With the hope of getting to know our professors more intimately and to learn what they do outside of grading and teaching, The Phoenix started a Professor Profile series where we interview UBCO professors from different disciplines regarding their research and interests. In continuation of the series, diverging from English to Visual Arts, The Phoenix reached out to UBCO Professor Tania Willard to learn more about her art, work, and practices. She kindly accepted to feature in our Professor Profile series and discuss her work in a virtual interview.
UBCO Associate Professor and artist, Tania Willard, is of Secwepemc Nation and settler heritage. She works within the shifting ideas of the contemporary and the traditional, often working with bodies of knowledge and skills that are conceptually linked to her interest in intersections between Indigenous and other cultures. Willard’s curatorial work includes the touring exhibition, Beat Nation: Art Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture (2012-2014), co-curated with Kathleen Ritter. In 2016 Willard received the Award for Curatorial Excellence in Contemporary Art from the Hanatyshyn Foundation as well as a City of Vancouver Book Award for the catalog for the exhibition Unceded Territories: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
Willard’s artistic projects have been exhibited widely and collections of her work include the Vancouver Art Gallery, Kamloops Art Gallery, Burnaby Art Gallery, and more. Her public art projects include Rule of the Trees, a public art project at Commercial Broadway sky train station, in Vancouver BC, and If the Drumming Stops, with artists Peter Morin and Cheryl L’Hirondelle, on the lands of the Papaschase First Nation in Edmonton, AB.
Willard was recognized in 2020 by the VIVA award for outstanding achievement and commitment in her art practice. Willard's ongoing collaborative project BUSH gallery is a land-based gallery grounded in Indigenous knowledges. Willard is an Assistant Professor at UBC Okanagan in Syilx territories and her current research intersects with land-based art practices.
Opinions Editor: What piqued your interest in this topic? Why does this research matter to you?
I have long worked in and around art and Indigenous community organizations, and as a curator, though I was getting opportunities to curate for large galleries across Canada, I was not being grounded in my community or land. I wanted to imagine a gallery not rooted in Western art traditions. This place for me, in my understanding of Secwepemc culture, was the land itself. On the land we are interrelated to all the beauty around us and we have a responsibility to it. This project BUSH Gallery came about in response to this disillusionment with the colonial aspects of galleries in Canada and a desire to be active and engaged on my land with my family, learning language, plant knowledges, and other land-based ways of being, learning, and sharing. The project is also deeply collaborative with other artists Gabrielle Hill, Peter Morin and Jeneen Frei Njootli and the land itself.
OE: Has the pandemic affected your work?
Yes, but the BUSH gallery project was about re-centering the idea of the gallery; as an Indigenous-led space, as the bush, as the rural, and all the other margins when it comes to art and we all think culture happens only in major cities. So, we were already working and playing with this disparity between Canada and an Indian reserve for example, and also importantly highlighting the ways in which Indigenous practices were intentionally left out of Canadian cultural policy for example in the Massey Levesque report that was very derogatory to Indigenous art. So what has changed is that in 2013 when we were camping on the land outside the walls of the gallery thinking and engaging in art, we did not think that the dominant space of the gallery would be so affected by something like the pandemic. We really saw this impact on museums and galleries closing and having to offer programming online that I think pointed to other kinds of shifts we need to advocate for in the gallery systems; equity and diversity for example. At BUSH gallery we had already been working with ideas of parenting and working as artists, distance, and remote digital tools (as limited as this is when a lot of high-speed internet is unavailable to Indigenous peoples in Canada). The difference is galleries and museums were forced into it and surprised but we were already striving for decolonial models in art.
OE: Does your research intersect with your professional pedagogy?
Definitely, I am interested in land-based art and I am engaged in critiquing eco-art, land-art, and other ideas that, though they engage in outdoor or nature-based aesthetics and ideas, they rarely do so in the framework of decolonization. I bring this to the work I do in all my classes as well as teach expansive ideas of what art can be and what our role is within it and part of that is changing and questioning the models we are given. As part of this, I try to cite and work with bodies of knowledge and individuals in contemporary art that center Indigenous Black and People of Colour, as well as Queer people and women-identified artists whose work continues to imagine and create new ways of engaging and embodying contemporary art and its plural possibilities of futurity. I also try to structure my work as a facilitator bringing forward each individual’s artistic voice while contributing to ideas of pushing the field of practice and positioning ourselves in relation to decolonial frameworks. I teach a summer course and organize the Summer Indigenous Art Intensive and focus on much of these ideas both in terms of research and pedagogy.
OE: What do you think has been the most valuable part of engaging in this research?
It is not research to me; it is my life and culture and my practice. I engage with these ideas on so many personal and political levels that saying they are only research for me is reductive of the ways in which they shape myself, my family, and my community, and the lands around us. I am a networked structure and in this constellation of being decolonial aesthetics and Indigenous ways of knowing are the branching structures that I use to connect to others’ ideas, lands, and communities. So the most valuable part of this is not to see the research as separate from myself but instead to let the research connect me in infinite ways to others; lands, waters, human, non-human, ecologies, art, and more.
View Professor Willard’s work here: https://www.taniawillard.ca/gallery/bush-gallery