February 20, 2024

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Ursula Johnson’s Emmitukwemk: The Visit

Ursula Johnson’s Emmitukwemk: The Visit

Feature Image: Installation view of Emmitukwemk : The Visit, 2023. Image courtesy of The Blue Building Gallery. Photo: Ryan Josey.

One month before internationally renowned Mi’kmaw artist Ursula Johnson was preparing for a three-month long residency in Venice, Italy as part of a Fellowship with Ocean Space and TBA21 in 2022, she heard a voice in her head while washing up the dishes after dinner. Johnson describes the voice as “familiar and comforting” in her exhibition essay which digitally accompanies Emmitukwemk: The Visit via a QR code. A voice that took her back to her family and community where she spent her formative years as an alter server at the Eskasoni Holy Family Parish church. Over a sink of dirty plates, she remembered listening to Sister Dorothy Moore singing Ave Mari in L’nuismimk.

“I quickly wiped my hands on a tea towel and grabbed my phone to begin the search for its origin,” writes Johnson in the essay. “And there it was, on the page of the Atlantic First Nation Help Desk under the Aboriginal Initiative under the songs tab. Track 11 was Sister Dorothy’s voice singing ‘Kulein Mali’ as translated by Pauline Bernard.”

As a Mi’kmaq woman whose first language is Mi’kmaw, Johnson travelled to Venezia, Italy, a city which is as well-known as the epi-centre for music, art, and the church. It’s the birth place of multitudes of global historical narratives. During her residency, Johnson witnessed the visit of the residential school Survivors to the Holy See on Italian television. As a descendant of Survivors of Indian Residential Institutions, she was met with a complexity of deep emotions and experiences during her residency. While it was an incredible opportunity to live and work in Venice, it was also tremendously difficult and isolating to be far-away from her loved ones and community.

“That moment in time also marked the difficult two years that the entire globe was forced into a situation where we were required to navigate a new world and reinvent what it meant to be in community,” Johnson writes in her essay. “In order to try to maintain a sense of understanding of who I was and why I was there – within such a complex series of historical narratives, I had to dig deep into the mud to find my roots. The roots that would bring me to the language, to song and to the old L’nu custom of emmitukwemk: The Visit.”

Installation view of Emmitukwemk : The Visit, 2023. Image courtesy of The Blue Building Gallery. Photo: Ryan Josey.

Emmitukwemk: The Visit on display at The Blue Building in Kjipuktuk/ Halifax from October 7 – December 2, 2023.  She invites viewers to set their own pace for reflection, and consider how their personal historical narratives influence their gaze.

Since graduating from Nova Scotia’s College of Art and Design in 2006, Johnson has been exhibiting nationally and internationally. Her practice is rooted in installation, performance and creates in collaboration. Her work Moose Fence was awarded the Nova Scotia Masterworks Award in 2019, the Sobey Art Award in 2017, and the Hnatyshyn Foundation Reveal Indigenous Art Award. Johnson’s work has been shortlisted for the Salt Spring National Art Prize (2015) and the Nova Scotia Masterworks Award (2016).

Emmitukwemk: The Visit is an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that is dream-like, and embodies elements of the historical, theatrical and spiritual. Its immersive quality creates a world of its own – a space in-between Mi’kma’ki and Venice. A portal of sorts. Somewhere to sit and reflect while acknowledging time as non-linear. Opening during Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq History month, which also coincides with Treaty Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Johnson’s Emmitukwemk: The Visit invites viewers to reckon with a past that is both shared and personal through the exhibition work. Emmitukwemk: The Visit creates a space for honest and true reconciliation.

Walking through the red velvet curtains and following a voice, Emmitukwemk: The Visit transforms the gallery space into what feels like a grand European hall and an old wooden church simultaneously. With a chandelier hung over a roped off piece –a large circle painting by Johnson with Mi’kmaw hieroglyphs (which was a writing system for Mi’kmaw between 1675 to 1800s) takes centre stage. The circle reminds me that time is circular and that we are all deeply connected. The exhibition also features beautiful self-portraits of the artist in Venice in vintage ornate frames and two speakers that continuously loop a recording from Johnson’s performance on the streets of Venice. Her voice singing ‘Kulein Mali’ to the Black Madonna is ethereal and has stayed with me for days after experiencing the exhibition.

Installation view of Emmitukwemk : The Visit, 2023. Image courtesy of The Blue Building Gallery. Photo: Ryan Josey.

Included in Emmitukwemk: The Visit’s didactic panels, Johnson describes her understanding of time as a non-static continuum. “Narratives of time differ cross culturally through the world. For some culture time moves in a linear fashion. For others, it can be described as more of a circle – or cyclical.” As a Mi’kmaq-settler writer, Johnson’s Emmitukwemk: The Visit is one of the most powerful, meaningful and thought-provoking exhibitions I’ve had the privilege of visiting. Not only does the artist create a space that encourages visitors to reflect and contemplate their personal historical narratives and what truths they hold, Johnson does so with incredible generosity of spirit and deep care. She creates a space for true and honest reconciliation and offers a pathway forward, where we can lift each other up and sing together.

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About The Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is of Mi’kmaq and settler heritage. She is a member of Flat Bay First Nation. Her books include: the forthcoming Re: Wild Her (Book*hug 2025), Lunar Tides (2022), I Am a Body of Land (2019), and Still No Word (2015), which was the recipient of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award. Shannon is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, and the editor of Muskrat Magazine and Visual Arts News.

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