Guswenta Gathering brings Indigenous artists to Soulpepper in cross-cultural, multi-arts collaboration

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Falen Johnson (photo courtesy of Soulpepper)

Falen Johnson is responding to my questions about Soulpepper’s inaugural Guswenta Gathering while a 50-foot Two Row Wampum Belt, created by Cole Forrest (Ojibway) and Katie Samara Couchie (Oji-Cree) is being hung in the lobby of the Michael Young Centre. She approves: “I think it really transforms the place, and I look forward to seeing patrons’ reactions to the piece all week.”

The Belt is a potent symbol of the values and purpose behind this weeklong presentation of multi-disciplinary arts by Indigenous artists, which is co-curated by Ms Johnson (Mohawk-Tuscarora) and Cole Alvis (Métis), who are both artists, writers and producers. The title “Gustwenta Gathering” was chosen because it is grounded in Indigenous thinking and worldview. The Guswenta, or Two Row Wampum as it is also known, is the physical representation of an agreement: “It speaks to the way in which we (the original caretakers of this land and settlers) should treat one another. Travelling side by side and not interrupting the other’s journey. When we were deciding on the title for the gathering we wanted to make sure we were saying, ‘we are working collaboratively towards something, but we haven’t arrived yet. We are taking the first steps towards relationship.’

Guswenta Gathering came together pretty quickly, she recalls. It started with a meeting this past spring with Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, General Manager Tania Senewiratne, and former Soulpepper Academy members Justin Many Fingers and Hunter Cardinal. “We sat and tossed around ideas of what we wanted and hoped to achieve with the gathering. We discussed a number of ideas, [and] those ideas were refined and sculpted into what I felt would work best for Soulpepper and for the Indigenous community.”

Santee Smith, NeoIndigenA; photo: David Hou

In August, Cole Alvis joined the team. As Ms Johnson has worked with Mr Alvis on a number of events over the years, his addition felt “totally natural”. This is Soulpepper’s first real foray into working with Indigenous artists in leadership positions, and she was gratified by how seriously they took the responsibility. “We knew we wanted to put some of the best and brightest from our community on the stage at the Young Centre,” she avers, and she and the curatorial team selected the participating artists. When Mr Alvis came on, he helped to refine the programming. “He also keeps me grounded, which is helpful when working on any event,” she adds.

The programming, which is currently underway at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, is a mix of free and ticketed events, and highlights art that speaks to the specific lands and waterways where the Young Centre is situated. And while the overall shape of the programming was developed early, the detail work — components like the First Story Bus tour — took a little longer to sort and develop. She describes the tour as “the most complicated piece with multiple considerations and variables.” It takes place on a bus that drives around Toronto illuminating some of the unknown or lesser-known Indigenous history of what is now called Toronto. “We wanted to heighten the experience by incorporating contemporary Indigenous artists on the bus tour to give awareness to the contemporary Indigenous people. For me this speaks to the Indigenous thinking: paying respect to our past and moving towards the future.”

Cliff Cardinal (photo courtesy of Soulpepper)

Performances include:

  • Cliff Cardinal’s solo play Huff
  • Kaha:wi Dance Theatre Artistic Director Santee Smith’s solo tour-de-force NeoIndigenA, a piece which calls for connection, transformation and healing
  • In First Person from award-winning Toronto-based theatre company SoulO Theatre and director Tracey Erin Smith, performed by an intergenerational mix of storytellers including Cultural Consultant Tantoo Cardinal
  • Multi-disciplinary artist Justin Many FingersNiitsitapiisin, a free dance workshop and physical exploration with an Indigenous perspective, inspired by his practice of Blackfoot Indigenous performing arts

The Gathering will also include a public artistic and cultural Marketplace within the Young Centre atrium, and a Guswenta Cabaret featuring local Indigenous artists, including Ansley Simpson, Justin Many Fingers, Kristi Lane Sinclair, and Lacey Hill. Finally, there is also a Speakers Series with two talks: “Wampum and Worldview” and “Land and Story”, both offered free of charge. “We are hoping that anyone who attends the Speaker Series gets an inside view into how Indigenous artists create work and what that looks like,” Ms Johnson avers.

The 50-foot Belt adorning the Young Centre lobby is a cogent symbol of the area’s history: what was, what it is, and what could be. This Belt, like the Gathering itself, is an artistic creation that is simple yet sophisticated, implicative and intricate, and so represents the ideal of a new beginning, which is an echo of the original Guswenta, “an agreement made through art.” “For me, any conversation will be useful,” Ms Johnson asserts. Her final thought is a compelling question: “So much of this festival is about opening and maintaining a dialogue during and after the gathering. What happens during the gathering will be just as important as what happens post-gathering. How do we continue to move down that path illustrated by Two Row Wampum after the gathering is over?”

Cole Alvis and Falen Johnson; photo: Daniel Malavasi

News You Can Use

What: Guswenta Gathering, presentations of theatre, dance, music and art by Indigenous artists, programmed by Falen Johnson and Cole Alvis, in collaboration with Soulpepper Theatre Company

Who: Audiences and participants of all ages

When: Until October 21, 2017; Huff on stage until October 28, 2017

Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4

Information: and 416.866.8666

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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