Concrete (Indian) Futures: In Conversation with Nadya Kwandibens – Andrea Zeffiro

When word of Idle No More – specifically, the issues that spurred Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to a hunger strike – spread across the country, Canadians were confronted with both the real and symbolic violence enacted against Indigenous people by the Government of Canada. This is not to suggest that Indigenous people are victims. Indeed, we cannot ignore Canada’s long historical past/present, in which Indigenous people were/are treated with raw inhumanity, but we – the collective ‘us’ who want to etch a future Canada – can not perpetuate the victimization of Indigenous people. These are not Nations of people once great; these are Nations of great people. Nadya Kwandibens of Red Works Studios has focused her lens – literally and figuratively – on the decolonization of representation of Indigenous people. Kwandibens’ work, while never forgetting the past, is very much attuned to forging a strong future.





Andrea Zeffiro: First, thanks so much for taking the time to respond to these questions, and for sharing your photography with NMP readers and viewers. My first question – I suppose it isn’t really a question per se – I’m interested in your story; what lead you towards photography as a medium for your art practice? Could you share a little bit about your journey as a photographer?

Nadya Kwandibens: I never sought to become a photographer but things have a way of coming full circle. I had enrolled in Film Production studies in college, and although I never completed my studies, what I learned in those introductory photography courses stayed with me, and photography remained a hobby for years. I developed a real passion for it. I went on to continue my education in a different area of study in university. It wasn’t until I moved to Arizona five years later, that I began to take that passion for photography seriously; my partner at the time encouraged me to start shooting portraits. It has been twelve years since I first picked up a camera, and my love for photography is bringing back opportunities and invitations to serve as Director of Photography (DOP) on films. I have a solid base of supporters and will eventually open a studio for my photography company, Red Works Studio. The dream of becoming a filmmaker is still strong in my thoughts, and it’s a role that will no doubt come naturally after shooting and gaining such relevant experience over the years. I still have a few more projects and series I’d like to photograph before focusing on filmmaking. I won’t ever stop shooting.

AZ: Before I ask specific questions about your projects and/or photographic series, could you contextualize your work broadly, including your aesthetic sensibilities and thematic preoccupations?

NK: My art is concerned with empowering Indigenous people. The vision statement for my photography company, Red Works Studio, lays the foundation upon which all my photographic work is based:

We, as Indigenous people, are often portrayed in history books as Nations once great; in museums as Nations frozen stoic; in the media as Nations forever troubled. These images can be despairing; however, my goal seeks to steer the positive course. If our history is a shadow, let this moment serve as light. We are musicians, lawyers, doctors, mothers and sons. We are activists, scholars, dreamers, fathers and daughters. Let us claim ourselves now and see that we are, and will always be great, thriving, balanced civilizations capable of carrying ourselves into that bright new day.

AZ: Your ‘Concrete Indians’ portraiture series is incredibly haunting, especially in its evocation of contemporary Indigenous urban experience while summoning the past. I wonder if you could comment on this thematic thread/imagery.

NK: This series asks the question: How is your identity affected as an Indigenous person living or working in the city? Since launching the series five years ago, I’ve read hundreds of emails from people who want to be photographed for this series. Not one portrait idea in response to the question has been negative; there exists such pride in one’s own culture that no urban environment can ever diminish it. The series is about decolonization, being aware of it, and strengthening collective cultural identity. I’ve also received several emails from people who are reconnecting with their cultural roots and history; it becomes clear just how essential knowledge of the past is in forming and shaping one’s cultural identity.

AZ: On your website, an excerpt from the ‘Concrete Indians’ project description reads:

Native people from across Turtle Island have been submitting portrait ideas regarding what it means to be urbanized and how living in urban centers either strengthens or weakens (or both) ones own cultural identity.

I think that in challenging and confronting issues of visibility, the series also renegotiates visibility/power. What does it mean to be rendered visible? Who has the right or holds the power of visibility? Does the process of portraiture submission contribute to such a renegotiation? – How does the series engage and/or confront these questions?

NK: For far too long society has viewed the Indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America) as living in the past – for example, in tipis on vast untouched prairies, and riding on horseback – or as seen in the media, news of Indians protesting. The noble savage or the angry Indian. Those stereotypes are slowly starting to fade away. So for me the series is also about reclaiming the Indigenous image. It is an empowering experience when people write in to participate in the series. And I’m just one of many Indigenous artists creating work that addresses those stereotypes.

AZ: You also completed a photographic series documenting Idle No More, including the march from Victoria Island to the rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. In what ways does Idle No More (as a movement and shared politic) engage in dialogue with your ‘Concrete Indians’ series?

NK: My coverage of the Idle No More rallies can certainly be connected with the concept of Concrete Indians in how Indigenous people are stepping forward to uphold tradition. Idle No More, to me, means actively taking part in affirming traditional rights, which are very much rooted in who we are as First Nations of this land. So again, it’s a question of identity and pushing collective identity to the forefront, so that society may better understand how Indigenous knowledge and philosophies can inform and address contemporary issues.








Andrea Zeffiro is a researcher and writer whose work intersects contemporary media history, the political economy of emerging technologies, and visual cultures. She teaches in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art + Design

Nadya Kwandibens is Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) and French from the Northwest Angle #37 First Nation in Ontario, Canada. She is a self-taught, dynamic photographer specializing in artistic natural light portraiture and event photography. In 2000, Nadya began exploring photography, and while working in video and radio production, she gained the professional experience to easily connect with people and groups. July 2006 marked the start of her portraiture work, and since then, she has travelled extensively, photographing people and events throughout Canada and the U.S. Nadya has worked for numerous groups and organizations, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indspire, imagineNATIVE, Native Earth Performing Arts, Centre for Indigenous Theatre, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, Big Soul Productions, and Manitoba Music, as well as with several individual artists, actors, musicians and role models. In October 2008, she founded Red Works Studio and in the same year, she began photographing ‘Concrete Indians,’ a portraiture series and exploration of collective Indigenous identity. Her photographic work has been featured within the pages of National Geographic Magazine, FACE Magazine, THIS Magazine, SAY Magazine, Red Ink Magazine, and several educational print and online publications for Oxford University Press, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson Canada. Nadya was also the invited artist-in-residence for the Native American Indigenous Cinema & Arts online exhibition, and has exhibited in several group and solo shows throughout Canada and the U.S. Nadya tours twice each year for photo sessions and to document ‘Concrete Indians’ portraits, and she also delivers empowering photography workshops for Native youth across Canada. She currently resides in Toronto, Ontario.