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This Month’s Featured Visual Artist: Raven John

Guerrilla davis

 
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This Two-spirit Trickster resides in the traditional, ancestral, unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, forcibly occupied by the City of Vancouver. Raven is a graduate from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, with a major in visual art and minor in social practice and community engagement, as well as the North West Coast Jewelry Arts program at the Native Education College.

Raven is a visual artist, cultural consultant, mediator, photographer and sculptor. A jack-of-all trades, their practice covers a wide array of mediums from stop motion animation, dressmaking, interactive electronics and indigenous technologies.


Raven John: Yoyo

Guerrilla: Hooray, are we ready!? Yes, I’m glad we are here, finally! Sorry it’s taken a lot of back and forth. Hows your day been?

Raven John: No problem, it happens.
I'm ok, had a fun day at work. Though this evening I will be making photo buttons for my family. A cousin of mines remains were finally found, she had been missing for months, so that's been a bit sad and frustrating.

Guerrilla: Oh fuck… I am so sorry to hear that sounds intense as fuck.

Raven John: It's frustrating, I don't know cause yet. But indigenous women in the area, since I was a kid, have been warned to be wary of police. They were known to pick up indiginous women, rape them and leave them on the highway to find their own way home.

Guerrilla: I’ve heard a lot about indigenous women who go missing and it not being talked about at all in the media or news...its fucking tragic. I’m interested in what you have to say but I also want to respect you, your family and your time.

Raven John: I don't feel comfortable talking about her personally, especially with her services being only two days away. It is however something that has deep connections to my practice and presentation. I've been inspecting my own relationship to Visibility and how it relates to survival as an intersectional person.

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Guerrilla: I totally understand. I’m so sorry to hear. My condolences to you and your family.

Raven John: I just found out on friday, and have been a bit too upset to talk about it deeper with my family. Part of being visible has always been to take up space for others. But lately I have been investigating myself and where else those feelings could be coming from. Part of me thinks it comes from Survival. I was watching "The Josephine Baker Story " because a friend of mine, Sparkle Plenty, did a burlesque performance to honour her recently. A quote from the movie really stuck out. " By the time I was 14 I realized no one hates a black girl who is cute and funny."

Guerrilla: Taking up space for others, so you mean, taking up space with and in honor of those, who can’t.

Raven John: I think subconsciously that has been a driving factor in my development. In being gregarious my presence is more likely to be missed, maybe it makes me less of a target?

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“A lot if my practice revolves around identity. In my youth I struggled to find someone in media who was like me. There were no queer, femme, loud people of colour that I could relate to in what media I could access. I grew up in British Columbia's (insert colonial laugh here) Bible belt constantly bombarded with Christian and Catholic values, pro-life billboards and no "out" queer mentors.”


Action Figure - A closer look at the ongoing narratives of my self portrait project. My piece is an exploration of the self-portrait. The work I make holds its roots in the narcissistic artistic practice of exploring and representing self. I explore self through the visibility of my intersections, what it means to represent people of my class; fat people, ambiguously coloured people, queer people, people who identify as female. I understand my visibility is important, and as a queer native woman I don't see myself in many places. The spaces I do see myself in media are problematic or worse, unmentionable. In the making, I fashioned myself to have the qualities of an action hero figure, posable and active next to the societal images mirrored in Marvel and Detective Comics characters. This exploration of my image is a narrative of class and esteem in found objects. Second hand and thrift stores are spaces where we find pieces of ourselves and the mystery of found objects. The strength of objects found in thrift stores does not rest in their context, but in the contexts of the viewer. Objects held in esteem by people from all sects of life are marked to sell, and the meaningfulness of an object varies widely from one shopper to another.


Guerrilla: I see. Subconscious driving factors - those can be hard and super intense but almost full circle experiences when you realize them. Your art and practice, has literally become a way of survival but not in the ways that we are used to seeing or hearing right now, like commissions and interviews and shows, but literally, your visibility is your survival. that sounds really tragic, but also sickening in a way. I hope that didn’t come off as rude.

Raven John: Yeah. I know being "out" and not hiding my queerness makes space for others. Especially in the normalizing of it for future generations. But I also know as a kid I hated being mistaken for other indigenous girls. I knew their racist/othering gaze made me look like any other brown girl and I hated it. It's one of the reasons I loved dying my hair as a teen. Now, I just love to change up my looks, it's a way of connecting to my identity, of being a Transformer like my namesake. I am also an advocate for the natural hair movement, which I definitely have a chuckle about every time I do it. My hair now is dyed to look like the creeks my family swims in traditionally. Not having a vehicle means I don't get to go there and take part in my peoples spiritual and traditional practices, so I carry that water around with me in my hair.

Guerrilla: What’s your namesake?

Raven John: I was given the name Raven when I was born. Our traditional practice of name giving means that person takes on either the guidance or influence of that name. In my culture the Raven is a trickster, teacher, transformer and creator. My mischievous nature led my mother to giving me my middle name (Teresa) as a nickname when I was around 10 for a short time, in an attempt to mellow me out, hahaha, it was only mildly successful.

Guerrilla: So you have a major in Visual Art, and your minor in social practice and community engagement. What was the motive behind your major/minor choices?

Raven John: I am most interested in sculpture, I think because it covers a multitude in mediums, I've done my best to take as wide a variety of medium courses as I could. From a young age I was fascinated with making the intangible tangible, and that to me means pulling from as many medium skill sets and languages as I want. I took electronics courses, metalwork, ceramics, printmaking. Now the only thing that stops me from making what I want is time and money. My social practice and community engagement minor came out of trying to find a way to communicate in colonial+academic terms. Indigenous,queer,,disabled, and femme folk have been trying to make change in the world, make it more survivable for centuries. Using academia and colonial power structures to communicate creates space where you are more difficult to dispute. Though I still get folks trying to question my lived experiences of and the ongoing acts of racism, genocide and homophobia.


 

 

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 Guerrilla: That’s sickening!! When I was looking into school when I was a teen it was so hard to find a school with the "community-based arts" majors that are all over the place now. And at the end of the day, even until now i'm realizing, what i think i wanted to do was take / utilize resources and give them back to the people in anyway that I can. It’ss really cool to see that coming from someone else even tho its in a totally different way.

Raven John: Thanks, I really enjoyed my theory classes at ECU. Their sessional teachers were really great.


Guerrilla: So what does a typical day in the life of Raven John look like?

Raven John: Going between my seasonal jobs and freelancing at the moment. I work hospitality at The Cultch, a theatre and playhouse, also as an assistant Chocolatier at Daniels Chocolates. I just finished a contract to make 5 hand painted and airbrushed silk dresses for the Med'Cine production for Olivia Davies. Before that I took some days off to go to Winona Minnesota to do a artists presentation for an exhibition I took part in called "They Will Show You: Two Spirit Artists" through the Winona State University.

Chugg(ing)    was a four day solo show at the Media Gallery at Emily Carr. This instillation was a mash up of traditional sculpture, booze and museological archives of native culture. The floor was sticky with Pilsner and Budwieser, and the air was heavy with the smells associated with the setting.

Chugg(ing) was a four day solo show at the Media Gallery at Emily Carr. This instillation was a mash up of traditional sculpture, booze and museological archives of native culture. The floor was sticky with Pilsner and Budwieser, and the air was heavy with the smells associated with the setting.

Guerrilla: How was that show for you?

Raven John: I sent in "Two Spirit Transformation Blessing". It was my first time traveling alone, and to the states, so I was a bit nervous leading up to it. But everything went so well, and the school and students were very welcoming. It was great to connect with other two-spirit artists and wax academia and cultural theory with the professors who were visiting.

Guerrilla: I see there was a panel, and you also did an interview with KQAL 89.5FM about the show too. Visibility is a recurring theme in your practice, and you are really doing it.

Raven John: A really affirming moment was finally meeting Skeena Reece and her knowing who I was. Shes performance and interdisciplinary artist I looked up to as I studied at Emily Carr. Her work headlined the Beat Nation exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Her wide variety work and sense of humor have always been something I admired and aspired to.

 

Guerrilla: "Two Spirit Transformation Blessing" is a really beautiful work. Can you tell our readers more about it? What was your inspiration behind it? What does it mean to you?

Raven John: Thank you, it was made for the Unsettled exhibition. I wanted to make a representation of the intersectionalities of two spirit identity, and how they don't exist separately. The Masculine, Feminine and Variations are all intertwined.

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Guerrilla: Tell me about the dresses you airbrushed for Med’Cine - its so unique and different in comparison to your other work that I’ve seen.


Raven John: I started making my own clothes around 5 years ago, and my own dresses caught Olivias attention. I was very excited to make some work for an intersectional group of dancers who were enacting ceremony into their performance, both maori and turtle island based movements and practices. I had dyed/printed on sill before and thought an ethereal galaxy design would suit their lighting and movement well. It was great to make something that they would put into motion and activate. I used silk paints to pattern the fabric before constructing them, and added sequins to the underskirts to play in the light as stars.


Guerrilla: Sick!!! And so cool that you are working with other indigenous folx from far away. I asked because for some reason this work stands out to me the most.


Raven John: There has been a lot of cultural and artistic exchange to New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii, I really hope I get to do more with their communities in the future. I would love to do more sculptural and instillation work, but space is so hard to come by in Vancouver.


Guerrilla: Do you have a favorite piece of art or work that you have created? I also see on your website that you offer different kinds of consultation, which i see in its own way, is its own art.


Raven John: It definitely is, I have given a lot of my time and energy freely to educating and helping others improve.  On Native Land is a favorite of mine, and I am exploring making it a more portable piece. I recently did a spoken work performance where I go the audience to either step on or touch the tiles I brought with me before I spoke of them and their significance.

 

 

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 Guerrilla: That’s interesting, tell me more.

Raven John: I was able to get linoleum tiles from the residential school my family attended. I ended up doing an instillation where you stood on them while watching a projected video of myself talking about what residential school are and my family's relationship to them. There was an interactive element in the first exhibition at Emily Carr, where you could print your own copy of images and phrases I had carved into the tiles in the first two rows.


Guerrilla: For our readers who don’t know, can you talk about what Residential Schools are?

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Raven John: Residential schools ran in Canada from 1880 to 1996 (they ended the year the spice girls became popular). They were church and government run institutions whose aim was to assimilate the indigenous population. The nazis studied residential schools in their research on how to deal with what the considered "undesirables". Native children were forcibly removed from reservations and put into schools far from their homes. They received a minimal education, some never learning to read or write, it was against the rules to speak your language and almost none were allowed to visit their family. The teachers, priests, nuns and those invited to the school were welcome to sexually abuse, torture and kill these children. It was illegal to keep children from residential schools, and parents were jailed for attempting to stop it or rescue them. Residential schools had a higher death rate than WW2 soldiers. There are first hand accounts of priests burning babies to death after forcing children younger than 12 to go through with the pregnancy. There were withheld accounts of priests building DIY electrocution chairs to torture the children for fun, and medical tests were done on the children as well as tests in relation to starvation of whole schools of children.


Guerrilla: There is so much realness that you bring to your work, and in that realness a lot of pain, emotions and experience - and I really respect that you are able to be so vulnerable, open and vocal about it all. It takes a certain kind of strength and courage for that.


Raven John: Thank you, survivors like my grandmother, and even mentors of mine who never attended find it too difficult to speak about it, which is completely understandable. But there has been so much willful ignorance, propaganda, and covering up of what has been done to indigenous folk, what IS being done to indigenous folk, there's no way I wont talk about it.


Guerrilla: Yessss… Where do you see yourself and your work going in the future? In 5, 10 years from now?


Raven John: I hope to do more larger scale instillation and performance work, as well as a continuation of my collaborations and contract work. My peers and mentors really inspire me and my practice and that work really opens me up to doing my own work.

Self love, queering and indigenizing spaces I occupy, and being visible are decolonial tactics of survival, not only for myself but others. Part of my practice is aiming to be famous, as even now there are few two-spirit femme folks for younger generations to look up to. Taking up space in people’s hearts and minds is a way of making room for future generations, be they indigenous, femme, queer or just silly goofs like myself.

Guerrilla: Who are some of your favorites artists? They can be peers and mentors too.


Raven John: James Luna, Adrian Stimpson, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Skeena Reece, Lawrence Paul, just to name a few.


Guerrilla: Ok…  I have to ask this question. I ask this in all my interviews… What is your favorite color and why?


Raven John: Teal, it's variations in tone and opacity, as well as its relationship to water give me such good feels.


Guerrilla: If you could give advice to your younger self, what would that be.


Raven John: Value yourself more. Internalized racism, sexism and homophobia wreaked havoc on my self worth for so long, and they still do, it's a daily battle to undo that work. Realizing it's all bullshit and that I hold value, beauty, and strength at a younger age would've made a world of difference.


Guerrilla: are there any upcoming projects with Raven John that we should be on the lookout for?


Raven John: I have been in the process of rehashing my On Native Land piece for public performance work, and I am always making anit-nazi buttons, patches and posters to put around the city.


Guerrilla: Id love to get my hands on some, and spread the word here in the Bay.


Raven John: I'll pull up my poster image files, as well as my button sheets. In Vancouver we have a great company, Six Cent Press that can make custom buttons very cheap, all you need is an image and you can order a bunch.


Guerrilla: Before we conclude is there anything you want the world and our readers to know ?


Raven John: Just a call to action to fight White supremacy, colonization and pipelines any way you know how, and support your local indigenous, queer and disabled community.


To see more of Raven John’s work, visit them on Instagram @twospirittrickster and on their website, ravenjohn.com.