Creating the Perpetual
Artist Niki Little leads aceart inc.’s first ever Indigenous Curatorial Residency Program

Words: Jill Groening / Photos: Janine Kropla

Niki Little is on the brink of something new.

Combining the skills of a curator, a collector, a community-worker and a creator, the Winnipeg-based artist is not only piecing together an exhibition, she is also embarking on an exploration surrounding authorship in contemporary Indigenous art while connecting communities and opening dialogue. It’s a heady task and one that Little seems perfectly prepared for.

Little, whose traditional name is Wabiska Maengun, has been selected to lead the first ever Indigenous Curatorial Residency and Exhibition at Winnipeg’s aceart inc. She is currently in the vibrant, green stages of meeting with Elders, gathering stories, and figuring out how to weave a magnitude of information into an intelligent and impactful manifestation of Indigenous experience.

“It’s been in the works for awhile and Winnipeg has the first stop,” Little says of the curatorial residency, which is a partnership between aceart inc. and the Toronto-based Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC). The Winnipeg Foundation has also played a large role in bringing the project to life. “Hopefully it will turn into an annual thing.”

We sit across from one another in aceart inc.’s draughty office space surrounded by academic Indigenous literature, pages of typed mandates and blue cue cards scrawled with notes. A maquette of the cosy gallery is perched behind Little. The weathered hardwood creaks with each shift in position, a reminder of the space’s past life in the city’s garment industry days. Look carefully and you can see the glint of needles between the floorboards.

Of Cree and English descent, Little is from Kistiganwacheeng, Treaty 5 territory land (displaced from the beginning). Little has taken her professional studies from the University of Manitoba Fine Arts Program to Camberwell College of Arts in London, England and to the renowned Banff Centre for the Arts. But her roots are planted firmly in Manitoba soil.

“The female Indigenous network that I have here has been a really big help,” Little states. “There’s a really strong community of artists and curators here in Winnipeg that I’ve come to really rely on and that I’ve done research with and talked through issues and ideas with.”

Being part of a well-connected community of artists is key to Little’s points of research and aids in spinning together the threads supporting her concept of authorship in contemporary Indigenous art, specifically in regards to women.

“I’ve been checking out a lot of ceremonies and Indigenous community actions and events and I’m having that inform my study as well because the project is about recentering women essentially, so I’m spending a lot of time hanging out with the ladies,” Little says with a laugh. “But it’s also about process and how I’m using Indigenous process as a strategic tool to talk about Indigenous Feminism and this recentering.”

The three main ways that Little is looking at authorship and recentering are through lineage, Indigenous female territories and the value associated with labour and cultural skill. By connecting with family and community members directly, Little has been able to construct a distinct idea of genetic memory and carve paths connecting matriarchy with the teaching of traditions.

“These teachings and these histories are circular,” Little explains. “They’re always existing. But they don’t exist in regular time; they’re just running through. So thinking about the authorship in labour and the maker and about that as a political statement, whatever I say is just a simple act of being. These people, your lineage, are with you the whole time and that can be a political act.”

One image that Little has found herself returning to in her research is that of the medicine wheel. Not only does the four-toned circle assist in organizing Little’s data directionally, it also helps conceptually. One pattern that Little has seen emerge is that of the life stages. Work has appeared pertaining to birth and the new generation (East), adolescents (South), adults (West), as well as Elders and those that came before (North).

“It just ended up working that way which was really nice,” Little says. “It’s been a nice conversation to have with the work and within the medicine wheel and the space.”

While Little is gathering the stories and the voices of the greater Indigenous community, she has also chosen four Indigenous artists to further explore how creative process can be a form of social engagement which can connect beyond the reaches of the gallery space. Gwich’in artist Janeen Frei Njootli, Winnipeg-based painter Kenneth Lavallee, Métis visual artist Amy Malbeuf and Oregon-based artist Wendy Red Star will all be taking part in the final exhibition, titled Enendaman | Anminigook (Intention | Worth).

The ideas of authorship and worth are extensions of Little’s earlier work with arts collective The Ephemerals (who she met due in part to MAWA’s Mentorship Program). However, the concepts surrounding Indigenous feminism are new to Little and present fascinating new explorations with regard to technology and new media.

“Right now I’m interested in what [Indigenous feminism] means to me, what the personal and theoretical connections are,” Little explains. “I’m interested in how we navigate that today. There is one artist [Red Star] who has her own hashtag [#apsaalookefeminist]. I’m so interested in how she positions herself that way and celebrates it, which is something that I think is not so often acknowledged. I’m also interested in how these artists are pushing and making up for the loss of ownership that I was talking about before, how they’re recentering that idea of process.”

Tackling the contemporary jargon involved in an expansive project such as this can be tricky, especially with no translation for the term “recentering”. Regardless of the barriers involving terms and concepts, the basis of the work is distinctly and beautifully human.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with elderly people from my community about it and they’re like ‘what’s recentering women? They’ve always been in the centre.’” With Curatorial Indigenous Residencies currently taking place - and being held by women - at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and through the Winnipeg Arts Council, it’s becoming clear how true that statement is.

“I find some of the Indigenous female works are inherently political,” Little explains. “Women have always been leaders and it’s a reflection of that.”

While studying the veins of traditions and teaching, Little uncovered an anecdote from a woman named Gloria that has stuck with her. Little refers to Gloria not as an Elder, but as a knowledge keeper, someone who has taught Little how to forage, flesh hide and bead. Having escaped residential school when she was very young, Gloria went to live with her aunt and uncle on the trap lines. Now a cultural worker within the community, Gloria’s story is one of a multifaceted urban experience.

“She told me this story of her fleshing hide on the balcony in the north end,” Little recalls. “I thought it was such a striking political image and it really stayed with me. I really want to connect with these makers and these knowledge keepers to help me flesh out that engagement and then it will be a conversation that will happen where everyone will be on the same level.”

Taking the notion of female community, Indigenous social engagement and the attempt to experience, personalize and contextualize the value of worth and labour in her own practice, Little formed The Ephemerals with artists Jenny Western and Jaimie Isaac. Through collaboration, the three women are able to act as a support group. They have created their own network of women to help see projects through when funding is low or the support of organizations or residencies is non-existent. They have provided a firm base for each other, which each individual artist needs in order to flourish.

“They’re more the curators and writers, and I’m more the process-based person,” Little says of Western and Isaac. “So this is my first [solo] curatorial project and I’m super nervous, but they are beyond supportive. It’s helped me now to think of this idea of curating and also feeling confident to bring in ideas of Indigenous community engagement ‘cause I’m not necessarily thinking about it as curating, I’m more just creating. I feel like to make me more comfortable with it, I’m creating an Indigenous community-based experience.”

Another way that Little is bringing her conceptual work involving lineage and matriarchy to her own life and practice is by bringing her niece along with her to studio visits and storytelling sessions. By having the sixteen year-old accompany her, Little is getting assistance in recording her research and continuing the genetic memory and cultural community experience she hopes to foster.

“I’m hoping to show her it’s not just contained here, but it’s out everywhere,” Little says. “I’m hoping it will be an experience for her because it’s all about lineage and sharing and the female network. Sharing that with her would be so wonderful.”

Through lineage, genetic memory, creative process, Indigenous feminism and authorship, Little hopes to communicate the idea of recentering Indigenous women in a celebratory continuum.

“The traditions are always happening, they’re always manifesting and they don’t stop,” Little explains. “It’s not a legend or something from long ago. It’s something very current and it’s running through the process. It comes through the process and the material cultures. It lives within that.”