Monday, September 15, 2014
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Artists in the Atrium puts local First Nations artists in the spotlight


SUMMER MARKETS AND craft fairs abound in Vancouver, but surprisingly, until now, there’s never been a regular one dedicated to aboriginal art. All that changes with Artists in the Atrium—Vancouver Moving Theatre’s new weekly event on the edge of the Downtown Eastside that allows artists to directly sell their own work while learning new skills along the way.

Held below the vaulted ceilings of the Woodward’s Atrium, the market invites visitors to shop for everything from small carvings and paintings to woven gift items, as well as watch lunchtime performances by traditional and contemporary dancers and musicians. Meanwhile, participating artists will take workshops on how to display their work; create business cards, portfolios, and bios; and write grant applications.

The show’s cultural producer, Lou Ann Ika’wega Neel, explains the new market fills a gap for local First Nations artists, some of whom she says are more used to setting up on a sidewalk to make and sell their wares. “Aboriginal artists are still tending to not have these kinds of support services,” she tells the Straight over the phone, adding a one-time B.C. arts-and-crafts society that represented First Nations artisans folded way back in 1986. “We’ve been without a provincial arts organization since then, and there isn’t really anyone supporting aboriginal visual artists.

“This is about building capacity in entrepreneurialism. People want to be sole proprietors of their arts business.”

Neel knows firsthand what she’s talking about: she’s a Kwakwaka’wakw textile, jewellery, and carving artist who’s also a student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and a long-time arts administrator who’s worked for years to help Native artists promote their work.

Artists in the Atrium encompasses a range of media, and Neel reports that Corinne Hunt (codesigner of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic medals) has just signed on to show her work. Participants will use 12 vendor tables, but unlike at similar markets, the artists won’t have to pay to set up at them; Neel has secured funding to cover the costs.

“About one-third are emerging artists doing things like cedar bark and paintings and small carvings; one-third are mid-career, with drums, textiles, and jewellery; and the other third are seniors artists doing the whole range,” she explains. “A big part of this is just getting those people in the same space so they have this networking opportunity, and younger artists can meet senior artists. It’s just to get them talking to one another.”

As for the performances that happen every day at 12:30 p.m. (except for the August 9 appearance of indigenous storytellers and singers M’girl, who perform from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), Neel hopes to attract the lunch crowd around Woodward’s each day. For the opening ceremonies on Thursday (August 1), local First Nations leaders kick things off at 11 a.m., with the Squamish Nation Dance Group on hand for the 12:30 p.m. show. The following day, Murray Porter brings his Mohawk blues to the stage. On August 16, Métis and multicultural musician Sandy Scofield appears, followed by the Iskwew Singers on August 23.

Those and many more performances will take place on the floor where the basketball court normally sits. “That corresponds with our traditional big houses, where we traditionally have dance in the round,” Neel says. “Especially in the year of reconciliation in Vancouver, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission coming to Vancouver in September, we wanted the performers and public literally on the same level.”

The hope is to carry on the market, which takes place Thursdays and Fridays in August and Saturdays and Sundays in September and October, through into VMT’s Heart of the City Festival, the annual Downtown Eastside cultural celebration that starts after Thanksgiving.

“I’d love to schedule it year-round,” Neel says, adding it may have to move to a more insulated location for winter months. “People have said this has been a long, long time coming.”

Artists in the Atrium runs Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting Thursday (August 1), and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for September and October, at the Woodward’s Atrium.

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