KC Adams and the Art of Disarming Racism

by Shawna Dempsey

KC Adams stood before her father and wept. Despite what had been a thriving career as a visual artist, she had no exhibitions scheduled for the future. She had no ideas for new work. She feared that there was nothing left for her to do or say. She was in a deep depression and truly believed her career was over.

KC Adams stood before her father and wept. Despite what had been a thriving career as a visual artist, she had no exhibitions scheduled for the future. She had no ideas for new work. She feared that there was nothing left for her to do or say. She was in a deep depression and truly believed her career was over.

In the previous 18 months, Adams had overcome vast technical challenges to create a large, web-like ceramic structure to hang above the lobby of Winnipeg’s United Way building. Clay is of the earth. And yet, she was able to meld this ancient material with negative space—with light—to create a matrix that embodied the interconnectedness and resiliency of community, with all of its tensions and rough edges intact. The piece, entitled Community, was Adams’ first public art commission, and it required her to push her medium to the limit, while inventing new artistic techniques to satisfy engineers’ concerns. Not surprisingly, due diligence with respect to safety on a project of that scale meant it took much longer than anticipated, and it was installed and de-installed more than once. Community was finally unveiled to a warm reception on a cold January night in 2014.

The end of that project overlapped with a potentially more daunting challenge. Adams was tasked with designing the scenic elements for Mark Godden’s ballet, Going Home Star, which was about the effects of Canada’s residential school system. Novelist Joseph Boyden wrote the story and Tina Keeper was the associate producer, but Adams was the only Indigenous person in a key creative role on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production. As such, she felt a tremendous debt to her elders.

The systemic incarceration of Indigenous children from the 1880s to the 1980s left an indelible mark on her family, as it has on every Indigenous family in Canada. Adams’ ancestral language was last spoken in her family by her great-grandmothers. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so vividly and painfully taught Canadians, Indigenous languages were literally beaten out of children.

The penalty for speaking, dancing and practising traditional ceremonies was all too often violence, isolation and privation. Adams’ great-grandmothers experienced the cost of living one’s indigeneity and they refused to teach their children their language in an effort to protect them.

For Going Home Star, Adams created contrasting landscapes: a lyrical birch forest and a desert of bones; a turtle shell, transformed into a sweat lodge, transformed into Turtle Island. Contrary to the hierarchical division of labour that is customary in ballet, Adams created glowing pods—which represent life and knowledge and are pivotal to the healing at the end of the ballet—with her own hands. It was important to her, not only for the project to contain her creative ideas but for her body to be present as well. In this way, she could honour the bodies of her forbearers.

In August 2014, the ballet was in its final stages of production. The process had been difficult for Adams. She was asked for ideas and opinions but often felt ignored. As a visual artist, she was used to being a sole, independent creator; at the ballet she realized she was a cog in a much larger wheel.

In different ways, Going Home Star and Community had been fraught, both creatively and organizationally. They had left her exhausted. It had been a challenging year for Adams, stretching her far beyond the bounds of what she had known, and she was spent. As she cried in her parents’ kitchen, she thought perhaps she was done. And then, things got worse. Within days, a series of incidents shocked her and the entire city in which she lives. A confluence of events laid bare Winnipeg’s racism and illuminated the ways in which Canadian society persists in devaluing Indigenous lives. Despite her fatigue,

Adams knew what she must do. In the midst of Winnipeg’s civic election last year, it was reported that the spouse of mayoral candidate Gord Steeves had complained on Facebook about “drunken native guys” and “thier (sic) sorry assess (sic) on welfare.” A week later, on August 17, the body of a 15-year-old Sagkeeng First Nation teenager, Tina Fontaine, was found in a bag in the Red River. Fontaine, who had been entrusted to the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services, had only lived in Winnipeg for a month. The same day, the body of Faron Hall, an Indigenous man who was known as “the homeless hero” after rescuing two victims from drowning in 2009, was pulled from the Red. As soon as the “drunken native guys” comments hit the media, Adams began creating once again.

Her practice has always included photographyas well as sculpture. From 2004 to 2014, she created a series entitled Cyborg Hybrids (her "Indian Princess" image appears on the Herizons 2015 cover). The series featured glossy, air-brushed photographic portraits of artists, all of whom use technology in their work and are of mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage. Each subject wears a white T-shirt emblazoned with beaded words or phrases stating a racist stereotype or slur. In this work, Adams asserts a contemporary Indigenous identity in opposition to the hateful clichés. She also validates and celebrates hybridity. As a young artist, she had once vowed that she would never make work about her Indigenous culture. After all, she “was assimilated.” She was “not traditional.”

As Adams explains, it has been a personal and artistic journey to be able to say, “I am white and red, and it is okay to be both.”

Kathleen Ash-Milby, associate curator at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, has said of Cyborg Hybrids: “Adams subversively confronts the audience: She draws them in with glamorous, otherworldly images, dares them to face the stereotypes that continue to dog contemporary

Native people and then challenges all of our ideas about authenticity.”

Cyborg Hybrids has been exhibited at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and the Vancouver Art Gallery, to name but a few venues. The series has been purchased by the National Gallery of Canada and is part of its permanent collection. Tens of thousands of people have seen and been moved by these photos. What if, Adams wondered, the medium of photography could be used to reach an even larger audience?

Disseminated through social media and public advertising, could it change the dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians? Adams’ resulting project, Perception, was launched on social media in the fall of 2014. Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery contacted her and asked if she would consider working with them to have the work seen in public places throughout Winnipeg.

In March 2015, Perception began to appear in physical form, blanketing the public landscape. In each of the works that comprise the series, two photos of the same person look at the viewer.

One is captioned with a racial stereotype, and one is captioned with a phrase each individual choose to describe themself. One text demands that viewers look at their assumptions, while the other reveals and celebrates the complexity of identity. These dignified and defiant paired portraits graced billboards, bulletin boards and bus shacks. But, more strategically and profoundly, they entered the national consciousness by continuing to spread electronically. Through these artworks, Adams demanded that Winnipeg face its racism, head-on. In January 2015, Maclean’s magazine declared Winnipeg, the city with the largest population of Indigenous people in Canada, to be the country’s most racist city.

The Perception Facebook page continues to archive stories of Indigenous triumph and adversity, and the series itself continues to grow. In October 2015, Adams travelled to Lethbridge, Alberta, to photograph the city’s community members and to create a Lethbridge-based version of Perception.

With this project, Adams feels like everything has come together. She was able to draw upon the commercial art skills she acquired in high school, her fine arts training at Concordia University and more than 15 years’ experience as a practising visual artist. She was able to articulate her commitment to community, something she had lived in her parallel career as a teacher with Manitoba artists in schools, a mentor with Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art and an informal mentor to many emerging Aboriginal artists. In Perception, Adams expressed her journey as a proud Indigenous person. And, last but not least, she feels that this project reflects her identity as a parent.

Adams says having a child has made her braver as an artist. She describes the birthing process as transformative. “My self-consciousness was gone. My modesty was gone. When I was birthing, I was all body, which was very humbling. I let go of a lot of baggage through that process. I had been a cautious child, a cautious young adult—I am a twin, so it really took until I was almost 30 to come to terms with myself as a separate individual. But now, it’s not just about me. It is about being a conduit for change. It is about making the world better for my son.”

Adams’ son, Mack, is now seven years old. According to Robert Innes, in “Moose on the Loose: Indigenous Men, Violence, and the Colonial Excuse,” published in the Aboriginal Policy Studies journal, he will face disproportionate challenges, simply because of his heritage. Indigenous men in Canada face much higher risks of incarceration and have shorter life expectancies than Canadian men in general. There is so much work to be done, even to begin to redress centuries of colonization.

Where to start?

Adams believes the answers can be found among elders. In 2010, she was awarded the prestigious Canada Council Studio in Parramatta, Australia. While there, she interviewed elders as a means of preserving traditional knowledge that is being lost with passing generations. She was particularly interested to learn about traditional medicines and how they might impact diseases such as diabetes that plague indigenous communities globally. Then, in June 2015, with assistance from a research project at the University of Manitoba, she travelled to Gillam, Split Lake, Norway House and Nelson House—all Manitoba communities that were negatively impacted by hydroelectric development. Community members agreed to let her videotape them, on the condition that she agree to share their stories.

In the southern parts of the country, we tend to think of hydro as clean, cheap, renewable energy, but in the North, the development of dams and deforestation for hydro lines have changed the landscape and a way of life. Traditional traplines have been flooded, and game such as lynx, moose and elk have almost disappeared in places. Lower water levels concentrate mercury; higher water levels erode root systems, unmooring trees and causing boating accidents. Development of all kinds contributes to climate change, and with it comes shifting habitat ranges and migration patterns.

In these ways, “clean” energy has resulted in communities where one can no longer drink the water, fish or hunt. Traditional ways of life are damaged along with peoples’ livelihoods.

The Banff Centre for the Arts is where Adams has, in the past, retreated to figure out her next steps. And it is where she hopes to head next year to contemplate how to responsibly share the stories she has been entrusted with. In Cyborg Hybrids and Perception, she felt it was important to include herself in the portraits series, to insert her subjective, bodily presence in the work. In Community and

Going Home Star, the act of making, of rendering by hand, reflected her investment in the work. The question of what to do with videotape of others’ traditional knowledge and others’ traditional ways of life is a challenge to Adams.

She is reminded of the words of one of her mentors, artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle: “Just because you weren’t raised with it, doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to your culture.” And she is inspired by the teaching she has been given from elders in both Australia and northern Manitoba, which stresses knowledge-sharing as much as spirituality.

In her life and art, Adams practises those teachings. “We are all part of the circle. We all have a responsibility. We all have to work together.”

Her life now includes going to ceremonies and she would like to learn Cree, the language of her great-grandmothers. And Adams no longer thinks she is done with art. As she has learned from elders, “It is all about balance.”