Episode 44. Interview with Ursula A. Johnson

Broken Boxes Podcast is proud to share the first artist conversation in a series of interviews featuring participants from the socially engaged project #callresponse.  

In this episode we get into conversation with Ursula A. Johnson, a performance and installation artist of Mi’kmaw descent. Ursula breaks down what her practice consists of, her inspirations for becoming an artist, the concepts her work explores and description of recent works. Ursula also speaks on her endurance performance work for The Land Sings and her reflections on the #callresponse project. 

Ursula A. Johnson

Ursula A. Johnson

"In the topics and themes I examine through performance, sculpture and or installation and sometimes all of the above; I aim at creating a space where the viewer is confronted with thought provoking visuals, sounds and scents. Often challenging the viewer to investigate their own Identity, as well as examining the relationship that their ancestry and cultural practices relates to that of mine." -Ursula A. Johnson

Here is the conversation with Ursula A. Johnson:

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Music in this episode from the album Power in the Blood by Buffy Sainte-Marie

More about the artist:

Ursula A. Johnson is a performance and installation artist of Mi’kmaw descent. People who attend her performances are often surprised to find themselves no longer spectators, but actors in a social situation. Instead of the private, contemplative response we usually expect from the encounter with a work of art, we become participants in collective interpretations and collaborative actions. 

Ursula Johnson holds a BFA (2006) from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where she studied photography, drawing and textiles. She also studied Theatre at Cape Breton University.  Johnson descends from a long line of Mi’kmaw Artists, including her late Great-Grandmother, Caroline Gould, from whom she learned basket making.  In 2010 she curated Klokowej: A 30-Year Retrospective commemorating Gould’s contribution to the evolution of Mi’kmaw basketry.

Ursula Johnson’s approach to basketry is typical of her transformational practice.  Rather than simply imitating traditional Mi’kmaw basket forms she uses traditional techniques to build subtly non-functional forms—objects that are clearly traditionally based yet raised to a metaphorical level of signification, as works of art. Several of her performances, including Elmiet (2010) and Basket Weaving (2011) incorporate basketry as a key element.

Her background in theatre is evident in her public performances. People who attend Johnson’s performances are often surprised to find themselves no longer spectators, but actors in a social situation.  Instead of the private, contemplative response we usually expect from the encounter with a work of art, we become participants in collective interpretations and collaborative actions.

Artist Project Details:

Ursula A. Johnson Ketapekiaq Maqamikew – The Land Sings follows from an audio­based endurance performance wherein Johnson collaborated with a Mi’kmaw singer/songwriter in Antigonish, NS to create a song for the land. The land is recognized as a feminine body and a matriarch by several Indigenous nations. Urban development and the disregard to the natural environment resonated with the artist in the development of this series. Children who attended residential schools were distanced from their homes, territory and the land. The traditional songs and voices of many First Nations were also displaced because of this process. Johnson’s project posits song as a positive force that brings people together in the act of singing. The premise of the piece is to create a song that is an apology to the land for the ways in which our human impact has shifted and shaped the landscape.

Photo credit: Henry Chan, Nikamon Ochi Askiy (Ke’tapekiaq Ma’qimikew): The Land Sings, Ursula Johnson created in collaboration with Cheryl L’Hirondelle, presented by FADO Performance Art Centre 2016. 

Photo credit: Henry Chan, Nikamon Ochi Askiy (Ke’tapekiaq Ma’qimikew): The Land Sings, Ursula Johnson created in collaboration with Cheryl L’Hirondelle, presented by FADO Performance Art Centre 2016. 

The original work was created by mapping a line on a topographical map from the customary land territory of the local Indigenous peoples to the closest, largest urban centre, from which a score was developed. Building on this, Johnson performed the fourth visitation of the project in Toronto ON in collaboration with interdisciplinary artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle (Metis/Cree) as part of MONOMYTHS, programmed by FADO Performance Art Centre. The fifth visitation of the work will take place in Vancouver BC sited in the traditional territory of one of the local First Nations (Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil­Waututh) as a way of addressing the history of division caused by the residential school system and colonialism more broadly.
The points of connection created through song span the country from its eastern to western shores, coming full circle to encompass both the diversity and specificity of the Indigenous nations within its boundaries. Johnson will collaborate with a local singer/songwriter to create a song of recognition and apology to the land, focusing on four themes related to this: a survey, an intervention, a celebration and a mourning. The performance will occur shortly before the exhibition opening (October 2016), presented as a continuous live vocal performance that will run for the duration of 4­6 hours. The water and land of the surrounding territory will witness the song along with being open to the public. An audio recording and visual representations of the topographical score will be included on the project website and exhibition.

Ursula Johnson, Ke'tapekiaq Ma'qimikew: The Land Sings, Cape Breton Visitation 2015. Photo: Dr. Marcia Ostashkewski. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ursula Johnson, Ke'tapekiaq Ma'qimikew: The Land Sings, Cape Breton Visitation 2015. Photo: Dr. Marcia Ostashkewski. Courtesy of the Artist.

#callresponse Project Details:

 

Strategically centering Indigenous women as vital presences across multiple platforms, #callresponse is a multifaceted project which includes a website, social media platform, touring exhibition and catalogue. The project brings together five local art commissions by Indigenous women artists from across Canada, including Christi Belcourt, Maria Hupfield, Ursula Johnson, Tania Willard and Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory. Each artist has invited a guest to respond to their work, including Isaac Murdoch, IV Castellanos and Esther Neff, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Marcia Crosby and Tanya Tagaq.

#callresponse is co-organized by Tarah Hogue, Maria Hupfield and Tania Willard, and produced in partnership with grunt gallery and generously supported by the {Re}conciliation initiative of the Canada Council for the Arts, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Additional presentation partners include BUSH Gallery, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, FADO Performance Art Centre, Kamloops Art Gallery, OFFTA live art festival, the National Arts Centre, and the Native Education College.

Listen to Broken Boxes Podcast #callresponse introduction interview here