Transits and Returns
Vancouver Art Gallery
September 26, 2019-February 23, 2020
By Ada Dragomir
As I sit down to write these words, I feel a kind of sadness that is hard to articulate. I miss my grandmother’s steady teasing, her unending superstitious habits, her proverbs and expressions which—when translated into this jagged, dagger-for-smiles language—shrivel on my tongue, making sense to no-one. I missed the instructions for how to be a Romani woman, forfeited ancestral knowledge on right relationship, my embodied cultural teachings traded in for a citizenship card. As I ride the Vancouver Art Gallery escalator up to Transits And Returns, I can’t help but bring the other places I have been with me: the port blockades in support of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty, the overnight at Broadway and Cambie, the Grandview rail barricade, and the Bucharest University square where they shot into the crowd while I jingled keys on my father’s shoulders; a four-year-old in pigtails in the middle of the Christmas revolution. Sometimes, all of these places are really the same place, and my settlerness—my dislocation—is bound up within the greater Gordian knot of global capitalism and the colonial state, connected to the dislocation of the Wet’suwet’en, the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the Kanyen’kehà:ka. As I come into the whiteness of the gallery, I am tired, oscillating between brazen hope and exhausted collapse, but, under it all, Oh, How I Long for Home.
Transits and Returns presents the polyphonic work of 21 Indigenous artists thematically contextualized by movement, territory, kinship, and representation. Curated by 5 distinct voices—Tarah Hogue, Sarah Biscarra Dilley, Freja Carmichael, Léuli Eshraghi, and Lana Lopesi—the exhibition deftly bridges distinct Indigenous contexts with global experiences. If Transits and Returns aims to represent the complexity and multiplicity of Indigenous experience within the framework of rootedness and mobility, then Marianne Nicolson’s neon work, Oh, How I Long For Home, functions as a visceral and cerebral reminder that language, land, and home are the quiet and persistent spaces of resistance. The work speaks to generative refusal and the intricate negotiations—and frequent collapses—between past and present, here and not here, self and not-self. If Transits and Returns is about the discursive formation of Indigeneity in the ‘entre’ space of the Pacific, then Nicolson’s sculptural and linguistic sign is a hand that points in many directions simultaneously, making it easier and more difficult for us to find our way home.
For, if we truly desire justice beyond decolonial optics and performative solidarity, we must accept that the street signs and google maps, compasses and sextants, atlases, and star charts—though seemingly solid and incontrovertible—only function to set us further adrift.
For, if we truly desire justice beyond decolonial optics and performative solidarity, we must accept that the street signs and google maps, compasses and sextants, atlases, and star charts—though seemingly solid and incontrovertible—only function to set us further adrift. Nicolson’s neon reminds me of a conversation between UBC History Professor Coll Thrush, and Metis-Cree community planner and filmmaker Kamala Todd, in which they discuss our responsibility to place. Place has its own ancient laws, protocols, and cosmologies. They invite us—the uninvited guests—to sit in our disorientedness and to accept being off-balance and unsure. They talk about making space for paradox in order that we may find our way home.
Under the hot glow of a red neon sign, tucked away inside a grey offset room, I can feel the uncomfortable swelling in my chest that tells me I may cry. I breathe deeply, stare at the glowing words that are both familiar and unrecognizable, and ground myself again. Marianne Nicolson’s work makes me hot under the collar, forces my face towards the sun, and makes me think—confronted by my own lack of understanding. It brings to mind the teeming connections between the many frontlines at stake in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, territory, and representation both within and beyond the walls of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Working formally with text, electrons, and light, and in the long history of neon works from Kosuth, to Flavin, to Nauman and Emin, Nicolson’s Oh, How I Long for Home immediately invokes the complex experiences of urban Indigenous people. Neon, once ubiquitous in the urban post-war consumerist boom—think Fred Herzog’s 1959 Granville/Robson—now has a double meaning, standing in symbolically for the “seedy underbelly” of the metropolitan core, the inner-city slums, the Downtown Eastside, a dead man in a shopping cart. A week and a half ago, I saw the last remnants of that neon explosion near Main and Hastings, walking with hundreds of people for the 29th annual Memorial March for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Girls, Women and 2-Spirit folks. Oh, How I Long for Home makes unsettling formal connections between the urban realities that displacement causes, and like the Memorial March itself, speaks to the forced movements to and from territory, towards and away from kinship ties, in the complex web of people endeavouring to survive colonial legacies, greeting the ordinary daily sunrise as best they can.
Nicolson’s work participates in what Indigenous scholar Audra Simpson and writer, scholar, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson have termed generative refusal—refusal of the terms and conditions imposed on Indigenous subjects by the settler state, refusal of the neoliberal and colonial politic of recognition, refusal of the voyeuristic, fetishistic ethnographic gaze, and in many cases, refusal to centre settlerness at all
According to the exhibition essay, the neon work “presents a phrase in Kwak’wala, ‘Wa’lasan xwalsa kan ne’kakwe,’ which translates to the work’s English title,” while also sharing linguistic roots with Kwak’wala notions of returning home, and the dawn, or sunrise.
Despite the act of translation, Oh, How I Long for Home intervenes as the sign of generative refusal for many gallery-goers as it denies us anything but an approximation of meaning, a jagged translation which misses entire worlds of embodied understanding, a symbol for an uncertain kind of belonging. Language—which contains entire universes of interrelationship, mental schemas, and cultural concepts, is an active site of resistance—another front-line for Indigenous resurgence. Alongside the linguistic implications of Nicolson’s work exist deeply political ones. The Kwak’wala language on the walls of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which until 1983 was the Vancouver Law Court, is a deeply meaningful act of Kwakwaka’wakw visual sovereignty. But as I become more engaged in direct action and more politicized about Indigenous laws and titles, I would contend that visual sovereignty is not enough. Reserves are not enough, status is not enough, representation is not enough, reconciliation is not enough.
Neon words are only the beginning.
Home is invoked by Marianne Nicolson’s work in conceptual and embodied ways. From the fierce false heat of neon light, viewers must walk back and forth across the expanse of the grey room in order to access the work’s translated meaning. Placed opposite Bracken Hanuse Corlett’s Qvùtix, an animated creation myth displayed on a button blanket, Oh, How I Long for Home makes aggregate, non-stationary claims about what home actually is, and what it means to return home as an Indigenous person. Within the confines of the gallery space, home is an ideological and conceptual invocation, but to anyone who doesn’t currently live under a rock, Indigenous homeland in BC is a highly contested and deeply physical space, subject to colonial encroachment, capitalist greed, settler laws, and convenient “justice.” Returning home to live in one’s territories is a site of intricate personal, familial, and political negotiation for many Indigenous peoples living on the largely unceded lands of this province. It is no coincidence then, as Nicolson pines after home in Oh, How I Long for Home, Indigenous youth across unceded British Columbia are demanding nation-to-nation dialogue, and above all, Indigenous reoccupation of traditional territories, that is, land back.
As I stare up into the face of this neon sun, I am reminded of another nuance; “Transits” can be read as movement—the journey of people, goods, ideas, and cultures—but also implies the passage of celestial bodies across each other’s planetary faces; the shadow of Europa traversing the face of Saturn, the glow of our overcast sunrise crossing Sydney’s round face as we pack up the last of the cold coffee, watched closely by VPD officers. Oh, How I Long for Home addresses the complexity of Indigenous pasts, presents, and futures in subtle and visceral ways, simultaneously invoking the contested spaces of land, language, and home but managing to dislodge us and disorient us from our familiar and flawed understandings.
Oh, How I Long for Home is a complicated sign, pointing simultaneously to our head, our heart, and our gut, asking us to sit in the strangeness of each other’s glow just a little while longer.
 Audra Simpson, Mohawk Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, 2014, Duke University Press
Leanne Betasamosake-Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, 2017, University of Minnesota Press.