Nude In The Grass


Bonnie Devine & Andrea Fatona



It is my intense and wonderful pleasure to be introducing Dr. Andrea Fatona. Andrea's research and practice is concerned with issues of equity in the arts, and the pedagogical possibilities of artworks produced by “other” Canadians to articulate broader perspectives and Canadian identities.

Andrea's interests are in the ways that art, culture and education can illuminate complex issues, such as social justice, citizenship, belonging, and nationhood. She is the recipient of awards from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and was the 2017 and 2018 OCAD University Massey fellow. 
Dr. Fatona is currently OCAD University's Canada Research Chair in Canadian Black diasporic cultural production. She's a committed teacher, curator and all round critic, and incisive interrogator of contemporary practice in Canadian cultural communities.

In Conversation

Welcome, Dr. Fatona.
Thank you, Bonnie.
Oh, you're so welcome. Of course, Andrea, you've been a friend of mine for what, almost 20 years. We've worked together at and outside of OCAD. And I'd like to open our talk by asking you to describe what this work as a Canada Research Chair at an arts university really represents, and moreover, what the particular focus of your research is and how that sits within a fine arts institution.
Thank you again, Bonnie. And again, I have to say your friendship and our long discussions over the years have helped to ground me in my work. And your work has been quite instrumental in helping me to think about the place of Blackness in the context of this land called Canada, and in a relationship to Indigeneity. So thank you for also helping me to expand what I understand of what things mean, to be here in this space.So the Canada Research Chair at OCAD, and my Canada Research Chair, really, I think, grounds this notion that the arts are important in society. And the arts, Black arts are important in this place called Canada and in terms of helping us to understand other ways of interrogating who we are, how we relate to others around us, other humans and nonhumans around us. So for me, it's an affirmation that the arts is quite important in terms of human understandings of each other, and ways in which we can communicate with each other to open up spaces that can be difficult for us at times.

So this Canada Research Chair allows me to bring together about 30 years of work that is gathering and understanding practices of Black cultural production. It’s got two components. I aim to collect and digitize the works of Black curators, Black artists, critics and craftspeople since 1987 to the present, who've been producing work across Canada. I aim to also create new categories to describe the works of these artists. These categories will be developed in consultation with Black communities, Black users of the works, to see the ways in which they and we want to think about our works, how we talk about the works, so to move away from solely Euro-Western ways of describing and categorizing our works.

The second component of the project is to write computer code to actually drive the database or the platform that will hold these works to allow for broader access to it across a number of different spaces, education, the arts, and in general, in our local communities and communities across the country. I'm also thinking about this idea that came out of work by Joy Buolamwini talking about algorithmic injustice. The ways in which computer codes and the ways in which computers have been taught to answer questions are actually really framed within the same racist, gendered - essentially all of the kinds of issues that we have in the everyday around discrimination - are encrypted into these machines. To think about ways to actually open up a space for Blackness so that when we ask the question of these machines, when we look for materials, it will search for those materials in ways that make sense and bring the material to the surface. So that is the project.

I'd like to go back to the first part of the project because it's intriguing to me when you talk about categorizations of works and articulating new categories of works. I wonder if you could give us some examples of a different way of categorizing work that perhaps stands in opposition to what is currently at play, say, in libraries or in digital search engines.
So first of all, I must say that much of the work that I was about to collect does not exist in these search engines because they haven't actually been collected. They haven't actually been seen as central to the archive of Canadian art. I'm thinking about work such as an exhibition of Winsom that I did, Winsom is a - I should be transparent as well - Winsom is a relative of mine and she does work within an Afro spiritually based practice.

Her work draws on African Diasporic religious practices that come from the Caribbean and South America. She's gone back to the continent of Africa to do research on the roots of some of the practices that have become standard Black spiritual practices within the Caribbean. Winsom’s work might be categorized solely as African spiritual practice in terms of its description, it might be categorized as African Canadian art.

But I'd like to really think about the work actually has symbols of Veve in it, which is a Haitian based symbology out of African based religions. The work also draws on, I would say, Maroon culture from Jamaica, with symbols from Maroon culture. It draws on the practice of Obeah, from the Caribbean as well, specifically from Jamaica.

So imagine if we had all those categories describing the work instead of just solely African based spirituality. We might be able to extend the reach of that work to various communities because it will be found using the terminology that these communities understand as part of their own cultural or political spaces. The work would actually find spaces of articulation and interpretation within Black communities because the language would actually have a nomenclature and categories would register as something central from those cultures and practices.

That's very, very impressive. Thank you.

A while back in a conversation you and I had, you remarked, that Blackness is constructed. And very shortly afterward, you added that whiteness is also constructed. I've been thinking this over and I wonder if you could explain what you mean by that. And, I guess, talk a little bit about the implications of absorbing that knowledge and how it can be mobilized for social change?
Yes. I go back to this notion that we both come from spaces where our communities are really ethnically based. I see whiteness as this category deployed to hold a space of superiority. That space of superiority depends on creating a category that is inferior. Through this notion of the Black Atlantic slave trade, I believe the notion of Blackness as an inferior category that whiteness - and its power of superiority to actually derive labor, to derive profit - needs that other space.

This is similar to maleness and this notion of male requires a category of female to establish its power. So it's the opposite. Because of that construction, it requires maintenance. It does not just exist, it needs to be continually made and produced.

Hence, the idea of creating again - something you know what, Katherine McKittrick talks about the notion of the plantation in its current form - where there's specific geographies and specific roles that the Black body plays and the Black body serves as object instead of subject which means that the whiteness is the only body and space that can imagine. Whiteness produces itself as the space that imagines the other.

The implications of that is that if we understand that these categories are produced. We understand that they're not naturalized. There was a process in place just like that process of creating races and racialization. If we understand that then we can step outside of the category of whiteness. We can also name the category of whiteness. Whiteness sees itself as something that just is. I think part of showing the production of it is naming it as Ruth Frankenberg says to show the power that's there. When we name something, that really actually takes the power away from it. Part of this idea of naming whiteness and the ways in which whiteness serves to subordinate the other can pull some of the power away from it.

In my case, it's also about moving away from those categories that whiteness has produced as normalized categories. Those categories that do not allow Blackness to be part of it. Although - as Paul Gilroy says - whiteness does need Blackness. Without Blackness, there is no whiteness. Without whiteness, there is no Blackness.

So then we go back to thinking about how do we - in this context of this idea of Blackness - see whiteness as really multifarious. There's no one singular form of whiteness except for this notion of the deployment of power and white supremacy. Blackness articulates itself differently in different spaces. For example, Black Canadian masses differ all across the country based on settlement practices and where these Black folks have come from to settle. And so does whiteness.

Whiteness in its real incarnations and the way it's actually lived is quite diverse. When we talk about this notion of whiteness as produced, it brings that certain populations become white. The Italians weren't always considered within the category of whiteness in this country. There are processes that allow certain groups to become white. And to draw from the power of white privilege and white supremacy in the same way certain groups become Black, in the ways in which structure is an ideology allows for inferiority to become the imagined characteristic of that population. Does that make sense?
Oh, totally. Thank you so much for explaining that perspective. The question that that comes up for me, when you describe this binary is, how does one then embrace one's Blackness? And to not buy into the binary? How does one celebrate and emphasize one's Blackness without falling into that category of Black versus white?
So it’s going back to this notion that our Blackness is multifarious and it has been a category that's been developed in relationship and conversation with this category called whiteness. Blackness, as I said, is just as diverse as anything else. There's not one form of Blackness.

I'd answer this question that we mustn't, as Black folks, fall into a space of essentialism. Blackness is not one type of identification that we have taken on as a space as well that we have reintegrated as a space of power, as a space of speaking from oneself in the context of white supremacy outside of that. We mustn’t take on Blackness as something that just is. It's not something that's also naturalized. It's not. It is itself a construction that we have in relation to racism and have taken back particularly in the context of those of us who come from out of the transatlantic slave trade. We've taken it back to show the cultural power that we have maintained, in terms of the hybrid cultures we've managed to actually create, no matter where we've landed as ex-enslaved folks.
We've taken it back.

To think about categories of culture like jazz, oral traditions, quilting we do to tell our stories is to say that we're still here. We're still here even though we weren't imagined to be here as particular forms of humans. We take it back as a way to talk about our humanity.

And so as a way not to fall into the trap, I believe we have to see ourselves in relation to all other human and nonhuman bodies and think about our relationship to those other beings. And what that might mean for I think, a future, in which the power relations as we see them today, in terms of the denigration based on race, not only of Black folks, but of all folks outside of whiteness in relation to Indigenous bodies and lands, that if we don't see the relationships of these categories then we will fall into the trap of essentialism.
I mean, as an Indigenous person, I relate to what you're talking about the essentialist problem that modernism gives us. It is a fait accomplii and this is how it is. How do we articulate an individual freedom within that very narrow definition of who we are or what category we happen to belong to. And that leads me to my next thought, which is this idea you mentioned, and brought into my mind, which is this notion of emancipation. The long emancipation that has been going on particularly for Black people, and that I hope has begun to happen for Indigenous folks here in Canada. How does emancipation or notion of emancipation compare to freedom?
I was listening to Rinaldo Walcott and that's where it came from. I hadn't really thought it through very deeply. But I know it's a really important thing to think through. And I thank him for bringing that, I have to say Rinaldo is really important to my work and his insistence and trying to think about Blackness in Canada, and Blackness in Canada as different in specific, although related to a broader transnational understanding of what this category is.

It's making me think about what the difference is between this thing called emancipation that becomes somewhat legalistic in its framework compared to this notion of freedom. What is freedom? And so for me, it's going to this place that art allows. It's something that is within the individual that allows the imagination to be as broad, expansive, deep, and as wide as one would want it to be. It has no real boundaries and borders.

Emancipation seems to have these structural borders that are political, legal, cultural, and all of that. When Rinaldo said that, it made me start to think about art. I'm still thinking about art as a way to allow a particular kind of freedom to be expressed or a representation of freedom to be expressed. Art, that we can then as humans, think through and maybe be able to build other kinds of structures.
When you talk like that, it brings to my mind, a question that I've been wrestling with during COVID and felonious as you've called it.

To question the usages of art and the utility of art. I am deeply questioning the value and the efficaciousness of art. Can we rely on it? Is it durable enough? Is it universal enough that it can offer solutions? Or is it just something we do to make ourselves feel better? IE beauty, harmony, or disharmony?

I know, it's a deep question. But I'm really concerned about the role of art as our world tries to wrestle with this virus and these other viral sorts of maladies that are affecting us that have become so apparent. So in our face.
See, I don't see the role of art as something necessarily utilitarian or instrumental. I don't think it allows something to happen. It allows us to perceive things differently. It can allow us to perceive things differently. It can allow us to hear things differently. It can allow us to look at something differently if we spend the time to do so and if we have access to it.

I see it in my community. I see it in the work and again, I'll use Winsom’s work. I saw it in the ways in which people came into the gallery and said, Wow!

This affirms something about me in terms of my relationship to spirituality that I don't see around to me. I can go away and maybe share now, this practice of mine in ways that have been affirmed. It doesn't remain solely mine, I can share it in a collective way. Just in the same way, you and I have talked about things like dreams. The ways in which in certain cultures, much like art, we share these things, and it becomes something that the broader community then can start engaging with.

Sometimes we don't see that engagement right in front of our eyes. Sometimes that happens ten years later but things happen and conversations can be hard.

I believe things shift through particular renaming of things or the ability to see that things could be put together in a different formation through an art project, through listening to the dissonance of jazz. It might also just express and affirm the individual as valid because you see something about yourself being expressed to you.

These things are very important when you come out of marginality. A particular kind of reflection or a gesture to something that you might be thinking about is something valid for the future or the present.

That’s how I see art. I see us as humans, as being the agent of making things happen. I see art much like, me and you talking and you say to me, Andrea, I see the world in this way. And I take it in and go, oh, there's something there. And my perception of the world shifts. And so, that’s how I see art.
Hmm, well, that's very useful. I would speak from from my own Indigenous heritage in the way that art has functioned as a pedagogical tool, as a carrier of history or knowledge,
as an instructive implement within cultural practice that enables community to form around certain ideas. And so I translate that as use value and that's probably coming out of survival, cultural survival.

And I thank you for that because I do think there is something more subtle that is exchanged in the art project. And I thank you for pointing that out to me because it has been eluding me and troubling me, actually, for the past year.
And I do agree with you that yes, their stories, their ways of being, their cultural ways, their morals...there are things that are passed down in the cultures I come from through art practices as well. Yet I also think there are other things, as I said, other things that are very subtle. There are other things that are about shifts and perceptions that can take place.
Yes. This awareness of how whiteness and Blackness or Indigeneity and whiteness have been constructed, sometimes the artwork can help to translate or illuminate for a viewer, wherever, whichever community they may come from…
As you say that it makes me think of your work and mapping. I'm wondering if you want to talk about that a bit because you've done it. You've done it to illuminate the ways in which this notion of place and land and Indigeneity have been, in a way, erased in particular tellings of the stories of this place. And you brought it back, right?
Yes, and this is my notion of the artist as a toolmaker or artist as some sort of instrument within the culture that has a particular job to do. And so yes, a fair amount of my work has been to try to give voice to a story that was silenced and buried under years and years of archival material in much the same way as as your digitization project is actually attempting to make a pathway to knowledge that is a broader pathway, a more complex pathway, so that someone can search and find it in multiple categories.

And for me, the map is a perfect example of that because the map has such a concise and completely integrated into our knowledge system of how to read a map. It's a complete abstraction of what is intended to be a description of land or territory or home or water or, you know, a complete abstraction. And so how do we begin to interrogate that gloss by creating new pathways in. I think that a lot of my work has been about trying to do that.
Yes. And also, you know, this work of mine, again, it's about paths, as you said, you talked about paths. And it's about our paths as Black people in this country. It's about our long presence here. And to really open up those complex discussions. But the histories here are long, and to really kind of start to think about what that means in relation to ideas of belonging, relations because there are deep relations that allow for some of our belongings here as well, right?

But also to unpack the fact that our presence here is also our lack of presence elsewhere. So this idea of the diaspora is one that means that our notion of ourselves is bigger than this place called Canada.
Yes, totally. That is a key difference between the scope of our work. Mine goes down. And yours goes down and out. When I think of down and across, I think of the last thing that I'd like to talk with you about today, which is gardening, which is planting, which is the relationship between us and that very ancient practice of growing things.
Gardening saved my life. I got very ill and it was a real struggle. My dear friend, Genvieve tended my garden while I was sick. I was able to go back to gardening. And it was in that moment of healing, that the importance of gardening and the importance of the soil, the importance of being able to learn through listening and listening in the broadest sense to my plant allies.

The plants that I was growing were to provide sustenance for me. So to listen to them when they say they've been over watered or all of the things that your plants tell you in relation to their relation to other elements around. One needs to pay attention. And if one pays attention, then one can actually do the response which is to tend and to tend caringly so that one is then given the bounty.

The other part of gardening that became really important to me is this moment when you put your garden to sleep, or you overwintered your pots on your balcony. It seems that nothing's happening. It is the slow time when nothing pops out from under the earth. but you know that there's something going on. There’s a particular kind of composting or beneath-the-surface work that allows for the earth to be ready for next season. I'm thinking about that a lot and particularly in this time of COVID, where it seems to me that we've been asked to slow down. We can't go to work. And if we do work, it's a whole other level of organization, it slows things down, because of what needs to be done to get to the next thing.

So I'm thinking about what that means. And how do we as cultural producers and how do I, as a cultural producer, as an educator, start to look at the cycles of the natural world, and to learn from the cycles of the natural world to, to understand what is being produced, in the winter of our cycle, the summer of our cycles of spring over cycles, because they're different. They happen with different speeds, they have different things happen.

How do I learn to integrate that into my life and to integrate it in the ways I teach? And particularly now, to think about learning as well as a slow process, I always thought it was a slow process that you don't really understand or come to full understanding until you have something that allows you to connect the dots properly.

I feel gardening is kinda like that as well, the ability to connect the dots about how the elements influence the plant, how the plant talks to me as a human ally tender, to tell me what the elements have created and what the elements in relation that the plant needs from me. I’m trying to look at the real collaboration of a number of forces, some sentient, some non sentient if I talk about it that way. But that's also a really strange way to talk about it.

A number of elements that come together with me as human as only being one element in the production. I'm trying to understand that through the process of gardening. What does it mean to care? What does it mean to listen to all its incarnations? Listening to me means feeling, it means hearing, it means seeing, it means all of that sensation, taking in those sensations, and then trying to understand what it is those sensations are telling me before I respond.
Those are beautiful relationships that you're describing and beautiful responses to the world around us and to events around us. And it makes me wonder how a political or social activist can mobilize those intentions in the broader sphere? How can we emerge from this time of contemplation and rebuilding, perhaps, regeneration?

How do we or can we transfer this teaching and this knowledge into the era once we emerge from COVID? How can we affect change?
So the way I'm feeling right now in terms of activism is it's an understanding that we also need to take the time to care and it's not something that I'm coming up with. Audrey Lorde and all of those folks from those movements have understood the notion of care. I believe we moved into this neoliberal individualist world where the collective sense has been overtaken by capitalist logic that brands us and probably branding our movements in particular ways. It also brings the individual as the person who makes things happen, even activist movements.

This idea of fallowness and thinking about gardening and thinking about the relationship between the number of elements that allow something to happen, for me is about coming to a deep understanding of that.

In the same way COVID has made us realize that we are related and we are in relation - even if we don’t know one another - the person we are walking by on the street could actually be a carrier or we could be an infector. We realize that the air I breathe is the air you’re breathing. This kind of relationship has come back and become central. We are not atomized. We are connected. We have to remember those things. We have to resist the notion that the individual is at the center of everything, even within the activist movement. We have to remember that. Come back to thinking about relationality, bodies, movements, other activist movements. We are all interdependent in the whole process which requires us to see each other in dynamic relations to each other and with other things and beings.

If we forget that, I personally think we will repeat the cycles and ways that perhaps we don’t necessarily have to if we’re actually present. Presence of being mindful of the relations. When I say presence, I’m also thinking about the kinds of gifts that we can give to each other in these relationships in the same way that art can give us new perceptions and that then can be something that becomes collective and becomes new perceptions. I feel if there are new relationalities that involve the gift of exchange as well.
Those are profound words, Andrea. And I want to thank you for them. I think it’s appropriate for us to end there with what you said about the gift. This is truly the act in solidarity with one another and the notion of care is very much related to this reciprocal exchange of gifts.

Thank you.
Much respect.
And to you too. 

Bonnie Devine