Presence and Absence: In Conversation with Julia Rose Sutherland

Julia Rose Sutherland. Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse). 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Margaryta Golovchenko

CW: Discussion of trauma, death, police violence against Indigenous people

There is an unwavering sense of presence in the interdisciplinary practice of Julia Rose Sutherland, an artist and member of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation. Whether documenting performances and installations that have long since ended or calling for action and justice, Sutherland’s works are always a link in a conversational chain—with ancestry, with the earth, with the social and political. The living and fluctuating nature of Sutherland’s corpus-like practice is closely intertwined with the constant presence of the body in her work. Whether the body is there physically or indicated through absence, or even referred to through the traces that are left behind by the manual labour of quillwork and sugar casting, the viewer is always in the middle of an encounter—with Sutherland and with the realities of colonial and ecological violence, as well as with themselves as a witness and participant in these dynamics.

MG: I was really interested in how you are physically present in your work, especially in your performances. In a lot of other cases, the body is noted through absence. I was wondering about this relationship, these different forms of corporeality.

JRS: I’ve been attracted to the representation of the body throughout my whole artistic career and as a child. I’m a portrait artist, that’s how I started. Then I went on to my undergraduate degree and started working with the body in more abstract ways, so this duality between absence and presence. I’m so attracted by the body — I’ve always felt that I live in such a liminal space, whether it’s between races or, as a queer person, between heterosexuality and homosexuality. I think a lot of the time, especially for people who undergo trauma, the body becomes this separate thing, a separate entity.

It also ties a bit to healing. I think that is what I’m trying to do, whether it’s healing myself or healing other groups of people or having conversations about tougher subjects. In my culture—and in many cultures—our histories and stories are orally passed down, whether through dance or through the body itself. Monique Mojica coined the term “blood memory” and I think there’s something really beautiful about that, what the body holds and how we can physically manifest it. For me, the body is a site to be used as a material and drawn from. I’m interested in what the body holds, what it remembers, what it can be, what it represents. I think there’s something to be said about confronting blood memory and what that looks like, confronting the histories that are intergenerational and that travel through time. Of course, time’s not linear. And I think that’s what’s neat about using the body, is that it, too, is not linear. It’s constantly living and moving and breathing and you’re being affected all the time.

Julia Rose Sutherland, Gesipatl Iga’latl (Pain and Release). 2019. Photo documentation by Erik Sirke, Courtesy of the Artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland, Gesipatl Iga’latl (Pain and Release). 2019. Photo documentation by Erik Sirke, Courtesy of the Artist.

MG: You talked about your own identity and one of the things that I’m often curious about, especially in performance pieces, is how much of the artist is put into them. I know some artists think of performance as assuming a kind of persona like they’re stepping away and existing in a liminal state. I was wondering how you engage with this because you’ve touched upon it in a lot of your works, this kind of intergenerational trauma and focusing on the colonial history of Canada and decolonizing it.

JRS: When I was younger, a lot of my work was purely about my experience, about me and my family directly. I wasn’t talking about colonialism, but at the same time, I was, because I was talking about systems and frameworks of trauma. And then I was thinking so much about my positionality and the extreme privilege that I do have. [It’s important to] recognize that, because I’m so pale, especially in comparison to most of my family, I’ve experienced a different threshold of life.

I think in my performance work—which is newer for me because usually, my work was performative or [there was] something about it that was performative—people would be like, ‘Oh, this is interesting,’ but I’m not in it. Now, I’ve centered myself in it but I’m not talking about [myself] so much as about systems or overarching ideas. The performance is still talking directly about my body, about pain and release, about bleeding out of my body. It has a lot to do with confronting my positionality within current events and social issues that are happening, especially around Indigenous people all over North America, but especially my own family.

MG: You talked about this interest in skin-to-skin contact and how that was a big part of your MA. Is that something you think about now, during the pandemic when people are thinking about alternative forms of gathering?

JRS: The pandemic has been difficult for anyone, especially creatives who are at home by themselves [and] thinking about their work, or who have had plans canceled. Everyone I know has ‘postponed due to COVID’ or ‘canceled’ on their CV nowadays. But it has been really interesting because I’ve been working with exploring alternative healing practices and practices of Indigenous communities, especially of the Mi’kmaq, which I am. In particular, I’ve been looking at the sweat lodge, which involves people gathering together, talking, being close in an unventilated, [hot] space. I’m also working with the sun dance, thinking about powwows, people coming together, regalias, which [is] no longer happening in this physical manifestation. I had a residency at Bemis Contemporary Arts Center for this summer that got cancelled [and] postponed to next summer, which is based on this way of coming together with communities from other Indigenous groups in the Nebraska area, so the Pawnee and Ponca people.

It’s been hard because I can’t get together with people and do these things, but it’s also creating a dialogue that I’m having [online]. A lot of the time, I’m finding I’m getting these necessary conversations or growth of ideas through just talking with my family more, and I think that’s kind of [due to] the pandemic. But the skin-to-skin contact or that relation of gathering has been difficult because it’s so important to the work, a lot of [which] is participatory—it needs to either be witnessed or it needs to be participated in physically, where someone’s physically touching something or someone’s physically doing something. I don’t know how that’s going to progress over time.

I’m [currently] running a collaborative work at the Calgary Women’s Center, where I’m a resident. I’ve been asked to reformat the project so it can be run online. In a way that’s great because it’s more accessible for people at home or anyone who’s vulnerable and doesn’t want to leave the home. But it makes me wonder what the future of these kinds of community-based things [looks like]. I’ve been thinking about tea a lot, about gathering and sipping tea and being there with your family, your colleagues, your friends, strangers, and having conversations. But you can’t have them the same way, which also talks about energy, because that energy is not the same and screen fatigue is a thing.

MG: Is working within a community central to your practice? There’s still this idea of the lone artist in their workshop, going ‘I work alone, I have to do these things by myself.’ Being in a safe space like a women’s shelter—what role does that play in your work?

JRS: Well, [there are] two kinds of ways it functions. I like to produce alone. I don’t mind doing my sugar casting in my studio alone. I don’t mind doing my quillwork alone. But I’m never making work alone. That’s not a concept that makes any sense to me. Community is very important. Conversation and dialogue are very much central to my practice. Otherwise, I don’t know what you would be making or how you’d be progressing your work. I think this idea of the lone artist is a myth and I don’t think it’s productive. Myself, I gain inspiration from literature and conversations, just reading a lot of weird snippets of things. It’s about seeing things or experiencing something, like walking down the street and then drawing a correlation between this and this thing.

[F]or me, time, or the concept of time, is not linear. It’s rhizomatic in the same way that we’re learning and gaining things and being influenced. An artist is influenced by everything happening in their life. I think that’s also part of making work that is maybe heavier or harder to talk about, that is draining and exhausting, which I sometimes feel is what I do. I feel exhausted by everything I’m doing—not necessarily the physical work, but the mental and conceptual backing behind everything is so hard. Like, I made that quillwork piece Rest in Peace (2020) after my family member, Rodney Levi, was shot and killed, shot twice in the chest by an RCMP officer this summer. That work was really hard to make but it was also really important to do that, too, to be working with my hands [using] a traditional material. And that’s also based on community. That’s based on sitting there with my sister [and] doing it at the same time, or on the phone with family, not being able to go home or be around anyone because of the pandemic.

Julia Rose Sutherland, Rest in peace, Rodney Levi 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland, DEFUND THE POLICE. Rest in peace, Rodney Levi series. 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland, REFUND THE COMMUNITIES. Rest in peace, Rodney Levi series. 2020.Photo courtesy of the artist.

The quillwork pieces, especially Defund the police, are heavily influenced by Black feminist ideology stemming from the BLM movement and the actions and writings of Angela Yvonne Davis and Robyn Maynard on abolition. These two women are considerable influences to me, and of course, were not the first to push forward to the notion of abolition. I am thinking about Frances E.W Harper, Sarah Parker Redmond, Elizabeth Freeman, and Sojourner Truth.

MG: My condolences. As a response to that, do you view your art practice as a form of release and healing or is it more of a labour? The two tend to be dichotomies, in a way. Is it private and like a healing process, where you feel lighter by the end of it, but you’re so absorbed in it that you’re working on art? How do you situate yourself and your own work between these two dichotomies?

JRS: I’m an empath and I think I’ve always been one. It’s great and it’s bad. It’s an unfortunate side effect of being a child brought up in [and through] trauma because you feel like you have to solve everything or you have to be active enough in things and if you do it wrong, therefore it’s your fault. It’s hard because I make this artwork and some people are like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s like art therapy, it helps, it’s soothing.’ Maybe the physical making can function that way, like when we talked about the tactility of busy hands and working with regional craft work. A lot of times, these monotonous, slow, kind of beautiful ways of working are helpful, but my research, my writing, my lived experience, is sometimes overwhelming.

Most of the time, I find I’m absorbing so much of this content, these ideas, that maybe it’s a burden, but I [have to] look at the stuff or talk about the stuff I make work about, especially in my place of privilege as white-passing, as someone who’s gotten an education. I’ve been so fortunate to have access to education. I’m healthy, I eat, I’ve traveled around the world. I’m very privileged. I was brought up by my grandma, Noella, on my mother’s side. She really raised me. She is the most amazing, strongest, most resilient woman I’ve ever met. She’s been dealt the most insane deck of cards I could ever imagine, and she is so strong for it, so forgiving and loving. She’s always taught us to have honest dialogue. It was so important for her to talk to us about issues and to have frank conversations about [them], [to] be open and honest, and I think that’s why, for me, my work can function that way for other people. I hope that people find some of the work approachable. I know it can be antagonistic, but I want it to be approachable enough that we can have honest conversations, that it centers people and humanity with Mother Earth at the core of taking care. To me, that is the most important thing, and that can be a burden but having [that] usability of conversations and not hiding things can make things easier in different ways, like self-realization. It really help[s] to know who you are, what is happening, and to be heard. I think what anyone in the world wants, or what every sovereign nation wants, is to be heard and have their space. And if the world were more empathetic, if everyone was an empath, it would be great. I mean, we’d probably be crying all the time, but that’d be great!

Julia Rose Sutherland. P’twewi (Be’de’wey) “Tea” 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

MG: I feel like that’s a good jump back to what you talked about with the tea bags, the tea bag quilt you made. You talked about community and I was really interested in the context of that.

JRS: I use Red Rose Tea. It’s so nostalgic and evocative for me, the smell of it. I mean, olfactory senses are just so charged. I smell it and I’m transported to Red Bank, at my great grandma’s—coffee or dinner tables, sitting there and drinking tea, talking about whatever. It reminds me so much of my grandmother, my great-grandma, all these amazing women in my life who would sit at a table, at any given time, and just have conversations over tea.

[For this reason,] I was thinking about comfort. I think a lot of people find comfort in tea or in these conversations. There’s sitting by the window on a cold day and being warmed inside by [a] body of water. It’s beautiful. I was [also] thinking a lot about blankets [and] the Hudson Bay Company, especially in my master’s degree, thinking about what a blanket means and the history of the Hudson Bay blanket, how it gave a lot of strength to Indigenous communities over time but was also exploitative in many ways. It almost allowed us to have a lot of rights, in different manners, and to be seen as a useful trade system, in a way. But then also thinking about germ warfare. We’re in a pandemic now, but I was thinking of biological warfare, of the blanket itself. [A] blanket could bring comfort. It is something that we can resonate with and see. And then [I thought] about comfort in other ways, as a conversation and dialogue. That’s what tea is for me: a symbol of dialogue and frank conversation. It’s also a symbol of something that’s weighted [and] can hug you, that could be on you.

I really like the tea piece. [T]his is what I was supposed to be doing with the Women’s Center of Calgary. It was essentially supposed to be a hooded cloak on the ground, a pleated, quilted thing. People could sit in it and be weighted down [by it]. [It would] mimic the Mi’kmaq bonnet but as an interactive tea sculpture, which would have been really beautiful, I think, the smell of black tea all over you and weighting you down like a weighted blanket, hugging you. Again, that [idea of] skin-to-skin contact. It didn’t come to fruition, but maybe one day.

MG: It sounds like a very interesting dichotomy because I’m thinking of your work with the porcupine quills and I know that when I saw your performance with the porcupine quills (Gesipatl Iga’latl (Pain and Release), 2019), I had a very visceral physical response, which was directly opposite to the comfort of the tea piece. I actually felt the smell of the tea. It seeped through the screen as I opened that piece. It’s interesting how it is like a conversation across all of your pieces.

JRS: I really feel like I’m so influenced by everything in my life and every piece must connect to the next one. I feel like, for me, everything is connected, because I’m talking about [my] perspective an[d] experience, and that’s what’s coming through. I think that everything [is] compounding together and growing. For instance, the corpse body, which was this nugget of an idea that I had because I had been working with a body and doing sugar casting previously, but in a different way. I went to the Alberta College of Art and Design—now the Alberta University of the Arts—for my undergrad and there I was making sugar sculpture with fabric. I was super saturating sugar water and cotton and then casting it over bodies. The first time I did it was because I was walking to work one day and I found a dead body, and it was such an awful time. It was Mark Mariani, 47. He was beaten to death by a group of three white supremacists. It was essentially [because of being there at the] wrong place, wrong time that this happened to him. I just happened to find him and called the police and then that escalated. Years later, I had to go to court and testify about the timeline, the body, all these different things. At the time I was taking a class with Sondra Meszaros and we were doing a memento mori piece, so I started casting then.

The reason I started thinking about that in particular—about trauma, especially the head trauma that this man went through—was indicative of something that happened to my mother when I was a child, which really strung it along. Years later, when my mom passed, it was my 21st birthday and I had to go identify her body. It was stuck in my head, [the image of] her in the gurney. I have hundreds of drawings of her body on this gurney, which are also indicative of this cast. I ended up making this cast of my body out of sugar. When my grandmother—so my mom’s mother—came to Buffalo to see my thesis show, Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse) (2019), she walked into the room and she just turned to me and said, ‘This is your mother. This is Barbie.’ These things are all connected, whether or not I think they are. A trauma that happened to me when I was seven when a head trauma was afflicted upon my mom, that was then also afflicted onto this man, who was unjustly beaten and killed by white supremacists, to my mom dying, to me going back to this, thinking about the body and how to represent it, to my grandmother seeing the sugar body; it’s all connected, and I didn’t think about it until my grandma said that. At that moment, I thought, ‘Oh, you kind of knew what this was about.’ I mean, “Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu-” is a piece directly dealing with the consumption of Indigenous women and trans people on Turtle Island. It’s talking about mortality but it’s also talking directly about my family and how that affects me, [where I’m left wondering] who will be next, whether it will be me, my sisters, my cousins, my aunts.

Julia Rose Sutherland. Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse). 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.
Julia Rose Sutherland. Npuinu ên·pu·i·nu- (Corpse). 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

MG: I got that very strong, hospital-like atmosphere when I looked at that piece. It had this somberness to it. What happened after, to the sugar? It made me think of this process of regeneration and how, in a lot of cultures, the body returns to earth, regardless of what you think happens to it after.

JRS: I’ve been working with sugar before and thinking about [it] in correlation to many health issues surrounding Indigenous peoples, whether it’s diabetes—which is a big thing in my family—or heart disease. [I was also] thinking about [the] separation of trauma and [different] coping mechanism[s], like eating sweets, [as well as the] loss of tradition and values. [E]ssentially [I was] making rock candy, so it’s sugar, water, and cream of tartar [boiled] to 310 degrees to burn it slightly. You get this caramelized color and a sickly-sweet smell. I did small batches and layered and layered it. I was thinking about ancestry a lot, too, because each layer [is] the slight small layer, depending on the topography of that part of the body. [In] the end, when you take it out, it’s like sedimentary rock; there’s so many different layers. I thought that was a really beautiful metaphor for thinking about ancestry and also how we communicate with our ancestors. I pray to my ancestors every day.

[I was] also thinking about that relationship to earth. I’ve done other performative work where I literally bury myself in the land. [T]he [cast] body goes back to the ground and the ants eat the sugar and the ants go crazy and they build these mounds and there’s all this productivity about it, but it also can be toxic, in a way, like we’d be overloading the environment or doing terrible things. What [really] happens is, [since] the body is made of sugar, [it] absorbs air [and] moisture. So, I’m in Buffalo, New York in the spring, when this was put up originally, and of course it’s absorbing and it’s melting. [It] was beautiful because [the sculpture’s] changing constantly. It’s organic living material [that’s] not leaving anything anywhere, it’s just changing into something else and functioning in a different way. Actually, at the end of the show, instead of being the sedimentary rock, it became glossy. It amalgamated together, became almost transparent. [It was] melting but still kind of there.

Julia Rose Sutherland. ANGO’TG “ Taking Care Of”. 2019. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

MG: What is the relationship between the past and the present in your work? A lot of it is very much rooted in the present, as we talked about with the performance pieces, which need audience interaction or presence, or the sugar sculptures, which are very temporal and melt and make one aware of the passing of time.

JRS: Presence and the now are really important, in the sense of the viewership of the work. But I would say that the philosophy or concept behind it is all the same. It doesn’t change. And—for better or for worse—maybe that’s sad, that you look at 50 years ago and we’re still talking about the social issues. But we’re talking about it like an SOS. This is a state of emergency that can’t be ignored anymore and yet somehow, we still are. We don’t deal with these root issues. This is how lateral violence succeeds, or how colonialism succeeds because first, it breaks down the system of the people to capitalize off them. I guess I would like to say that the past and present are not different nor are they the same. They’re just there. Thinking a little bit more about the non-traditional linear space, it’s all irrelevant, but the physical actuality of the work, if you want to see it, is relevant. It is relevant because it’s happening, or it’s gone. None of my work is commercial or stagnant. None of it—other than maybe some of the [newer] quill work—is something you could have. It’s installation work that then disappears and goes up until nowhere. Then it exists in a different plane—it exists as documentation, maybe as a scene, in the function of writing. I think it’s also indicative of how historically, in my culture [and] in many [others], oral history works. But maybe it’s not as productive in terms of art history or sustainability. I’m also interested in the ephemeral. I think it’s poetic. And maybe that’s how I think about the body, too, because it is there [and] then it’s not. It’s ephemeral and only temporary. It’s a thing, but it’s so important and it’s something that we all crave.

MG: The question that instantly came to mind is do you then think of your art as being in opposition to the art market, which is very much all about ownership and creating something that you can slap a number on and take to a big art fair and create a lot of buzz so that people buy it. Where do you see yourself in opposition to these kinds of power systems?

JRS: I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I’ve recently shown work at the Toronto Art Fair, at the pop-up they had for WAAP gallery. I really love [the founder], Wil Aballe—we have a great working relationship [and] great conversations. But I don’t resonate with that community, with this capitalistic construct of buying and selling work, because, at the end of the day, I’m not buying or selling things. I’m trying to exchange ideas [and] dialogues, [to] have discussions and make people feel better or feel realized or heard. A lot of my work deals with people who don’t have the agency to have this dialogue. [T]hat’s what I’m interested in. I do feel like I’m resistant to that kind of market that, like you said, slapped a tag on it and gives you worth and says, ‘This is how much it is and someone’s going to buy it.’ [T]he artist doesn’t make as much money and the gallery makes more money, then [the work] goes to an auction and [becomes] an investment piece for someone else. I don’t find it that interesting. Actually, I find it kind of repulsive.

But I also understand that you want to have money [so that you can] pay rent. It’s this idea of having artists laboring away for free or the starving artist. I think it’s outdated and I also think it’s unfortunate. I personally would rather be engaged in academia and teaching, thinking of my work with other people in greater dialogue [and] having a discussion of social frameworks. This capitalist system, is it bestowed upon us? How do we resist that as a group? It exists—you could look at artist-run centers and government programs, which are amazing. In Canada we have some amazing artist-run centers. We look at CARFAC fees [for] paying artists. I love that system. But then, what’s the recognition? What does that look like? I guess it also depends on what you want. I personally don’t care about selling a lot of work and making a lot of money, but I also want to live my life, and I live in a capitalist society, so I guess I have to play the game, to some degree. But I think maybe I do resist that by making work that is not sellable or long lasting or has longevity.

MG: We’ve talked a lot about systems of power and oppression, and I was wondering—and this is a bit of a utopian question—what are your hopes or what lessons do you hope are learned, to put it in a kind of cheesy way? Where do you hope we go from here, whether socially, culturally, [in] the art world?

JRS: I think that my greatest thing would be for people to have a self-realization, to think about the systems in place in their lives that they may not have control over but which they are very much playing into it and allowing to run their lives. It would be great if we could look at that and have frank discussions about that and ask: could there be a better way? Could we not look at other places in the world that don’t do what we’re doing? You’re playing into [a] system that’s hurting you by saying you can’t have things that you need, that society can’t take care of you. So, questioning capitalism and recognizing that we’re together as a collective and we’re better together as a society. All these things are expansive and big, so you could say, ‘I wish capitalism was gone,’ but what does that mean? What does that look like in the real world? I’m a socialist at heart and that’s how I feel. I think that we should just take care of each other. My thesis show was literally called “Ango’tg” (2019), which means ‘to take care of.’ I feel like we need to take more care of each other; it would be much better. I just wonder why we divide each other so much instead of supporting one another.

You can find more of Julia Rose Sutherland’s work on her website and Instagram.

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