MUSKRAT Magazine connected with visual artist Chief Lady Bird AKA Nancy King to learn more about her artistic expression and how she uses her talent and creative expression as a tool to educate and inspire communities.
MUSKRAT Magazine: You use your spirit name as your artist name, I am wondering how Anishinaabe culture and language informs your art practice?
Nancy King: I always like to acknowledge that the name Chief Lady Bird was given to me in ceremony by my grandfather Ralph King Sr. (Moosedeer Point First Nation). It has always made sense for me to sign my art with this name because I connect to it more than I connect to my English “colonial” name enter colonial name. By using my spirit name to sign my work, I acknowledge the importance of spirit, culture, ceremony, family, community and connection. Anishinaabe culture and language are at the base of everything I do. My dad is a medicine man so I grew up with medicines hanging on the front deck and ceremonies in our dining room. When people came to see my dad, I remember hearing his shaker from the other room and smelling the orange pekoe my mom was brewing for our guests. When I think about how Anishinaabe culture and language influence my art practice, I automatically think of family.
Everything I have learned has been through observation, blood memory and through living in a house with parents that value culture. My late aunt Sandra named my thesis work for me: Kwezens Kendaaso Kinowabandang Kina Gegoo, which translates to, She Learns From Observing Everything, which speaks to the nature of my art practice and how it stems from memory and connection. I have memories of my dad taking my classmates on medicine walks through the bush behind our house; memories of my grandma and papa speaking Anishinaabemowin at the dining room table; memories of driving from Rama to Moosedeer on Saturdays in the summer; memories of my nan’s quillwork hanging on the walls and sitting on shelves. All of these personal experiences are at the base of my artistic expression. And from there, I am able to add layers of collective Indigenous experience including colonialism, cultural genocide, the complexity of our identities, cultural appropriation, visual language, traditions, politics…the list goes on.
Currently I am working on a series that uses “beaded glyphs” as fragments of made up visual language, referencing wampum belts (visual treaties), syllabics and petroglyphs as a way of understanding the loss of language through cultural genocide. These beaded glyphs convince the viewers that they mean something (or that they SHOULD mean something), which creates tension between the work and viewer that ultimately emulates the frustration that many Indigenous nations feel who aren’t fluent in their traditional languages.
MM: Can you tell MUSKRAT how your art practice first started?
NK: Whenever I get asked this question I think about my sister Aura, who is also an artist. Sometimes people will ask her “How long did this take for you to make?” and she always says “My entire life.” Growing up I spent a lot of time sitting in my room by myself. I have vivid memories of popping a VHS of Nightmare Before Christmas into the VCR and drawing throughout the entirety of the movie, only to hit rewind and have it playing over and over while I created.
When I was about 10 my dad introduced me to some cottagers at King Bay who asked me if I’d ever considered studying art. At that point, I didn’t really realize “art” was a career option. It was always just something I did because I didn’t know anything else, nor did I have the desire to do anything else. I’m very grateful for that moment, because it solidified the notion that I can sustain myself with my creativity. There I was, a 10 year old standing on a dock looking out at King Bay, saying “I’m gonna go to OCAD!” Now here I am 13 years later with a degree, living off my art and working with youth to help them realize their potential. Everything comes full circle.
MM: Who is your favourite artist?
NK: I have a lot of respect for Onaman Collective. I strongly believe that art can and should be used as a catalyst for social change and the work that they’re doing does exactly that. They use their position as an art collective to uplift our people, and educate everyone across turtle island about the land, waters, languages and traditions of our people. I admire their honesty and ability to stand, unwavering, fighting for our rights.
MM: What is the most challenging part of being a young Indigenous artist in Toronto?
NK: I would say that “connection” is simultaneously the easiest yet most challenging thing about being a young Indigenous artist in Toronto. On one hand, living in the city allows us to access community events and connect with diverse community members, ultimately strengthening our cultural ties. I am also a big fan of social media and am able to collaborate with and meet tons of people from the Indigenous community that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect with. But on the other hand, I feel completely disconnected from the land. I miss my home. I miss the maples that surround my parents’ house. I miss seeing the bay from my grandma’s house. I miss fried fish. I miss the sound of frogs at night. I miss the stars. I even miss randomly seeing a black bear on the front deck! When I’m in the city, I am connected to people, but disconnected from land. And both of these things are integral to my work. So it becomes about creatively finding spaces for connection.
MM: Looking ahead, what do you hope for in your professional arts career?
NK: I want to continue making art, ensure continued collaboration with other artists and community members, and uplift our youth. Currently I work as a freelance artist but I also teach on the Toronto District School Board’s NAC10 Aboriginal Artists list and I work with at-risk youth at the Native Learning Centre. One of my biggest passions aside from my own personal creative expression is accessing that fire inside our youth and helping them reclaim their culture, recognize their resilience and connect to their spirit. I have a good rapport with the students I teach because I am fairly close to their age, which allows us to have candid conversations and connect on a personal level. My goal as an artist is to uplift, empower and educate. If I can keep doing that, I’ll be happy.
There are two students that I would like to give a shout out to. Their names are Kaillin and Jennifer and they have shown so much growth in the short amount of time I have known them. I have been able to walk beside them on their journey and I see great things ahead of them. Keep working hard girls, your strength doesn’t go unnoticed. I am so proud of you.
Nancy King (Potawatomi/Chippewa) is a visual artist from Mnjikaning Rama First Nation and has paternal roots in Moosedeer Point First Nation in Ontario. King signs all her artwork with her Anishinaabe name Ogimaakwebnes, which means Chief Lady Bird in the Ojibway language. She completed her BFA in 2015 in Drawing and Painting with a minor in Indigenous Visual Culture at OCAD University and has been exhibiting her work since she was fourteen years old.Through her art practice she looks to the past (both historically and traditionally) to help her navigate her Anishinaabe identity whilst living in an urban space as well as advocate for Indigenous representation as an integral aspect of Canada’s national identity.
Chief Lady Bird exhibited her work at the CALL TO ACTION #83: Eight Indigenous and Eight Non-Indigenous Artists’ Quest for Truth and Reconciliation group show. This project helped to layout a roadmap for Inawendiwin – “going forward together in harmony”.
Connect with Chief Lady Bird on Instagram @cheifladybird