2006 afraid of what i could become
4 channel Video with 28 Photos and 2 Text Panels, Initial Concept and Video Editor, co-narration by James Nicholas, Photo and Video Camera by Sandra Semchuk, Music by Joys Dancer.
Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon Saskatchewan; Urban Shaman, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Photo: Sandra Semchuk
Channel 1 and 2
Channel 3 and 4
This project is the completion of a journey that began for me in 1994 in Rwanda and ended twelve years later in Saskatchewan in 2006. Three personal narratives weave together for my part in this collaboration: my attempts to recover from a spiritual illness that began during a monitoring mission to Rwanda shortly before the genocide in 1994; the loss of my grandmother a few years later; and the recent dialogue between James Nicholas, a Cree poet and video artist, the living oral history of the Cree people and myself..
I acknowledge the people of First Nations ancestry who taught a young immigrant. You have nourished me, protected me, and held me, since I was 5 years old when my family moved from rural Zambia in Africa to a small community just south of James Bay reserve. I spent summers camping and playing with your children. I received my first kiss from a girl there. As an adult, I have had the honour of listening to you. I owe my sense of Grace to you.
The journey to “afraid of what I could become/eegostaman dha wheyteegoeean”, began in 1994. I was back in post-colonial Africa conducting a monitoring mission for a humanitarian medical aid organisation in Rwanda just before the genocide. My eyes met a Rwandan man's eyes in a refugee camp. His eyes were, empty…there was nothing human behind his eyes. In that moment, I knew that each human, including myself, contains a seed of terrible darkness. It was my last field monitoring mission. I found myself becoming a ghost of sorts; stretched thin as my body and my mind aged and my spirit remained transfixed to that moment in time. I left my work and I became a wanderer.
My grandmother died. She and I had a bond that remains strong. I called her Amma, which means 'mother' in Tamil. She had lived most of her life in Durban, South Africa, where I was born. Upon her death, she was cremated according to our tradition. The Hindu priest allowed her ashes to be held so that I could return to release, my beloved Amma, to the Indian ocean. This sacred ritual allows the ashes to mix with the essence of the Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganges) which flows into the same ocean from my ancestral land. I stood there in the Indian Ocean on the shores of Africa and let her go. Her ashes wrapped in one of her sarees and garlanded with flowers. Slowly, she left my grasp and with each successive wave Amma was accepted by the ocean.
As I let her go, I knew that that this marked an end to my journey in Africa. I have never had a reason to return and I never have. I turned my mind and heart to North America where I had grown up. Time passed but the seed of darkness in my heart never went away.
In the summer of 2005, while spending some time with my young family at Sandra Semchuk's and James Nicholas' home on Murray Lake in Saskatchewan, Sandra began to pull up bison bones from the lake. That evening Joys Dancer sang a song she composed based on a story of genocide in the community where she was raised. When I heard the song, the image of Sandra drawing the bones came back and I felt something old begin stir. This is the moment that the dialogue with James began.
The song related to a time when the bison were being wiped out. The people met at their traditional gathering place, the lake “where the trees grow only on one side”, but the buffalo were not there. The robes were thin. It was cold. They were given blankets. The people died. Of smallpox. The bodies were laid on the ice of what became known as Devil's Lake.
During the spring thaw the lake accepted the bodies.
According to oral history, those who took skunk medicine and were able to make the journey to the healing salt waters of Lake Manitou, lived.
The effects of genocide ripple for generations and take many forms including cultural genocide. James, a survivor of the residential school, fears what he could become because of that experience. The images of him speak to that.
When I first saw the proofs of Sandra's images, I shook inside. These images expressed the pain, horror and sorrow, of how I had felt for the last twelve years. Yet this is how James, myself and countless others have been held, in some part of the self, within the heart of darkness for years, lifetimes and generations. I thank James for revealing this dark inner face so that others who know this pain and this journey home may recognize something of themselves. In his narrative, James circles back to Devil's Lake as a physical place specific to the smallpox story, but also alive in his personal story and mine. Devil's Lake and Lake Manitou live in the personal and cultural stories of many people through time. That is something that should not be denied. Both Devil's Lake and Lake Manitou are places that each of us carry in our own way.
I would like to acknowledge Sandra Semchuk for sharing her expansive being, knowledge, and artistry. Our journey together has been good medicine.