Raven Davis Resurgent: An INTERview by Charlotte Henay

Charlotte Henay: Raven, your work, specifically your more recent work and short films, troubles boundaries. I read it as border work, celebratory and ceremonial, as well as refusing of nation-state being and violence. In working at the interstices, do you see your work as a form of Indigenous resurgence?

Raven Davis: Yes definitely, I see my work as a personal resurgence in my experience as an Indigenous 2Spirit person, and in how I try to challenge people’s perceptions about Indigenous art, politics, gender, and race. However, I am far from a mould breaker. Our people have been using art as a tool to tell our stories about our history for generations. We’ve never been idle in our efforts to bring attention to what has happened in our history and what continues to transpire against our land, bodies, and governance. I believe it’s just now that people are starting to see and understand what we’ve been saying all this time. Indigenous people have been making political art forms in many different mediums for generations. Storytelling, dancing, song, visual and performance art have all been touched by our history on this land.

RDavisHiddenCornKweRaven Davis | Hidden Corn Kwe, Photograph

CH: How do you navigate tensions between Blackness and Indigeneity in questions of Indigenous sovereignty?

RD: This is such an important question for me because I grew up in a part of Toronto with a large demographic of Black people, I also have a son who is Black and Indigenous and a large extended family and friends who mean the world to me. My first understanding of Black and Indigenous solidarity was in high school when the Black Student Collective invited me to be a part of their group and hangouts. I was one of two Indigenous kids, and they were like my big brothers and sisters, always standing up for me and treating me like family. Even though I am not Black, they considered me to be “with them” in the racial fight at our high school. At the time, I still kept from people that I was Indigenous. It wasn’t something that my mixed family was proud of. I’d always say I was just white. My Black friends would always laugh at me, and tell me to shut up, and stop being ashamed of my race, and hang with them. For years, people thought I was adopted or had a Black dad, even called me adopted and picked physical fights with me because they thought I was ashamed of being part Black. When I turned 15, it finally clicked. I was growing up in a city that was racially divided and if I kept hiding my Indigenous roots, I would be fighting alone.

RDavis2016PerformStill2Raven Davis | It’s Not Your Fault, Performance | Photo credit Samson Learn

My Black friends and extended family were also the ones who taught me that we have so many historical similarities. I also felt this when I worked for Dudley Laws and Charles Roach at the Black Action Defence Committee, a high profile Black activist organization that was struck to bring awareness to Black lives being taken by police. This was over 25 years ago, and they are still fighting the same fight. At the same time, I was organizing protests in support of the Indigenous people being taken down to Cherry Beach, and beaten and left to die by police. Solidarity was also a huge part of “make work and employment equity” programs that I was involved in, such as Red Sisters, Black Sisters Collective, a theatre group that created performance art that talked about our collective struggles. In the 80s and 90s these efforts seemed natural and the solidarity was tight.

RDavisBlackandIndigneousFuturisumRaven Davis | Black and Indigenous Futurism | Chance, Photograph

RDavisAlwaysInMyWings24x36Raven Davis | Always in My Wings, Acrylic Painting 24 x 36

RDavisGentrification1Raven Davis | Gentrification | Son of Raven Davis standing in front of Davis’ exhibit pieces at the Anna Leonowens Gallery Halifax, Photograph

As the years passed, I started to see changes in our political movements, and how we, as Indigenous and Black people, supported each other’s movements. I was sad when I started seeing us being divided, because I felt I had lost a large part of my personal army, and they had lost me. There came a time when if we wanted to be heard, we had to voice our struggles and fight individually as a race. Over the past few years, I’ve slowly started to see this change. More and more Indigenous people are beginning to come out to support Black political movements. I think people are starting to see that we have more in common than just police brutality, slavery, and different shades of skin colour. I’m so proud of my community and how we are binding our fights together. This is exactly what our government doesn’t want. They wanted to divide us, they turned us against each other in early Canadian history, they wanted us to fight each other instead of fighting them. I think the only way we can navigate any tension is to work harder to educate ourselves on our collective histories, and to understand and stand in true solidarity in each other’s fight.

RDavisBuffaloWarrior1Raven Davis | Self Portrait – Buffalo Warrior, Photograph

CH: What protocols exist for you in how you make art as ceremony?

RD: Simple, I don’t sell art that would jeopardize or devalue the scarceness of ceremony of my people. The art I make that involves ceremony is private to me. It’s something that I recognize that is easily taken from us as Indigenous people. Society is selfish, and so much of our culture has been appropriated for commercial use and advantage. This is not something I want to be a part of. I have made terrible mistakes in the past in which I tried supporting my family by being an “Indian princess,” but soon after I cut my hair, I realized how badly I was being taken advantage of. I no longer “looked the part” for commercial gain. I no longer fit into the submissive, spiritual, long-haired traditionalist vision that people expected and paid for. Since then, I try to make art that reclaims my power as an Indigenous artist who has the choice to make art that is either “traditional” or contemporary.

I am incredibly proud to be queer and spiritual. Prayer and ceremony is so much a part of my life, art and my given traditional name, which I sometimes include in my paintings. I have raised all of my children to pray in Anishnawbemowin (Ojibway) since the day they were born. Although as they get older, I understand I don’t have much influence on their spirituality and whether or not it stays with them throughout their adult lives. However, I know deep down somewhere within them, they know I pray for them every day, and if that’s any comfort to them at any time of need, it is worth my efforts in my commitment to prayer and ceremony.

RDavisIStillBelieveStillRaven Davis | I Still Believe Movie Still, https://youtu.be/KSvp4SocbgI

RDavisLossofLandRaven Davis | Wiigendaagok Biintood Aki – A Severe Loss of Land, Photograph

CH: In your performance and short film It’s Not Your Fault, representations of land and extreme, ongoing violence are side by side with the soothing strength and protection of the Strong Women’s Song. It’s disconcerting because the violence is both overt and so insidious. How is your work shaped by barriers experienced from inside Indigenous feminisms and activism?

RD: A lot of people believe that there aren’t the same barriers for Indigenous Women and 2Spirit people in our communities because they’ve been taught we all live in these fantasy gender equal societies and that in some, we promote women in leadership roles and in families. However, our communities have been so heavily affected by assimilation into the church, and so many people have adopted church ideas, that women continue to be less than and expected to adopt certain narrow gender roles and responsibilities. My work as an artist, a parent, and activist attempts to challenge these ideas. I find I can better communicate these barriers of Indigenous feminism and activism using art. I find people are more willing to understand a piece of art that has a subjective safety net, because the viewer still maintains control of their own personal response to my work. I think people receive messages in art easier because it’s done in a creative, and at times passive, way. With that being said, I find my art continues to threaten people who identify as “males” because I speak to these issues, not just being between White and Indigenous women and 2Spirit people but also between Indigenous Men/2Spirit people and Women/2Spirit People.

RDavis2016PerformStill1Raven Davis, It’s Not Your Fault, Performance | Photo credit Samson Learn

CH: What’s it like to work as an Indigenous, mixed-race, 2Spirit, multidisciplinary artist and activist, as your bio describes you, within a transactional context? Can you speak about the challenges and the inspiration that keeps you going?

RD: My identity has a lot to do with my art, but my art doesn’t always have a lot to do with my identity. When I create art that doesn’t necessarily have any symbolism of Indigeneity, the sheer fact that I’m making it makes it Indigenous. When I sell my work, I hope it will go to someone who appreciates all of its intent when I made it. When I sell it knowing that the person hasn’t really connected to the intent or feeling of my work, I feel an immediate loss and grieve letting go of the work because I know the spirit of the piece will not live past me and with its new owner.

My inspiration is based on my personal life experiences and intergenerational history. My children, a deep connection to spirituality, and hope keeps me wanting to create art. It’s a radical form of self-love. I create art selfishly, for myself, and if someone else likes it that’s great, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t like it. I’m not focused on social networking “likes” or online affirmations of my work, because the satisfaction I get from making art is more about getting it out of my body and releasing it into the world than what people think about it. When I used to worry about whether or not people liked my work, I created barriers in making it. I didn’t have creative freedom. I controlled and focused my work on what I hoped people liked and would buy. Now when I make art, it’s simply because it’s an urge that needs to be released within the deepest parts of me, and if that looks like a stereotypical “traditional” piece of Indigenous art, then fine; and if that looks like a sex positive nude piece, or work that speaks to the genocide of Indigenous people, or work that promotes the rights and safety of Indigenous Sex workers, or work that speaks to queer/2Spirit feminism, or work that speaks to highly charged political issues with Indigenous people with no or little Indigenous symbolism or meaning, then that’s perfectly fine too. I will continue to make art that moves me before making it for others, and hope that it in some way it moves people to appreciate Indigenous art, history, and 2Spirit people in a different light with an understanding about what we’ve been poorly taught in our education systems.

RDavisFishInTheSea30x24Raven Davis | Fish in the Sea, Acrylic Painting 30 x 24

RDavisMikmawEldersRaven Davis | L’nu Grandmothers, Photograph

Charlotte Henay is a mother, teacher, poet, storyteller and researcher. She works to counter extinction myths through poetics, re-membering, and relationships of imagining. Charlotte writes about cultural memory and grandmothers’ gardens, as an activist for Afro-Indigenous futurities. She has a background in critical race theory and being brown. Her work has been published in Feral Feminisms, Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society, and shown at Toronto’s Feminist Art Conference (FAC), York University’s Crossroads Gallery and 416 Gallery for MIXEDArtTO. Charlotte has been a teacher, administrator, and consultant in First Nations, mainstream, and international Indigenous education contexts, co-founding British Columbia’s first Aboriginal Choice School, Nusdeh Yoh. Charlotte is currently a Ph.D. student in Comparative Perspectives and Cultural Boundaries at York University. 

Raven Davis is an Indigenous, mixed race, 2Spirit multidisciplinary artist and activist from the Anishnawbek (Ojibway) Nation in Manitoba. Born and raised in Toronto, they currently live in Halifax. A parent of three sons, Raven’s work spans painting, performance, traditional song/dance, design, poetry, and short film. Raven explores art as resurgent practice and ceremony and cleverly blends narratives of colonization, race and gender justice, 2Spirit identity and the Anishnawbemowin language and culture into traditional and contemporary art forms. For over 20 years, Raven has worked as an independent designer and artist. Raven has facilitated programs at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and has curated a number of art exhibits in Ontario and the Maritimes. Raven has also worked for organizations supporting Black and Indigenous activism, solidarity, culture and social justice such as Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, Anishnawbe Health, the Black Action Defence Committee and Red Sisters, and Black Sisters Collective. Since 2015, Raven’s films have been screened at notable festivals such MIX in New York City, the Muskoka Independent Film Festival and in Berlin. Their latest movie It’s Not Your Fault will be screening at the Mayworks festival in Halifax this year. Currently, Raven is working on a body of work for a solo show in 2016/2017 and is the Art and Activism Artist in Residence at the Nova Scotia Art and Design University.