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Authenticity key for Indigenous Art Festival curator

Simon Daniel James searched for the artists of the Authentically Indigenous Festival

The Authentically Indigenous Festival has been showing at the Hearth Gallery this month, featuring artworks by Indigenous artists. Special events have also been taking place, including a Youth Celebration, Artist Opening, and last Saturday an Indigenous Feast.

Bowen artist Simon Daniel James is the guest curator for the festival, a role which saw him tasked with acquiring the many different pieces for the show. This wasn’t the first time Simon took on this job – in 2015 he curated the Authentically Aboriginal on Bowen art show, an event so well-received it earned praise from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its focus on authentically curated works. The show, presented by the Bowen Island Arts Council and Gallery @ Artisan Square, ran for a month and also included special events such as a feast.

Simon explains when he was approached by Hearth executive director Jami Scheffer about the possibility of putting on an art show, he recalled the success of the 2015 experience. They decided on the Authentically Indigenous Festival for 2024, updating the terminology and scheduling it to coincide with National Indigenous History Month in June. “I wanted to see if lightning can strike twice,” says James.

Simon’s search included adults and kids, and locals and those living off-Bowen too, including some artists who were in the 2015 show. This wasn’t just phone calls either – Simon spent much of his time leading up to the show physically travelling up and down the coast to pick up artworks, from Victoria to Alert Bay, and out to Burnaby and Surrey too.

In keeping with the name of the festival, Simon – also known as Winadzi – had one main prerequisite for the artists: “They had to understand their culture and where they are from. That was the most important thing for me.”

Like 2015, a feast was also a focal event of this year’s festival. Originally scheduled to take place at Meadowbrook Market, the host site was switched to the Hearth following the threat of inclement weather. Following a performance on the Eagle Gathering Stage by James and members of his family, guests entered the gallery where they were treated to a canapé-style dinner prepared by local chefs Erik Miller and Jody Peck. Highlights included elk sausage and canoe potatoes.

“Why we host a feast is to thank those who have witnessed what it is that we are showing, usually at a ceremony,” says Simon. The evening also included storytelling, and a silent auction with contributions from local individuals, groups, and businesses. Proceeds went toward Carrier Sekani Family Services.

This Friday, June 21 – National Indigenous Peoples Day – Simon plans to return to the Eagle Gathering Stage to perform in a ceremony with members of his family. He says performing the songs and dances of Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, which he is a member of, keep his children connected to their culture even if physically they are separated from their traditional Vancouver Island territory.

“We are so far away from our culture… so bringing their own culture into the picture, I think was very important,” explains Simon. Along with daughter Mizuki, the pair have been practicing dances performed during the festival at home in their kitchen for weeks. Simon’s son joins the performances through drumming. Given the distance, and influence of other cultures on Bowen, Simon takes the task of teaching his children seriously.

“If my children have not learned that, then it is my fault,” he says.

James says he hopes the festival sparks a deeper understanding of Indigenous communities. He points out that art is a powerful outlet for achieving this.

“The most important thing for me is for the mass population to understand that we are not savage ignorant people… There was a time where our people were vanishing… Genocide was a reality. Residential School was a practice to try to eradicate the Indigenous people. And I’m sorry to say that they didn’t fail,” says James, noting many Indigenous people he meets who have lost all cultural connection to their communities.

“But what they didn’t understand was that taking our artwork and putting it in museums was basically preserving our culture for us. We can go into these museums of these stolen art pieces, realizing that those pieces belonged to our families… these pieces are now re-educating us of a potentially lost culture,” he says.

Simon adds he’ll be fulfilled “If people can understand through this art show that these pieces have been created based upon the history of our people, the art of our people.”

The Authentically Indigenous Festival continues through June 30, with a celebration on National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21) at 1 pm at the Eagle Gathering Stage.