Of memory and community: The art of Ursula Johnson

One of the most memorable projects of 2013’s Nocturne festival was Ursula Johnson’s Hot-Looking. In the front windows of the old Mills Brother’s store, art viewers on Spring Garden Road saw a young man doing a traditional pow-wow dance in full costume.
Occasionally, he would stop to read a text, disrupting the performance, and confusing the audience. “But it was a choreographed kind of text,” Johnson says, “where I would write him and say, ‘It’s time.’”
When he turned to take a selfie, people at the window would rush up, eager to be included in the photo. “As soon as he put his phone in selfie mode, everybody that was out there would slam to the windows, because they were like, ‘he’s taking a selfie, we want to be part of it!’” Johnson recalls. “It was this reverse consumption type of thing.”
Ursula Johnson, a 38-year old artist from Nova Scotia, is making a big splash locally, but also internationally. Last fall she became the first Nova Scotian, in fact the first Atlantic Canadian, to win the Sobey Art Award. The award originated in Nova Scotia, so that win felt like a win for the Nova Scotian art community. Johnson explains: “With the people you know, it’s like, ‘Yeah! This is for us!’ You can celebrate together.”
Johnson’s work blends sculpture, performance and activism. A member of the Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island, Johnson grew up speaking the Mi’kmaw language at home. She comes from a family that is well-known as cultural leaders in their community, particularly the renowned basket-makers Caroline Gould (her great-grandmother), Margaret Johnson (her great-great aunt), and Margaret Pelletier (her great-aunt).
Johnson’s interest in art goes back to her childhood, but she seemed marked for life as an activist and a politician. A participant in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, she was involved in creating that institution’s first Global Indigenous Youth Caucus. She attended Cape Breton University, ostensibly working towards a degree, but really “doing all of my theatre diploma programs underneath.”
She had originally wanted to come to Halifax to study fine art, but her band wouldn’t, at that time, fund fine arts education, not seeing any value in it for the community. Cape Breton University shut down the diploma program in theatre in the early 2000s and Johnson decided to move to Halifax and revisit her plan to study at NSCAD University. She found work at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, and after some successful lobbying of her band, began studying fine art a year after arriving. She graduated from NSCAD in 2006.
Many of her performance-based sculptures are based on traditional Mi’kmaw basketry. She has woven baskets around the heads and torsos of volunteers, and, in one performance, created a cocoon for herself, using the ash splints that weavers turn into baskets. While she had learned the rudiments of basket-making as a child, it didn’t become part of her art practice until after she graduated from NSCAD. She has great respect for the artistry of the traditional forms, and in 2011 she curated a 30-year retrospective of the work of great-grandmother, Caroline Gould, for the Mary E. Black Gallery.
In 2014, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax mounted her exhibition Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember), which has been touring across Canada ever since, and will open this fall at McMaster University in Hamilton. “Johnson links performance and installation art with traditional Mi’kmaw material culture, specifically basket-making, and casts a critical eye on how museums have framed Indigenous objects, in isolation from their living cultural context,” says SMU curator Robin Metcalfe.
Metcalfe also notes the transformative effect of Johnson’s career on the arts in this region: “Among this strong recent wave of Indigenous visual artists, Ursula Johnson is the first of her generation, from Atlantic Canada, to establish a Canada-wide reputation. Mi’kwite’tmn is the first exhibition of her work to tour extensively, coast to coast. It has helped to establish Mi’kmaw artists as a presence within the contemporary art conversation.”
Last summer she mounted a major project in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, aimed at reconciliation between diverse communities. Billed as a “feast for stewards,” (re)al-location saw Johnson working with youth from Acadian and Gaelic communities near the park, many the descendants of people who lost their homes when the park was created in the 1930s.
“I wanted to talk about what was happening in the Cape Breton Highlands, with regards to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities but also the National Park system, specifically around resources: the allocation of resources, but then also this notion of history and home,” Johnson says.
Her idea was based on the Mi’kmaw concept of Netegulaluk, which, as Johnson explains, “is self-sustainability through responsibility, the impacts of harvesting, or the art market, or resources with naturally made objects or indigenous objects.” For (re)al-location, part of a national project called Landmarks 2017, Johnson, with the participating youth, organized a feast and celebration to honour the stewards of the national park.
“Those kids created and designed that entire festival that we hosted on that day,” she says. “They chose the performers, they chose the musicians, they chose the subject matter, and I was just the facilitator.”
David Diviney, one of the curators of Landmarks 2017, said, “By working in conversation with and across diverse communities, (re)al-location can be looked at as a catalyst for discourse and social change.” Indeed, catalyst may be the most apt description of the effect of Johnson’s practice.
That openness to working with others, her generosity and patience, is something that Sarah Fillmore, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Juror for the 2017 Sobey Art Award notes about Ursula Johnson.
For the Sobey Award catalogue she wrote, “at a moment in time when Canadians are celebrating and challenging the idea of nationhood, Johnson’s work embodies a considered, critical, yet generous lens through which multiple histories and communities may be considered.”
Less formal in person, Fillmore says “Ursula winning the Sobey Art Award means that the jury is recognizing the diversity of practice that Atlantic Canadian artists are developing, practices that are increasingly gaining them attention across the country and beyond our shores. It’s something that encourages ambition.”
Johnson has lived and worked here in Halifax long enough that it is her second home.I feel like Halifax is kind of this little gem,” she said. “We have such a vibrant arts community in all different disciplines, but it’s small enough that pretty much everybody knows each other and can have these really meaningful, intimate exchanges. It’s definitely very much become my home, with regards to the arts and culture context.”
However, not surprisingly for this artist, for whom community is at the core of everything she does, Eskasoni is first in her heart, “When I return to Cape Breton that’s home,” she says, “I hear the language and I revert back to my first language of Mi’kmaw. It’s this sense of grounding that I don’t get anywhere else.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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