Skeena Reece

Because we are still here – Skeena Reece makes meaning. 

Skeena Reece makes art that combines her own history, indigenous contemporary and historical experiences and brings her interior life and mind’s eye forward into the gallery or performance space through pulling it through her own body and others. She pulls memory and a critical consciousness through her actions, words and objects that all work within and around her ability to bring forth trickster tactics that reveal deep truism, profound insights and laughter. She is a comedic goddess matriarch who heals herself and others as she twists your mind and experience through her visual language that incorporates indigenous traditional and contemporary Northwest Coast iconography, performance art actions, voice, and collaboration with other artists, family, friends and even strangers who become new collaborators. 

Her creative process has community building, care and healing at its very centre, but also her own self-care folded within her art-making. She has the form—line of her West Coast Tsimshian/Gitksan linage– the daughter of craver Victor Reece and activist/video maker Cree/Metis Cleo Reece – Skeena is inter-tribal and her process in creating art projects reflect this engagement of people/s and cultures.  

The role of “artist” in traditional indigenous cultures was one of recording, entertaining, inspiring, teaching and sustaining. The maker wasn’t separate from culture or community but could be renowned for their skill. Maker/artist was part of the fabric of life, and not siloed into categories separate or above society, but rather part of the every day, just with special skills. Carver, weaver, quiller, hat maker, moccasin maker, basket maker, robe maker, war bonnet maker, shawl maker, however, societies shifted with contact and new goods – the made to be ready – was made by the people either for their own families, communities or as trade goods and the uses were generally for clothing, cooking, warfare, hunting, adornment – all that sustains life – all part of the every day. 

All this making was regionally specific with tribal iconography – embellished with “designs” either given from the great mystery, or the maker’s visions and dreams, or patterns from the natural world and what the maker was surrounded by or inspired to make. Whether materials, natural or cosmos world patterning – Indigenous makers gleaned from several sources. Skeena’s process to work with community, family and traditional lifeways is inherent to familial cultural ways since time immemorial. As a contemporary artist, her methodologies are entrenched in indigenous ways of knowing and being in the universe – the self is part of a larger whole – whether ants, sky, water or raven. 

Skeena combines the every day with artistic production and creates work that although inhabit the gallery space, the sociality of making the work is paramount to the context of the work and a deeper reading than usual gazing that goes on inside the white cube. 

A few recent projects combined several hands to make the work and to actually be the work. The Time It Takes (2017), she made an adult-sized moss bag and cradleboard. The moss bag is generally made for babies in different tribal styles on Turtle Island. Always with the purpose of protecting, wrapping and adoring babies. Made of hide or cloth with actual moss from the natural world was placed in the bag to absorb body fluid. Generally, moss bags were in use until the child was 3 years old or so, and they were a way to keep the child close by and safe. Skeena comments “The bag is a place to rest for a moment, evoking a feeling of longing, not a feeling of loss. Being wrapped gives a calming feeling that elicits hope for the future, and is a way to hold people up.”

She activated her adult size moss bag with live performances, the most recent wrapping was her mother Cleo at the Belkin Gallery in 2019. This gesture was an act of love, protection, respect and gratitude. Along with the adult size moss bag, she had a wooden adult size cradleboard made. The baby-sized cradleboard allows the moss bag to be carried, leaned, propped up or hung. Her adult size cradleboard and moss bag, have been part of her solo exhibitions and her latest iteration, involve a photo series titled The Medicine Bag: Your Body, 2019, (inkjet prints) she invited 12 people she respected and cherished and who were part of her art and political upbringing primarily in Vancouver. Skeena wrapped each of us in the bag and filmed the process, which later became a video installation and took medium format photos that create a suite of 12 photos. This action was indicative of traditional ways of being in the world, honouring elders and those you respect. The suite consists of, amongst others, her mother Cleo Reece, renowned filmmaker Loretta Todd, Vancouver video art Paul Wong, Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, curator and gallery director Glenn Alteen, her own peers from the Native Youth Movement artists Tania Willard and Peter Morin and, grateful to be included, myself. 

Her most recent work that is featured in Petroglyphs to Pixels, was a solo exhibition at Plug In in Winnipeg demonstrating her ability to work site-specifically and consider place-based agency as she responded to the Hudsons Bay store that was directly across the street from the gallery. As well, she worked with a local art historian Julie Nagam who performed as a “figure skater” on rollerblades in the gallery and commissioned Bracken Hanuse Corlett to paint Stekyawden Syndrome, a painted mural 32 x 10 ft. She brought Bracken to paint this temporary mural by hand on the gallery wall. Her generous invitation to involve several artists’ creative practices within her own practice is foundational to her oeuvre thus far. In the opening of the documentary, she playfully shows the view of her travelling altar with miniature items and a Don Burnstick VHS – although hilarious, it’s a potent reminder of a brutal history as she pulls off the NDN dolls head and reminds her viewers of the challenging present. 

We recently spoke about pleasure and art and her father’s practice and the influence his process has on her own: “It was his experience carving the wood, touching the wood, making it come to life. That was the value: the experience with the object. I think that absolutely informed my art practice. I want to show people that the value is not in the object, but in the value of the people. [And] to ask the viewer to please not value the objects-because we are still here. “