The Feminist Interview Project, organized by Katherine Guinness and Jocelyn E. Marshall on behalf of CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts, examines the practices of feminism by interviewing a range of scholars and artists, preserving oral histories while expanding the boundaries of what might be considered feminist. Throughout its interviews, this project reimagines the possibilities of feminist practice and feminist futures.
For our ongoing collaboration with Art Journal Open, the Feminist Interview Project is excited to present Indigenous artist Julia Rose Sutherland in conversation with scholar and curator Jocelyn E. Marshall. The two met for a conversation over Zoom on December 4, 2021.
Jocelyn E. Marshall (JEM): Thank you so much, Julia, for being here. It’s so great to be able to share space with you today. Let’s just jump right in: What is feminism to you?
Julia Rose Sutherland (JRS): Great question, and thanks for having me. I believe that feminism is a deeply rooted philosophy, but also a practice—a daily practice. And then, for me, it’s something that’s also deeply rooted in history, as someone who’s Indigenous and comes from a matriarchy. But, in general terms, I strongly believe that feminism is for everyone, and it’s a movement or a belief system that we use to question both how we function in society now and how we’ve functioned as a society in the past. Feminism questions and speaks to different sets of privileges in the world, as well as our own perspectives. I believe in intersectional feminism. If it’s not for everyone, then I don’t think it’s for anyone.
And, as an Indigenous person, I’m interested in the intersections of feminism and how it affects ideas like decolonization and human rights, as well as how all these factors affect not only women, but trans folks, two spirit folks, and their families. So, it’s deeply rooted in our qualities of life and our positions in life.
JEM: That’s wonderful: feminism every day and feminism for everyone. Absolutely. How does feminism inform your artistic practice? What’s the relationship between the two?
JRS: Well, I think that, clearly, in being a woman-identifying artist, feminism comes into play no matter what. It’s imposed upon me, or my gender is imposed upon me, constantly. So it’s, of course, something I’m thinking about. But, again, it also comes into play in the way that I create work because I’m making work about myself, my own experiences, and those of, particularly, the women in my family. So, it comes through a lot in my own perspectives of talking about trauma, and, particularly, in talking about marginalization within Turtle Island, or Canada or North America, you could say, and how I navigate the world in general. My art practice is really coming from a deeply seated position of what I see in the world and how I navigate the world, and then wanting to raise awareness about topics such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and trans folks to talk about land sovereignty, food sovereignty, etc. All these aspects of my work deal with things like grief, absence, the land, and belonging, which are deeply rooted in a feminist ideology. And I think that comes out of my work in many different senses.
I work with the body a lot. And so just depicting the body, whether it’s in abstract ways, or in a very literal way, speaks to women and it speaks to life and all these different perspectives. I feel like my artistic practice is a feminist-informed practice. Without a doubt. It could be because I’m a woman or it could be because I identify with the matriarchy. There are so many different ways to see how a feminist ideology comes through, and I was recently thinking about what it means to have a practice, especially being an Indigenous woman. It’s about sharing and transferring knowledge and healing. I have been thinking about this quote by Jihan Gearon: “Indigenous feminists require us to not only fulfill our cultural roles but to also correct how those roles have been twisted by colonization and the patriarchy. It demands that we ask the difficult questions and have difficult discussions. We must question and challenge even what’s been taught to us as ‘traditional.'”1 And I think about this as part of my work because I feel like my art is my own way of navigating my histories and my family histories. And it’s completely informed by the patriarchy and colonization, which is actively trying to dismantle ideas of female-identified power structures or equity in the world.
JEM: To speak to that quote from Jihan Gearon and thinking of history, we know history is also storytelling, right? I love pairing history with healing and determining the power we have when we’re able to write new stories, or allow certain stories to become heard, sometimes for the very first time.
JRS: That’s a good point to make because I’ve recently come to this realization in the last year or so, that I’m an artist, sure, but I actually think that I’m a storyteller. And I think that’s why some of my works come off as more impactful than others; most of the work is about me telling a story or having a conversation, to the point where people have told me that they’d rather hear me talk about a piece of work than look at it—which is a whole different thing—but I do think storytelling is an art form. And I think when we look at Indigenous folk, Indigenous cultures, storytelling is the backbone of these cultures, and it’s so important to the way that we create ourselves or represent ourselves and are seen by the world.
JEM: From other conversations we’ve had, it sounds like part of your process is very intuitive, and then it gets to the sensory. Your work often imbues the viewer with a responsibility to experience the work and be an interactive player, whether or not they know it. With the corpses, we recognize body form and then maybe notice the material properties. Then we notice it’s in a body bag. And then we notice it’s melting, right, and so there’s these different stages of engagement that are also required by the viewer in a way that’s very much like stages of a story.
JRS: And I think it’s a nonlinear storytelling, too. It’s different experiences, and playing with senses, which is really important to a lot of my work. I think that’s really how I can talk to someone on an emotional level: by playing with their senses. Whether or not that’s ethical or not, I’m not sure, but it’s something I engage with.
JEM: Yeah, absolutely. I love that point–the emotional engagement or play or—
JRS: Or trapping . . .
JEM: Right, and it requires a sense of vulnerability, as well, on both parts, which is, I think, concomitant to a lot of trauma work. And what brings people to work on trauma or trauma-related subjects is a very personal journey in and of itself. I’m thinking now more about your commentaries on land. How does feminism inform the more scholarly practice that you have?
JRS: Yeah, that’s an amazing question. I used to think scholarship, or the scholarly, was someone reading many, many, many books and writing about many, many, many books. And not that I think that’s a bad thing, I mean, I read a lot, I’m a voracious reader, you know, highly inspired by writers like Angela Yvonne Davis, Robyn Maynard, Toni Morrison, and the list goes on, especially when it comes to abolition. I really am thinking about notions of land sovereignty and the idea of land back, which is something that is so twisted in this Eurocentric colonized state in which we all happen to reside in whether we want to or not. I think that in terms of scholarship, my interests have changed in less of an academic setting and more of a setting of learning from knowledge keepers and from elders. I think this is something that is so important to me, but also learning and being attentive and really paying attention to history, to what is happening now in terms of politics, as well as questioning the foundations or which we live in. That makes it hard to say what my scholarly practice actually is. But it’s about lived experience, and I think lived experience is important to acknowledge, and I think it’s often taken out of the equation for the pursuit of knowledge. It’s often discounted. But to me, for me, I’m looking for and thinking more about that. I’m also looking at and thinking about land sovereignty. I’m really thinking about the ways in which we are taught that how something should function—how land should function for us—and what that means. I want to talk about a project I’m doing, although I’m going to keep it on the down low a little bit. But it involves really questioning what land ownership is, and really antagonizing a settler population about ownership. For me, the idea of land ownership is so abstract and makes no sense, and it doesn’t really play a place in indigeneity; we’re here to steward the land. So, I guess my scholarly pursuit is discussions and time spent with questioning systems of oppression and ownership in general. And then the history of ownership of land is something that’s really coming into play for me now.
JEM: I know you’ve done some collaborative work recently, and I’m curious how feminism informs that collaborative practice. There is so much work done solo, in isolation, and it’s easy to say how we practice feminism there, but how do we practice it with each other? Could you speak to that?
JRS: I recently embarked on doing a project—it’s essentially a branch off of an extension from a thesis work I did called Npuinu (ên·pu·i·nu), which means “corpse,” which was made in Buffalo, New York. It consists of my body that was casted in refined white sugar, burnt and caramelized and then poured into a mold. It’s a direct replication of my body in sugar, which is, of course, a way of dealing with notions of consumption of Indigenous bodies, but also the vulnerability of being an Indigenous woman in a world full of capitalism and ongoing colonial genocide.
But since making that work, I really wanted to open the conversation up beyond my personal story. The work is deeply based upon the death of my mother in 2013, like to the point where my grandma came in and saw the work and said, “That’s your mother.” It was this weird moment only she would understand. I wanted to open up this conversation because, of course, while the Indigenous body is fetishized and consumed in so many different facets in North America and across the world, so are all BIPOC, marginalized groups of folk. We are consumed, and we are used in so many different ways, whether it’s by outright violence or appropriation, or labor—constant labor—being asked of people. I wanted to do a large-scale project of these bodies, and I wanted to use eight new models of eight different women-identifying or trans-identifying folk to be a part of this. It was great because I got to bring in folks to come and trust me to do this kind of work, which is a full body cast. If anyone knows what a full body cast process is like, it’s traumatic, lengthy, and hard on your body. It involves a great deal of trust and communication.
I think that’s part of my feminist perspective of working together: understanding and communicating with someone who’s willing to do this work and give their body to you, which is a very unique and vulnerable place to be. It has to be brought with the most kindness and understanding and most communicative sensibility.
You really have to be there for someone. There’s vulnerability in this process, but also there needs to be respect and everyone needs to feel safe and seen and have the conversations that make them comfortable. And everyone was paid very well, which I thought, for me, was the best thing because oftentimes people are asked to do these kinds of things for free. We’re often asked to talk about trauma for free. And that’s unacceptable. I don’t know in what world it’s okay to ask someone to give free labor, especially about trauma. Everyone was paid well and were also given after care pay. Every model was given an additional amount of money to take care of their body or their psychological needs after giving their body to me. It’s not to give it for science, you know, it’s to give it for art. What does that mean to be displayed and replicated? But also, part of the work was to hire assistants from the Durham Region. This project was done in the Durham Region of Ontario, and so I got to hire six BIPOC assistants, and that was really wonderful. Again, the representation of women and trans folk was important to me. I was acting as a teacher, so it’s a knowledge transference project as well . . . but it’s not about that hierarchy. For me, there was no hierarchy. I’m teaching you a skill, and you’re teaching me skills, and we’re working together to complete the same project. So I don’t think this work is really mine, necessarily, I think it’s all of ours. And I had such a wonderful experience working with everyone, which is very different than my solo practice, because I’m so used to just doing everything myself, and, you know, being in your head, but this was so much more enriching. And I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with. And then again, we’re also asked to do labor and learn, pay to learn, which I just think is so bizarre to like, to ask someone to pay money to learn. And so a part of this, again, the part of this project that was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and Alberta Foundation for the Arts was to pay people to learn applicable skills in mold-making and working with certain materials such as sugar, and then to, you know, have to talk about trauma everyday while being here, while making the work.
JEM: I love that aftercare was a part of it. The cyclical nature of trauma often doesn’t follow the capitalist ties there. I’m interested in when you were an instructor for the workshop assistants and how you facilitated trust, safety, and security on individual levels while also in the group setting. With the instructor role, there’s still somewhat of a hierarchy to navigate, so how did you facilitate that trust and care, making sure models felt seen?
JRS: For that work, we put a call out to our friends, family, and institutions in the Durham Region to find both assistants and models. Then I met with everyone individually twice before proceeding in order to be open and transparent about the physical requirements of this work. Pouring the sugar and doing that kind of work in the mold-making, if you’re an assistant, is laborious, but I also put a major emphasis on what the work means and what it means to make work like this in a small town in Ontario at a gallery that used to only show landscape paintings. It’s very strange.
When people were hired, we first had an interview session, then one-on-one meeting, and then we met as a group. We got to know each other digitally, first, before all the assistants met me in-person because this was during a pandemic. We didn’t start this project until August 2021, so a lot of the care was also based upon COVID-19, where people were required to be vaccinated and wear masks the whole time in a small little building. Since we had never met each other, it was a practice of getting to know one another by really listening and hearing each other about our own perspectives of living in a capitalist society that is consuming us. It was fast. We had seven straight days of just casting different models, and that was exhausting.
With the models, there was a similar process of me meeting them one-on-one online over the course of the summer, and then coming in-person. I think a big part of making people feel comfortable was, when they first arrived, they were each given a care package; they got their own robe and all of the things that they needed, Vaseline for their body before going in the mold. And then I always went outside—we had this really wonderful courtyard at the VAC [Visual Arts Centre of Clarington]—and I would just sit with the model, whoever it was that day, and we would talk and just sit for a half an hour getting to know each other a little bit and explaining who everyone is in the room, like what their role is and steps one to ten of what exactly is going to happen. I also would always pay them before they started. I feel like there’s a common thought that, “Hey, I’m being contracted for this piece of work, and I have to finish it or else I’m not going to get paid,” and I didn’t want anyone to feel that way. So, I always paid everyone before we even started, and I feel like people really appreciated that because if at any point they didn’t want to do it, they could say “No.” And again, it is vulnerable because not only are we casting their body and their likeness, but they’re also nude, in a building they’ve never been in before, and amongst people they’ve really never met before. You meet digitally, and that’s one thing; It’s so different than working with each other in a physical sensibility, where the masks are off, everything is off.
JEM: I love that one of your aims was making sure it was very clear that the significance of the project came across to these folks who were going to be working with you, and I love paying before the job. I’ve done that myself in the past, and I do think it’s tied to a feminist code of ethics that doesn’t want to perpetuate a transactional relationship, a very conditional type of relationship.
JRS: Yes, going into this project, I would tell my assistants that I don’t care if the work doesn’t work out. If we take off the mold or if we don’t finish enough bodies, and something went terribly, it doesn’t matter because the work wasn’t for this project, or at least in my mind it wasn’t all about the sculptures. The sculptures are like a bonus, and they worked and were beautiful and we had a great time, but it wasn’t about the sculptures. It was the act of teaching someone to learn things—or knowledge transference—that was so important about this piece.
We also made a neon piece to go alongside that read “Apatte’mat,” which means “winning back from a loss.” People seemed confused, asking “What are you winning back?” The neon illuminated the corpses in red light. It was very morgue-y or seemed violent, but it’s not violent at all. It’s about representing ancestry, and it’s a representation of the human form and all of its changes over time. It’s about time itself in a nonlinear fashion. Red is often so misread through a settler lens, as red, for me at least, relates to the Medicine Wheel context of rebirth and renewal, physicality and land, and being present. I also think about the way in which myself and a lot of my tribe, which is Mi’kmaq Metepenagiag from Red Bank, New Brunswick, understand red to be a color through which we can communicate to our ancestors, and it is the only color that they can see. So, this work is an homage, in a way, but it’s paying homage, and it says that “we see you, we love you, we’re having these conversations.” This kind of work is about communication, breaking cycles of violence, and understanding and uprooting the cycles so that we can heal from them as a community.
For me, red is not meant to be harmful or sinister; it should be read, as it is a light that touches every single body, like this glow in the beautiful sense of how light illuminates good and bad. But it’s also illuminating community care and healing practices that are often misunderstood by a population that is not familiar with indigenous practices of healing, such as endurance practices like the sweat lodge and the Sundance, which are practiced by my tribe. So sometimes it’s just misunderstood, which goes back to a colonial lens, Land Back, when people say, “We can’t just give you the land back.” But it’s not about physicality of owning land; It’s about stewarding land, taking care of land, and taking care of each other. So, that’s often misread, but I find these conversations about translation and misinterpretation to be really important in discussions of equity, like not just talking about one person’s perspective in the room, but instead talking about everyone’s perspective and being heard in their entirety.
JEM: Absolutely. And I’m trying to remember—when you made your first neon, Deeply Loved Flesh, was that also red, or was that pink?
JRS: It was also red, yes.
JEM: Did you have the medicine wheel in mind when you made that piece?
JRS: I did, but I was also very inspired by Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where she speaks a lot about the idea of reclaiming flesh and loving the flesh. So that neon was made for sex workers, and it was never really meant to be in a gallery context, although it’s been shown. I think sex work is valid work, and sex workers should be respected and are sacred, even though they are so demonized in our society, which I think is inherently anti-feminist in so many regards. With this work, I was lucky to actually have it displayed in a setting where it could be on at night only in an area for sex workers, and it was again about that glow, that same idea of the loving glow and embrace of loving the flesh, of knowing the flesh, and appreciating the flesh. It was an after-hours piece.
But I was thinking a lot about this red again, and when it was shown at the University of Buffalo—I’m pretty sure you would’ve seen it in the gallery—it was kind of out of context in my thesis show that accompanied the first body from Npuinu (ên·pu·i·nu). It was a really interesting juxtaposition between the sugar corpse laying still on a stainless steel table and the beautiful text above that proclaimed love and care for it. Again, a weird space in itself, but I think it does talk about the way in which we view the body in both perspectives, whether it’s disposable or it’s deeply love beyond anyone’s conception.
JEM: And I think around that time, too, you were experimenting with synthetic skin, and you were trying to write on it—
JEM: And so now I’m thinking of care of flesh in that regard—one that encourages us to think how we care for the paper and how we care for the flesh. In speaking of these kinds of wonderful strides in your career, I have to ask, how has your relationship to feminism evolved so far?
JRS: That is a great question. For me, it becomes less of thinking about feminism, and instead how I’m trying to practice feminism. It’s a community practice. So, in my mind, I think this needs to be something that has changed in both my art practice, and in the way that I think about feminism as a whole, where it needs to be a hands-on activated, everyday practice.
I think it’s changed a lot from when I was younger, where I was thinking about the way I navigate space as a woman or what it means to do so. Now, it’s “How do I navigate that space as a community and as a community member?”
JEM: And thinking, too, of the knowledge keeper role, like with your textile work and sharing that practice. We’ve previously talked about your learning of quillwork and the history with that, and then being able to share that information and skill with others. It’s a very interesting dynamic role. When considering it in context of your trauma work, I’m curious how you might define the main aims of this kind of trauma-informed work?
JRS: Yeah, a big question. I think working with trauma, or working in art in general, was based on a mechanism to cope with trauma. And so, as a young girl, I started creating as a coping mechanism or a way of escaping, and then as I got older, I found it was a way to communicate with others about things that no one wanted to talk about or to have harder, deeper conversations. So, there’s a line there, like I kind of mentioned, of trapping people into this emotional experience, which I give viewers more credit than that, because they can do whatever they want. People engage with work, or they don’t engage with work. But it can be very triggering, so I’m often thinking about what it means to push work on someone like this, which is something I’m still working on, because I’m not interested in creating work that’s about trauma porn or exploiting trauma or other people’s traumas. Instead, my aim is to start a discourse: deeply honest and vulnerable conversations about social issues and systemic issues that we face in our everyday lives. Of course, I’m coming at this from the perspective of an indigenous queer woman, but I’m also a white passing person in the world. I live in a really weird liminal space, and I’ve always kind of felt like a little bit of an outsider. But I think it’s important to make this work and to address this type of work. I think that when you make work about trauma, you always have to straddle the line of “What does that mean to you and your audience? Is it helping others? What does it do?”
JEM: Is there a relationship to other artists you find this work having?
JRS: Yeah, absolutely. I’m inspired by so many amazing artists. Rebecca Belmore, for one, is an Anishinaabekwe artist based out of Vancouver, and she works with talking about ideas of loss and missing and murdered Indigenous women and trans folk. And then of course with working with sugar, everyone always brings up Kara Walker, who is also known for her really amazing silhouette cut-out work that deals with the deep self, histories, and all of these other amazing notions.
I had been working with sugar since 2009, since my undergrad—not burning the sugar, but cooking the sugar on fabric and then casting it on fabrics like cotton and jute—and people kept mentioning Kara Walker, but I wasn’t familiar with the work A Subtlety, which is such an impactful, beautiful work. But people will often bring up Walker’s work, and she’s working with sugar, too, cooking the sugar like I do, though she works with white packed sugar. It’s so beautiful how these kinds of conversations are wonderfully tied together while Walker is coming from the perspective of a Black woman and talking about slavery, the sugarcane cultivation, and exploitation in so many different ways, as well.
My practice of working with sugar is a little bit different, as I’m looking at the extraction of resources from the land and what it means to sell land. So, talking about, again, food sovereignty and land sovereignty in those ways, but I’m also talking about the epidemic of both heart disease and diabetes within my particular nation, what that means, and how these things are tied to traditional ways of eating and living. There are other artists all around the world who are working with sugar, and I’m so engaged with these conversations about the body, ideas of marginalization, and ideas of displacement. That’s what I’m most attracted to.
JEM: And in thinking more about how we learn from each other, your body of work specifically offers ways to think about gender-based colonial violence. Do you have one recommendation for artists and educators alike who want to take up such critical issues in the classroom or in their own communities and create a trauma-informed feminist practice?
JRS: I think my biggest recommendation is to look at the community. I used to make art that was so informed by my own experience and my intuitive nature of making, but I think it’s important to talk, especially when you’re talking about trauma and deep-rooted systemic issues. Talk to the community and see what the community needs from you as an artist. We have such a role as an artist to not only point out what we see in the world, but to also take care of those in whose community we’re in.
Julia Rose Sutherland is a Mi’kmaq (Metepenagiag Nation)/settler artist and educator (Assistant Professor at OCADU) based out of Tkaronto (Toronto, Canada). Sutherland’s interdisciplinary art practice employs photography, sculpture, textiles, and performance. She earned her MFA at the University at Buffalo (2019) and BFA in Craft and New Media at the Alberta University of the Arts (2013).
Jocelyn E. Marshall is Affiliated Faculty at Emerson College’s Department of Writing, Literature, & Publishing. Her scholarly, curatorial, and creative projects focus on contemporary US-based women and queer artists, researching the relationships between intertextual practice, displaced positionality, and traumatic experience. Their work has appeared in Women & Performance, Public Art Dialogue, Journal of American Culture, and elsewhere.