.
Louis Esmé: I love it.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, me too.
Louis Esmé: It's so good, plus so many good earrings, like including the ones you're wearing.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, thanks.
Louis Esmé: Thinking about where we are, and this is your territory, I'm wondering if you can say a bit about how the land and the waters have influenced your work or influenced and are still influencing?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, I recently curated a video program called For the Love of This Place, and the idea was - not all of the works were necessarily by people who are currently living on this land, but most of them were. And for me it feels confusing a little bit like my - you know, my family has generally lived urbanly since the I mean, since the Métis people existed. You know, the majority of our - my ancestors would have lived in Red River or Winnipeg. And so in some ways, like, I feel like it influences me because I get to walk in the footsteps and on the lands, I mean, they might be covered up by cement, which I think about often too. But, you know, I get to walk in these places in the same space spaces that my ancestors got to [walk] or were here in, and I feel like that's a real privilege to just sometimes stop and spend some time in a certain place, and like think about like, "I wonder who was here?" I'm sure they were in this exact place doing something at some point, but I wonder who was and what they were doing and what, you know, maybe what was significant to them. And I feel like a lot of the stories of our family's past and specifically my father is my Métis parent. So, you know, that side of the family specifically, I feel like we're lost because my grandparents, my father's parents died very young. And so I - none of the grandchildren ever met them. My dad was very young when they passed too so, you know, a lot of things that I might ask him, he doesn't have answers for or have a lot to share.
And so, you know, we piece it together the ways that we can. And sometimes maybe we're making a little bit up, but it's probably, you know, semi-accurate in terms of knowledge that we have. And, yeah, so I feel like I don't really entirely know how it affects me in my practice; I know that I am very grateful to be able to live where my ancestors lived, and I like to acknowledge that as much as possible. I like to acknowledge and support the artists that are also working here and have come from here and who care for this land as much as I do so. But outside of that, I don't know if it gets much deeper. So, yeah.
Louis Esmé: How do you feel like your gender identity and/or sexuality influenced your early years, and how do you bring that into today?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, I can honestly say throughout the years like I've acknowledged that I have had discomfort working with men, so I haven't like - I was mainly raised by my mother through my childhood years and my dad has been very involved in my life, in my teenage years and older. But, you know, there was this whole portion of my life where I maybe saw him a couple of times a year. And so I feel like I gravitate towards women just naturally because of that, and maybe not even just women, but like non-males, naturally, because of that. It's like I feel just a little bit more comfortable expressing myself, I guess, amongst women. And so that I think really influenced me early on.
And I, you know, we spent a lot of time focused on feminist art and, you know, what that meant and engaged with MAWA which is a women's art centre here in Winnipeg. And those things have been great and just, you know, researching ideas around women's work and what it means to work with your hands, and a lot of Western ideology is based on that, too, like, what that means, because in Indigenous culture, like, yes, there's still women who crafted, but there was a lot of men working with their hands, too. And so I'd say as I've like sort of moved into my more recent career, it's influenced me a lot in terms of like questioning what it means to make, what gender identity means within making, what - I mean, what gender identity means within artistic practice at all. I feel at times I also haven't totally felt comfortable as someone who's identified as a straight woman telling stories or like - not that I've struggled with including stories that aren't my own, but in including them I've struggled with how to represent that too.
So last year I was really lucky to have curated a trans artist into one of my exhibits and realized while I was writing and my editor was saying, like, this is - there's some glaring things that you’ve omitted. And I realized that I was like - I just - I don't feel like it's for me to represent those stories, but I had to, like, sort of figure those things out along the way, too, because for me, it was also really important to think about the including the diversity of those stories if we're talking about diversity of Indigenous artists. So I'm I guess I'm trying to be like pretty candid about this, but I also like, you know, I want to be gentle and caring with any story that an artist is entrusting me to represent on their behalf through an exhibit.
And so those are things that I, you know, spend a lot of time thinking about and wanting to ensure that the artist is comfortable with as well before I am representing gender through my eyes, essentially. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Thanks for sharing that.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, thanks for listening, I feel -
Louis Esmé: Let me just - if I can share a bit more too, there are other women that we’ve approached to interview, and it is... Other people have expressed similar things to what you’re saying and that I feel like my role and our role in the project is to just listen to that, to what you’re saying because there's, you know, it's not like a comparison, but there are a lot of people who aren't saying these things.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: So once people take the time to think things through and talk about them and I think that process is really important to document in some way.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, and I guess also acknowledge how that can change in a positive way, hopefully over time to like, you know, yeah. I mean, I hope I'm constantly changing positively within those contexts and that, you know, I can grow to be better. For my kin that might need something from me. Maybe they don't either, which is great, but, you know, if I can be useful, I hope that I can grow to be better at it and more, yeah, yeah.
Louis Esmé: And like, purposefully, we have let people self identify and find their place because it's not for us to say, you know, that..
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: So whatever you want to share or not share is fine. So thinking about your growing up experience, what role did art play? How do you remember that and be with that now?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Oh, I mean I don't know that it played a huge role in my childhood. Like I, you know, there's - I remember drawing a lot and I guess my mom and I did a lot of crafts together. And so those things were there, but it was never really acknowledged as art. It was more like a hobby or something that we did. So, and it's interesting as an adult too, like both of my parents are very uncomfortable with what I do. They both, you know, I think they both said the same words of "I don't understand all the art stuff," or, you know, my dad, like, was like, really confused why there would only be like four artists in an exhibit I was curating and he thought there should be like 50 or 100 or things like that. And so, you know, just it's interesting to think about how little we actually actively talked about art when I was a kid and how little it was a part of our lives.
However, I do have memories of reading books or I had this like encyclopaedia set, and it's funny to think about how many things that I would find in there about art that like connected and stayed with me. You know, even just like realizing when I went into art history at university I had a lot of these like anecdotal stories just from things that, you know, are sort of put out into the world, but for some reason like stuck with me as like, "I know this about this like famous artist from the Renaissance" or this person from like modern art times or whatever. So it was interesting to think about - it did stick, but I don't really know why or how, I guess there is just like a connection from an early age.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, and I guess the one other thing I'll say, like in terms of making, is it seems to me in my family that there wasn't an acknowledgement of the creative sides of it, that it was really about utility. But everyone was making and was trying, or the women, were all making and trying to be creative with it and have fun and choose colours or make, you know, like, you know, all the wacky mittens my grandma would knit me when I was a kid, but it was never acknowledged that it could be creative. It was just "you need mittens" kind of thing. So it's, I think, that there sometimes amongst women who are just like really there to care for their families, there's not that acknowledgement that creativity plays a role in the things that they're making. And so that was sort of my childhood with that, yeah, that's all.
Louis Esmé: Thinking about the generation that you grew up in, what do you think about that?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, I don't really know. I feel like I think about generations, like in terms of the way it's like defined globally or like even in Western context of being I guess I'm like the end of Generation X, but then, like, you know, generation - millennials were like almost right after, so. And I think about it that way often and I'm like - I don't - I can see, like, how the way society functioned has an effect on us, but also that it's not, you know, it doesn't mean that it’s exclusively how I'm defined. And then I look at also the generation of Indigenous artists that I'm a part of, or Indigenous people, like not just artists, and that there is sort of a way that you can see a collective sort of way that we're moving forward in the world that feels different from the ideas of like Western definitions of generations, so. But I don't really know how it affects me entirely.
Like I know that within the context of, like, Indigenous culture, I can see how we're working to heal and make things better for those that come after us and those that are here now, like I can see that that work is being done and there's a real focus on that. And that keeps me moving forward, like I don't think I could move forward very well without that knowledge and seeing that collective action sort of happening together. Yeah, I think that's it though, I don't know if I have any more thoughts on it than that, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Cool, that makes sense. Some of these things also you've touched on, like the next question is: what aspects of your Indigenous identity influence your practice?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, I think I can also just quickly say, like, I try and centre everything that I do from a Métis lens. So I think it's like, for example, I was just asked to curate this exhibit that I had, like, a lot of questions about. And it was like, you know, there was this - there's a little bit of a historical context that came into it, although it was a contemporary art exhibit, and I realized like the Métis would have existed but at the time of this historical context that came into the exhibit but they wouldn't have been acknowledged as the Métis yet. It would have been like, you know, very early in the days of Europeans coming to Western Canada.
And so it made me really question like, how do I even begin curating this exhibit? Like there's no context that has anything to do with my history, like within what they're sort of looking for. And so those things are - that's always sort of where I start is where I think about like, "okay, how do I centre my culture within this?" And if it was, you know, if someone came to me and was like, “we want an exhibit completely about Dene people," like absolutely not, I'm not curating that, you know? There has to be a reason that if my culture is coming into the exhibit that my Métisness can play a role in that discussion. So I'd say that probably covers it.
Louis Esmé: Are there cultural teachings around gender and sexuality that you feel comfortable sharing, and about how it relates to art?
Jennifer Lee Smith: I would say I haven't gotten any teachings like that at this point that I am. I think that's a place that I am like struggling with a little bit is how to access the teachings that I want and need. And so I find, you know, in some Métis communities, they'll have had like systems of like stronger community than, say, in Winnipeg, where there's always sort of been a governing body but also that governing body has sort of sometimes, you know, like depending on your ancestry of what like Métis wasn't always just Métis and like, you know, although we do have French ancestry, like my dad says to me all the time, like, "when I was a kid, we weren't Métis, we were just half breeds," and like the, you know, as he grew up, he became really involved with the Manitoba Métis Federation. But just like acknowledging that there isn't always someone to access, I find it difficult to find access to teachings or stories or histories that I want/I would like to have access to, because there is a lot of focus on like the political body of the of the Métis in Manitoba and a little less on building the community and having access to people. And maybe that's just my experience, too. But it's something I've struggled with and haven't been able to find teachings on things like gender and really a lot, to be honest, like it's often me just like sifting through books and information or showing up at a talk because I think it might provide what I want. But that's yeah, that's... So I don't have any, I guess, that I can share or that I can think of.
Louis Esmé: Yeah. I mean it sounds to me like you are knowledge gathering.
Jennifer Lee Smith: I'm - that's the place I'm definitely in right now. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Makes sense. Do you identify as Two Spirit and/or Indigenous LGBTQ, and if not how do you identify, like what words do you use to describe yourself?
Jennifer Lee Smith: I don't in that I guess I generally identify as a cis straight female. You know, my partner is male and - but also is, yeah. So that is how I identify, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Can you say maybe a bit more about how you feel - like, why you feel drawn to the project? Because there's this, like, liminal space, I feel like.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, for me, I think it's that, I mean, I guess like these are the ways I identify and sometimes I think like that's how I've identified all my life and maybe I don't think about it a lot, but that there's just like, there are... For me, it's just like there's so many people in the world that identify in various ways, but it's not - How do I want to say this? Like it's not like I feel different than anyone else, like I feel like we all are here together for a reason to sort of share our stories and to lift each other up. And that is really important to me to, you know, just ensure that there's no way that like just because that's my identity, that there isn't space in what I do for anything else.
Like it's very important to me that there is space within the work that I do. And so, again, that might come down to the administrative work that I do, as an arts administrator, like I am constantly spending time working with Two Spirit artists through my work at Video Pool, having their work in our archive, distributing their work to get exhibition for them. And so for me, it's like, "how do I have space in my life for anyone who needs support through their artistic practice?”
And that's what this project I think means - is like I'm interested in that: there's a gathering of information, there's a gathering of putting together stories, and caring for people in the ways that they create. And those all are a part of the way my practice works, and I want that for every single person that I meet, essentially, is I want to be able to share stories or make space for them to tell, like anyone, to tell their own stories or show their art or, you know, like even with some artists, like I think about their work, not even necessarily being shown, but the fact that there's like a space in our archive here that ensures that if someone does want access to it it's here and it's cared for or that I can work to try and create access to it as well.
This morning I was talking about an artist from B.C. named Zachary Longboy with one of my colleagues, and Zachary hasn't made new video art in a long time, but just thinking about the fact that, like, it's being exhibited downstairs in our gallery space at Video Pool right now and that, you know, people still come to Video Pool to access these videos he made in the '90s. It's so...
Anyhow, I find it so important that there is that space and not just the work that I'm doing, but that there are so many people doing that work to open up discourse and care for the wellbeing of those practices. So that's what it is for me.
Louis Esmé: Thank you. As an Indigenous artist, can you speak to your experiences within a mainstream
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, I think that it is... I think currently there's a lot of people who want to do the right thing and they want to do well by Indigenous artists, and I think that that is complicated and not as easy as just wanting to do well by Indigenous artists. So, for me, what I find is like - and some of this is really personal, but also not exclusive to me. But, you know, being white presenting, I find it - I find two things happen. Like one, either I've been questioned about like is this space I should be taking up at times, but not by Indigenous artists, by like, you know, white people running these spaces or working in these spaces or, you know, just other artists, white artists in the community; but flipside to that, I also find, being white presenting, I worry that people are asking me to do work because they think it might be easier to work with me. And I try to not be easy. I try to be really difficult, if that's a concern that I have because I don't want to take on those roles if there is an idea that it's just that, you know, they'll get what they want from me and not really be questioned. And I think that, you know, there's -
So one thing I will say, in working in an artist run centre and then also like I've worked in others, I find it really interesting to think about the needs of an artist run centre versus the needs of Indigenous artists in an artist run centre. So those are two really opposing things, in my opinion, that oftentimes, you know, artists run centres don't have large budgets, they need to be cared for and careful in very specific ways. You know, there's times where if funding isn't great that, you know, you try and make the best of it and do what you can. And sometimes that means not always being able to do the best by the artists in the space. But, for me, I think that that means that doesn't always jive well with bringing an Indigenous artist into a space.
So it means that you're potentially, as an artist running centre, controlling a budget and not allowing the Indigenous artists to guide what their needs are within that budget. That means sometimes you think that just like making space is enough, but sometimes making space is not - well, most of the time making space is not enough unless you're completely giving everything in terms of self-determination over to the artist, you know, even just the way galleries sometimes want to be visually represented. So, you know, having logos of all these, like colonial organizations on a poster for an Indigenous exhibition can be problematic.
There's so many things that need to be negotiated and talked about. Even, for example, recently I had talked about wanting to understand what it would mean if, in a space like Video Pool, we had an Elder come in and who, you know, possibly there was a - something where smudging happened over an hour or longer and the entire space was filled with with smudge, and what would that mean for our equipment? And even just, you know, sprinkler systems and trying to sort some of that out to ensure that it could be done. And, you know, then having to have a discussion of what that does mean for, say, technology based art supplies in a room and how we deal with that.
And so, you know, realizing that I'm in this space and I can ask - I know to ask these questions and have longer discussions about them, but that might be challenging for an artist coming in and not even realizing that it's a discussion that needs to be had, that they feel it should have just been cared for for them before they came in. And without Indigenous people in a workspace, you don't always think of those things. So I think those are a lot of ways that I felt affected by that within my practice, moving into spaces, and even just sometimes, like, for example, last year I was at a conference and it's a conference that happens every two years and I've been going for over six years. Last year it was Indigenous lead and so I hosted a panel at it and a bunch of people in the room had never realized I was Métis before, and all of a sudden everyone in the room was like, "oh, we should work together,".
And I'm like, "why have you never asked me this before?" Like, I'm just not actually interested in working with you if this is how it comes up. So I just, you know, there's things like that that are really... They're challenging and they're extra work. It's a lot of labour to move through it and to like - I personally spend like - I go home after work and I decompress at least once a week where I'm like, "okay, how do I feel about all the things that happened this week? Did I react to them in the ways I want to? Did I ensure that what needs to happen happened?" Like, and these are things that I spend a lot of time thinking about and ensuring that whatever space that I have any influence on is going to be good or at least better for my community if they enter into it, yeah.
Louis Esmé: It sounds like you're very intentional about it.
Jennifer Lee Smith: I try, I hope. Yeah, but I try. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Flipside, maybe not flipside: can you speak to your experience with Indigenous art scenes
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, so we're really lucky in Winnipeg to have Urban Shaman Gallery, which, you know, not every city gets to have an Indigenous led art space like that. And it's, you know, I will say it's probably actually one of the first artist run centres I ever went to in the city when I started university. And it's always just had a huge impact on my career in terms of creating access to artists that I wouldn't necessarily otherwise have access to if they weren't exhibiting them. And I mean, currently there are spaces, other spaces, a lot of other spaces showing Indigenous art.
But, at the time, there wasn't. Like, that was the place I was accessing Indigenous artists unless I was finding like soapstone carvings at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, you know? So that, for me, that’s hugely influential and so important that we have more of those spaces around the country, and there are more opening but not enough in my opinion. Like there should be one in every major city or every province at least, like it's so integral to me. It also makes me feel like community is really accessible if I need it. I, especially in university, like it being one of the first times I had access to Indigenous contemporary art. And the first exhibit I saw was of David Garneau out of Regina, so another Métis person and it like blew my mind the questions that that exhibit was bringing up for himself as an artist that completely related to the questions I was bringing up for myself. And it was so validating, which I didn't know I needed until I saw it, you know, and, yeah. And I mean, there's always, you know, there's always things that every centre can be doing better or different.
And I think, you know, I often think about things I would like to be happening in an Indigenous led art space in Winnipeg and what it would mean to start that and be different from Urban and what they do, and that we don't have to be limited to just one space, like we should be able to create the spaces that we need, yeah. And, I mean, I'm talking specifically about Winnipeg because that's where I spend most of my time, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that, like, currently, there is a lot of like migration across the country of people coming together through conferences or, you know, going to - like I love that imagineNATIVE calls themselves "Indigenous Christmas" and like that we're all there having fun together when it happens.
And even, you know, thinking, although it wasn't an Indigenous led initiative like last year, in Montreal there was the My Sister exhibit curated by Niki Little and Becca Taylor. And going for the weekend of opening's was amazing that there were artists from across the country that weren’t part of the exhibit, but people like travelled across the country to be there to celebrate this huge exhibit opening. Things like that are so integral, I think, to us sort of thriving as a community. Yeah. Also, there's a lot of privilege in being able to travel across the country to, like, do those things, and I know it's not accessible to everyone. So that's also why I like to bring it back to the local things of how how we create that space and mimic that type of community here.
Louis Esmé: Totes, yeah. Does your practice involve global Indigenous artists, and how does that work? How do you negotiate that space?
Jennifer Lee Smith: I would say it doesn't. Currently I feel like I'm learning a lot right now. I feel like I spent a lot of years just observing and taking in information, and now I'm ready to output it, output my creativeness through what I've learned, but that, you know, it's still - I'm still learning so much about what's happening here that it feels really overwhelming to begin really taking in meaningfully what's happening outside of, I guess, Turtle Island. Like, I would say, I do spend time researching what's happening in the US as well. But, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, totally, there's a lot going on there all the time.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, there is.
Louis Esmé: Within your practices, how do you use art to address social and cultural issues?
Jennifer Lee Smith: That's a big one. I feel for me a big part of what I - Like, I think that there's a really big place for the hard discussions that need to happen within the arts and, you know, projects like I'm Walking With Our Sisters or the Red Dress Project address that, and that those people do that work really well. And for me, I want to celebrate what we do in - celebrate what artists do in a really, like, in a way that sort of maybe doesn't totally focus on social issues, that they are always a part of it because that's a part of life. But for me it's, you know... If, in an exhibit I'm curating there probably isn't going to be a lot of heavy issues, for me it's going to be, "wow, look at the amazing work this artist has - what they've created," or, "let's celebrate the way this person is learning about their traditional culture," or, you know, those types of things. So for me, it's really about celebrating the ways that we create. And it's really - I do think that that is very strongly political in that, in the media, and day to day; I mean, every single day I read an extremely sad story in the news about an Indigenous person. It is there every day, several times a day. And there's an abundance of those stories, and so for me, I want to tell the amazing stories and I want to make space for the amazing stories. And that's my focus.
So I want there to always be that acknowledgement of the really wonderful work that people are doing from, you know, the lady on the street who might stop me to talk about my beaded earrings and tell me about the beading she does, and I want to celebrate every ounce of that work that she does to like people like Rebecca Belmore who are, you know, acknowledged in in very different ways from the woman who just stops me on the street to talk about her beading, but who have an equal influence on the way I move forward in the world, and who I want their stories to be out in the world no matter what. And for people to be happy to hear them and to not have to feel sadness about our culture. That's what I want.
Louis Esmé: It reminds me of something I heard Lee Maracle say once, when she was talking about her stories, was that she always tries to leave people with hope, with something that - like in truthtelling, right?
Louis Esmé: How does your practice involve community and how do you do that?
Jennifer Lee Smith: Well, I also think I'm really lucky that I have a really strong community here in Winnipeg. So I think, like, in some ways, Urban Shaman is a great gathering space for community and being able to meet people and create that community, but it's also done in many other ways. So, for example, like we, in Winnipeg, there's actually a lot of curators in Winnipeg, a concentration of us, but also, you know, amazing artists, too. And we gather in various ways, you know, just supporting the work that each others does, showing up at like each other's exhibits and artist talks and screenings or whatever it is. We try and celebrate our accomplishments together through meals and whatever type of celebration we can do when someone has a change in their career or life of some sort, and that's sort of my more direct community of like, you know, maybe 20, 30 people.
And then on a broader scale, I think it's just like there's so much that happens in this city, you know, from different things, like round dances at Portage and Main to you know, bring attention to various injustices or celebrating things like Red Rising Magazine and going to the launches of those magazines, you know, to things like Meet Me at The Bell Tower, which isn't necessarily, you know, has nothing to do with, like, art making, but the fact that there’s like this thing that every Friday at six o'clock, people meet at this bell tower and ring the bell together. And then there's - you can go into the community centre across the street and often there's a shared meal for free. And the last time I went, it was in the spring, so it was close to Easter, and they were - everyone got tickets in the room and could potentially win like chocolate Easter bunnies or a bag of groceries. And some people were like, "no, I don't - I don't need that,” and they were like, "no, actually, everyone in the room has to take a ticket," like, we're all worthy of winning a prize. There's no one here who - you know, we don't want to say that anyone in this room is in need of something good in their life more than anyone else, and there's potential for everyone in this room to win something.
And so just showing up in those spaces is like... No matter how small or big the contribution to being in those spaces is, there's so much good happening and so much love being shared. And for me that's like what community is and it is trying to find those places where that love is being shared for each other. And sometimes, yeah, it's just like showing up for 15 minutes to ring the bell. And sometimes it's just to buy a magazine and sometimes it's, you know, to share a beautiful meal together. But really, it's like, for me, it’s about sharing kindness and love and caring for each other in whatever ways we can.
Louis Esmé: Okay, I think we're done.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Okay.
Louis Esmé: And thank you, wela'lin.
Jennifer Lee Smith: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for listening.