How Indigenous artists are getting even more creative during COVID-19

Nightly internet talk shows. Streaming comedy. Ojibwe colouring books. Across the province, Indigenous creators are sharing their work — and trying to adjust to the new challenges of the pandemic
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Mar 27, 2020
Drummer and singer Brenda MacIntyre had to cancel a performance in Toronto and offered a concert online. (Corey Slager)

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What’s an artist without an audience? That’s what Anishinaabe musician Brenda MacIntyre asked herself after a Toronto performance was cancelled due to COVID-19. “All of a sudden — boom,” she says. “Your gigs are just out from under you.” 

She moved the show to the internet, but the drummer and singer, whose spirit name is Medicine Song Woman, says it’s difficult to sell online content when so much of it is free. So, although she says the concert has been met with a positive response, that hasn’t translated into ticket sales. “People are scrambling, and they're afraid and holding onto their money, and many people are panic buying and all that,” MacIntyre says. 

MacIntyre is one of many Indigenous artists, musicians, and comedians trying to adapt to self-isolation while also supporting their communities through creative projects. In Hamilton, Juno-award nominated Cree-Métis musician iskwē recently launched the nightly Instagram series Live from My Living Room. Through it, she has been chatting with guests — including George Stroumboulopoulos and Canadian musicians Lights and Begonia — over split-screen video chat. Swampy Cree author David A. Robertson has been hosting live readings of his books, such as When We Were Alone, on social media. And Cree comedian Don Burnstick and Anishinaabe comedian and podcaster Ryan McMahon have been streaming laughs for free online. 

Toronto-based Ojibwe artist and graphic designer Patrick Hunter shared two Ojibwe colouring books he created last year during a residency with Prince’s Trust Canada. The Facebook post distributing the free .pdf links for the books — originally printed for the Teach for Canada charity to take to remote communities in northern Ontario — has now garnered more than 1,400 shares. “I'm super-pleased with how many times it's been shared, and some stories are coming in,” he says. Friends in Garden River First Nation, for example, have printed copies to include in care packages that they're giving out to community members who haven’t been able to get to the grocery store.

Hunter, who describes his artistic approach as a mix between Norval Morrisseau's woodland-style paintings and the Group of Seven’s landscapes, says that most of his work can be done remotely and that his clients are happy to communicate online. But not all artists can work remotely or give away free content, and research suggests that Indigenous artists may be particularly vulnerable, as they typically earn less than their non-Indigenous counterparts to begin with. 

Hill Strategies released a report in January focusing on four demographic groups of artists: women, Indigenous people, members of racialized groups, and members of official-language minority groups. The report found that "Indigenous artists have a median income of $16,600, less than one-half of the median income of all Indigenous workers in Canada ($37,200). Whereas, non-Indigenous artists have a median income of $24,600.” 

Indigenous artists who rely on performances — including at festivals and powwows — to sell their work have been especially affected. To address this, Cree artist Crystal Semaganis, who runs the Sudbury Indigenous market Facebook page, created the Turtle Island Quarantine Festival, an online outlet for Indigenous artists to share and sell their work and exchange tips. She started accepting art submissions last week; the virtual festival will run until May 15. “I was supposed to be at Cambrian College powwow, and the Barrie powwow this weekend got cancelled. This is where I usually make my money,” she says. “Me and so many of my friends are now sitting at home wondering, when is the next powwow? Will there even be a powwow this season? And there's a lot of uncertainty. There's a lot of unknowns. There's a huge void.” 

Some art institutions have taken action. TakingITGlobal’s Create to Learn program has, in partnership with imagineNATIVE, launched an at-home training initiative to support students who are unable to attend school. It is offering a stipend of $250 for Indigenous artists, authors, and media makers to share creative and digital-content production skills in tutorial videos for students. The videos can be found on Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag #CreateToLearn.

The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective has launched a relief fund for independent Indigenous curators and artists: they can receive an honorarium by joining the Curating Care project and uploading a two-minute video describing themselves, their practice, and the role that care has in their work. MacIntyre was one of the first artists to submit a video ahead of the March 27 deadline. “I got one of those honorariums, and that means everything,” says MacIntyre. “That helped us to be able to have some things in the house that we really, really needed.” ACC says that it has given out 10 honorariums so far and that it hopes to fund 45 Indigenous artists or curators in total.

The Indigenous Screen Office is asking Indigenous screen-based creators and workers to keep an inventory of lost income and unforeseen expenses during this time and to complete a survey — it says the information will be crucial in advocating for a response from all levels of government. The Ontario Association of Art Galleries has also created an impact survey. The Ontario Arts Council has not announced any additional funding, but it released a statement indicating that it would not be asking for repayments of grants given that COVID-19 has brought unanticipated expenses and altered events and plans.

Hunter believes we could be seeing a shift for artists and self-employed individuals across Canada. “When you’re self-employed, the goal is to make money to live off of, and, I think, as a society, the measure of success sometimes is what you have and what's in your bank account,” he says. “What if people went home and did the thing that they always wanted to do and were paid to do it? I think that more people should try, and if my books are a catalyst for people to get more creative, that's a win — and I think that's also a measure of success, too.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the community that is including Patrick Hunter's colouring books in care packages. TVO.org regrets the error.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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