Santee Smith selected for public artwork honouring Indigenous presence on Turtle Island

Santee Smith has been selected as the recipient of a permanent public artwork commission honouring the ongoing Indigenous presence on Turtle Island.

The Gardiner Museum made the announcement as part of ArtworxTO: Toronto’s Year of Public Art 2021 to 2022. Smith’s proposed sculpture, Talking Earth, will be installed at the entrance to the Gardiner in 2022 and activated through a series of performances by Kaha:wi Dance Theatre.

“It is a tremendous honour to be selected for the Gardiner Museum’s public art commission,” said Smith. “My family lineage is grounded in the reclamation of Kahnyen’kehàka pottery, initiated by my grandmother Elda ‘Bun’ Smith, contemporized by my parents Steve and Leigh Smith at Talking Earth Pottery, and passed on to me through my pottery design and interdisciplinary works with clay. Talking Earth shares my rich Kahnyen’kehàka ancestral story.”

Artist Kent Monkman is the chair of an advisory group comprised of local Indigenous community members. The group selected Smith from a group of three finalists that also included artists Ludovic Boney and Nadia Myre.

Smith is a multi-platform and disciplinary artist from Six Nations and is part of the Turtle Clan. A world-renowned dancer and choreographer, she also works as a pottery designer at her family’s studio, Talking Earth Pottery.

According to a release, the proposed public artwork is an etched ceramic sculpture inspired by a Rotinohnsyonni four-cornered earthen pottery vessel. It will be fractured and partially reconstructed, with light shining through the cracks between the broken shards. The vessel symbolizes the disruption and trauma caused by colonization, including the legacy of the residential school system, assimilative policies imposed on womxn, and the crisis of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Womxn and Girls. Moving toward intactness, the vessel evokes the process of re-assembling culture, memory, and ancestral knowledge.

The installation of the sculpture will be celebrated in a series of live durational performances on the Museum’s front steps in which three Indigenous womxn performers will dance and hand-build clay vessels. 3D mapping and projections, including photographs of the Smith family, will animate the artwork and the Museum’s façade, in collaboration with AVA Animation & Visual Arts Inc.

Carmela Alfaro-Laganse, Jordi Alfaro, Hamilton Scenic Specialty Inc., and Solotech Inc., with facilities support by McMaster University, make up a visionary team assembled by Smith to assist in the realization of her ceramic sculpture.

“Now is a time for listening. Listening to the story of the land and what is cradled and buried within Yethi’nihsténha tsyonhwentsyà:te / Mother Earth,” said Smith. “It is my hope that the work will creatively interweave community and public activation, offering a public space for teaching and reinvigorating our connection with the earth.”

Together, the permanent artwork and performance aim to channel the earth’s voice and story, and more importantly, compel us to listen at this critical moment.

“Talking Earth exquisitely embodies all of the goals of this commission,” said Chief Curator and Deputy Director Sequoia Miller. “It unites traditional Indigenous ceramics with a contemporary practice, creating a highly visible artwork that becomes expansive through technology and performance. We are honoured to host Santee Smith’s work at the Gardiner and look forward to it becoming a destination among Toronto’s public art.”

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