In part two of our Social Justice in Art series, we spoke with artists KC Adams and GMB Chomichuk. We heard their insights on creative collaboration, art as a means to start conversations, and taking risks in the service of important messages. You can read part one here.
KC Adams (she/her/hers) is a Cree/Ojibway/British Winnipeg-based artist. A graduate of Concordia University with a B.F.A in studio arts, Adams has had several solo and group exhibitions, with work in many permanent collections throughout Canada and abroad. Adams was the set designer for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation production, and she has designed public art sculptures for the Winnipeg Forks South Point Project and United Way of Winnipeg. Her collection of portraits, Perception: A Photo Series, was published in book form in 2019.
PMP: How did your photo series, Perception, evolve from idea to finished project?
KCA: I had been thinking about this art piece for 10 years prior to finishing it. I felt there was a need to create a work that showed the humanity of my community because we were mired in negative stereotypes. I knew it had to be a photo project, with community members as my inspiration, but that was the extent of the idea.
Fast forward to the summer of 2014. I read a Facebook post by Lori Steeves that was full of fear which translated into hateful words against my community. The moment I read the post, my photo project came to my mind and it was like a light bulb went on.
I needed to make art that could be shared on social media, because discrimination is a social problem. I couldn’t keep the work in a gallery space, where only a few hundred people would see it. I needed it to be seen by thousands, so we could start the conversation about racism.
PMP: The series made a big impression in Winnipeg and Lethbridge, where the images were installed in public places. Did you observe any reactions to your work that stand out in your mind?
KCA: I worked at Plug In ICA, and they had a billboard in the Osborne Village area where the Shoppers Drug Mart is now located. A couple times per year, a new billboard would go up, and it allowed the general public to have access to art. I loved that idea of accessibility; the opportunity to have viewers be impacted by art, no matter what their social standing.
In my mind, I had hoped that the Perception photos would also be placed all over Winnipeg, so people could see my work. I hoped it would get them to think about their own perspective on racism and stereotypes.
Urban Shaman Gallery heard my hopes, and they made it happen. Having my work on billboards, bus shelters, and posters was incredible. Everything that I had hoped about starting a conversation about racism towards my community is exactly what happened.
I have several examples of reactions to my work. The posters were hung up all around the University of Manitoba, and a friend who was teaching law invited me to meet some of her students. One of the students shared that, because of my work, he was able to have an honest discussion with his friends about hiring practices. His question to his friends was, if two equally qualified candidates were available for hire and one candidate was Indigenous, would they hire him/her? He said that it made several of them uncomfortable, some of them didn’t answer, but it got them thinking about their own prejudices.
I have another story of a friend that I bumped into at an art gallery opening. He felt that my work was perpetuating stereotypes, and that it hurt my community more than it helped. We had a healthy discussion. I told him that the work was about how each viewer has the ability to question their own personal responses to racism. His reaction, and the fact that the work got him to discuss racism, was a goal of creating this art project.
One of the most surprising reactions was how teachers have been using the work in their classrooms, and how it has inspired students to share their own stories of discrimination and isolation.
PMP: When we spoke to you in March, you quoted your friend Steve Loft who beautifully phrased how controlling one’s image as an Indigenous person is ultimately an act of liberation. Can you describe your emotional journey through the process of bringing art into the world that, to you, represents the reclamation of your culture and spirit?
KCA: I was nervous when I started this artwork because I was asking members of my community to put their image in my hands. They took a big risk. I posed, too, because I wanted them to know that we were all in this together—that I would take that journey with them.
What I didn’t anticipate was how empowered they felt by sharing their journey. They were proud to speak out against racism. Finally, our image was in our control instead of negative imagery and print typically found in information media.
Having my community in print in a positive light was always something that I had dreamed about. I am also an educator, and it has always been my goal to go into classrooms and inspire First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students to dream big. This work does this without me entering the classroom. Teachers across Canada are bringing this work into their classrooms, and the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students have responded by creating art that speaks about their own journey.
Art is powerful and can elicit change. I encourage everyone to embrace art, and in doing so, reclaim their spirit.
To discover KC’s full portfolio, visit her website at www.kcadams.net.
GMB Chomichuk is an award-winning writer and illustrator whose work has appeared in film, television, books, comics, and graphic novels. His recent work includes illustrations for the graphic novel anthology This Place: 150 Years Retold, and Will I See?, a collaboration with writer David A. Robertson and singer/songwriter Iskwē. Other works include occult-suspense story Midnight City, science fiction epic Red Earth, and the all-ages adventure stories of Cassie and Tonk. He also hosts the Super Pulp Science podcast. His newest full-length graphic novel, Apocrypha: The Legend of Babymetal was featured by The Hollywood Reporter, The Nerdist, and Billboard Magazine.
PMP: You’ve contributed to a number of projects that address issues concerning Indigenous communities, including Will I See? and This Place. As a non-Indigenous person, how do you approach projects like this?
GMBC: Well, being invited is an important step. Whether you were born in the place you live or you come from somewhere else, I think we have a responsibility to participate in our local community. If you are going to participate in a community, you should try to use your skills in the most positive ways you can.
I make comics, and tell stories visually. The skills I have took a long time to develop, but to get here is only possible because I’ve had the safety and security to live in this community. Being a part of this community, I recognize that not everyone is born with the same access that I was. I have a responsibility to do more than entertain.
It’s an interesting position to be in because if I had been asked to write for this collection, I would’ve had to decline. These are not my stories to tell. But, I’m able to use visual storytelling to turn up the volume of another’s voice, and that feels like a thing I can do. I’m not here to speak for anybody, but to stand beside them—and hopefully, together, we can speak for ourselves.
PMP: You’ve illustrated for several graphic novels, including This Place. Is there something in particular about graphic novels that, to you, makes them a powerful medium for social justice?
GMBC: Comics are subversive in nature, in part because they are not considered literary by most people. They’re seen as “safe.” Your guard is down when you enter. Eventually, the words and pictures together do something special—they create memory and emotion in the space between them.
People who dismiss the power of comic storytelling should be wary. Consider the power and influence of advertising, which is a similar way of pairing words and pictures—message with emotion—and have a message stick. Ads want to sell you something, I want to sell you on your own ability to see and make meaning.
PMP: Can you describe the process you use to convey socially conscious messages through your art in a way that is both sensitive and impactful?
GMBC: It’s a group effort—from writer to editorial, the feedback of first readers and sensitivity readers. We do our best. You never know if you’ve done the right thing until after it’s out. All I can try to do is be as sincere in my commitment to supporting my collaborators as I can.
A surprising evidence of the impact of these books for me has been the amount of racism that has been on display to me. Bigots assume I will be their ally. I’ve also been shouted down by the same narrow-viewed people at comic shows for my willingness to be a part of projects like these. It shows me how far we have to go, how many more pages we have to make.
A culture and community is made up of its stories. The more we tell untold stories, the more chances we have to get a real picture of this place we live in.
In the end, I don’t answer to the public, or even the reading community. I have to answer to my kids and be an example to them.
To see more of GMB’s work and upcoming projects, follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @gmbchomichuk, and check out his podcast, https://open.spotify.com/show/0mgEFzuY9FFq0BdwNmbP7K.