Geneviève Wallen

Video stills from Shelley Niro, Overweight and Crooked Teeth (1997)

Geneviève Wallen




Because I identify as Black and francophone, I debated whether to conduct interviews in French or at least submit a bilingual essay. I am aware of the experiential erasure of racialized francophone individuals within the broader Canadian context. However, I prefer to create work that is reflective of my current environment and underlines the local and immediate social geographies informing my practice. In a future publication project, I plan to expand the scope of this essay and generate a platform for my racialized francophone peers.

Due to page space and resource constraints, the following conversations have been distilled to the interviews’ highlights. These interviews were conducted in the month of February 2018 and were revised in the spring of 2019.

A warm thank you to Erika DeFreitas, Pamila Matharu, Kim Ninkuru, and Shelley Niro for their time, their generous contribution to this chapter, and foremostly, for their trust. I consider this essay as a communal work because many eyes and minds have been a part of this process; a heartfelt thank you to Marina Fathalla, Aditi Ohri, Andrea Fatona, Anna Cox, Vicki Clough, Alison Cooley, and Deanna Bowen for their editorial support.


Currently, my curatorial practice focuses on the manifestation of healing spaces within the arts. This approach foremostly delineates the role of works by racialized women and gender non-conforming individuals that articulate a decolonial future. On the micro level, this includes intimate social circles, ancestral historicity, and immediate environment while on the macro level, this encompasses education and economic systems. In collaboration with artists and curators, I co-create spaces wherein a transition, from trauma to restoration, allows for the past, present, and future to be bound through abundance rather than scarcity. Such spaces and transitions demonstrate that amidst pain, survival, and dispossession, also lie stories of resourcefulness, love, and resilience.

In this chapter, I explore how female-identified artists employ video performance as a catalyst for knowledge transfer, as a site of socio-political contestation, and as a stage for self-reflectivity and care. Rather than a succinct thesis, this essay is a proposition. Ultimately, this is the starting point of a dialogue on the effective qualities of video performance, more specifically as a threshold for self and collective emotional healing. This notion is explored on two levels: first, via the artist’s conscious choreographed performance behind the camera and/or production methods, and second, by examining the ways in which video work acts as a container for an emotional and physical release, thus holding promises of mind-body mending. To foster an intersectional and intergenerational narrative, I interviewed four artists of diverse backgrounds who are at different stages of their careers. The selected practitioners, Erika DeFreitas, Kim Ninkuru, Pamila Matharu, and Shelley Niro have in common a deep investment in storytelling as a strategy to situate themselves within an expansive history of migration, loss, dispossession, colonial, and patriarchal violence, while also producing restorative spaces for themselves and their communities. The conversations with the aforementioned artists served as a brainstorming session that mapped out the potential of video performance as a healing platform. The questions that guided each interview range from investigating specific works to turning points in their careers, and broader inquiries about the role of the digital archive in reframing one’s history and socio- political agencies.

Both DeFreitas and Niro foreground intergenerational healing in their use of video; their bodies of work heavily rely on ongoing collaborative relationships to create deeply introspective investigations which are concurrently intimate, yet instigated by their surroundings. For the last twenty years, with the aid of family members and professional actors, Niro has been rewriting and retelling histories related to Mohawk peoples’ realities on and off reserve, as well as including narratives pertaining to Indigenous groups sharing common lived experiences and beliefs. Niro’s practice pushes beyond stories of dispossession by actively showcasing Canadian reserves, (such as Six Nations), as sites of empowerment, warmth, and love. Erika DeFreitas’s ongoing twelve-year collaboration with her mother invites the audience to experience a unique form of performance that revises one’s understanding of embodied knowledge. Her bodily investigations have generated a gestural language that not only highlights the intimate connection between sight and touch but also generates tactile memories. In a similar fashion, Pamila Matharu uses video to fill the gap when words fall short and trauma resists language. In her case, Matharu employs video work to visually communicate painful experiences that are difficult to orally recount, such as grief and recovering from a severe concussion. She contextualizes healing as a process that isn’t linear and one that led her to embrace and reclaim cultural memories and ancestral gifts. Interestingly, questions regarding absence and presence were an integral part of all the conversations, and these questions opened doors to further explore the importance of the digital archive, and healing potential of virtual allyship. Kim Nikuru’s practice is rooted in the democratization of social media as a gateway to talk about various Black experiences, with specific attention to Black women’s realities and with a focus on dark skinned and trans women. Insisting on the importance of access to social and material privileges, she highlights the urgency to heal while actively looking to dismantle current oppressive systems.


Shelley Niro, Dance of the Canoe Pants (2005)

Shelley Niro, Dance of the Canoe Pants (2005). Video, 1:31 minutes.Geneviève Wallen: You started to explore video as a medium in the 1990s, along with photography, which opened a new range of possibilities for picturing the vastness and complexity of Indigeneity. Can you comment on the importance of producing repre- sentational spaces that are doing more than fighting against stereotypes?

Shelley Niro: The thing is like when I started doing videos, it was about confronting stereotypes, but for myself, it has to be about being artistic and finding ways of being expressive as well. When I first started to do video and film work it was really limited as far as the people who were using those mediums; you went to film festivals back in the early 1990s, you would see the same twelve people at all the festivals, Indigenous people, who were doing that. Now it is a different story, I don’t recognize the people. So when I first started it was like: “oh, nobody is doing this.” Every time something was presented people were happy to see a production, even as small as something like Overweight and Crooked Teeth, (1997).1 And if humour was used it was also a bonus, because so many times, with Indigenous subject matter, it was dark and dreary. And it always puts us in a box of limited resources, and I don’t know, it’s like being isolated. So I think that using humour brightens everything up, and it doesn’t make it so horrible anymore. People appreciate that. It just expanded so much since the last decade or so, now it’s just surprising when you go to film festivals and see what everybody is doing and it’s a joy to be in the audience sometimes and being like: “Wow that’s pretty amazing! I would have never even thought of that”.

GW: One of the aspects that I appreciate the most in your work is the palpable intimacy and dedication within the writing, directing, and acting. Can you comment on the casting process; who do you like to work with, do you imagine your friends and family when writing a script? What is the extent of community involvement in your work?

SN: That has changed too throughout the years. Casting wise, I used my family exclusively at first, because well, I knew how they would respond to a situation and it was an artistic convenience for me to have them in the work. Plus, bringing them in the work was for me an honourable thing to do because it’s like archiving them. Now as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve expanded my horizon. I don’t think that I’m necessarily writing for just my family anymore. Before, I thought of them as the audience and directed my point of view to make them laugh or to do something that they would understand. I don’t limit myself anymore; it is beyond my own family. I’ve been able to use real actors, and when you go from amateurs to professionals it makes a world of difference; you can be a little more experimental, go beyond the original foundation of what the work is supposed to do. [The actors] are so aware of what the content of the script means, and are very aware of it being directed to an Indigenous person living in Canada on reserves and sometimes off reserves. It is intimate to them. Actors themselves want to make a change in how Native people are perceived in North America.

GW: Your videos showcase an array of realities, the personas are complex, and subjects are nuanced. How does your practice influence your ways of knowing, teaching, and being?

SN: I think that it is about producing, sometimes you get lazy and you are like: “Urgh, I don’t feel like doing that,” you know? I only have about ten good years left in me. [laughter] I got to keep busy because if I don’t keep producing no one is going to do it for me. But within my own lifetime, what I have seen changed is how Native people are perceived. I was born in 1954, grew up on Six Nations [reserve] in poverty and everybody around me was in the same condition. It’s not like I was the only poor person there! [laughter] So, it’s about understanding why we were so poor. It’s not because we were lazy or we didn’t know what to do with our money; there were reasons why we were kept in that position. As I get older now, I understand it more and I just think that there are so many things that I just want to talk about. Not necessarily making it straightforward or didactic. I think that I am more of an artist than a teacher, but when I think about using my artistry, I want to make something interesting and fun, and I want people to enjoy looking at the work.

I like to think that there are so many levels of storytelling to be told and I am just taking one little sliver of that. Trying to get my stories out there is challenging because of time, money and all that. As I get older, I’m amazed at how much information is out there that I am just starting to touch on now. Sometimes I’m like: “Wow this is incredible! If I was 20 years younger I could do something with that.” [laughter]

GW: Looking back to what has been accomplished since the 1990s, how do you see the relationship between personal/communal healing and the digital archive?

SN: I don’t know how to answer that because even though I like to think that I make my projects for Native communities, I don’t know how much access they have to it unless they get to a gallery. And sometimes it’s shown in a university, sometimes in schools, but it bothers me that it’s only shown in a particular setting. Something along that line has to change too. People who live on reserves or teachers or whoever is in charge has to say: “This is very important that our communities have access to these files, these videos.” You can see stuff on YouTube too, but I never know what to look at when I’m on YouTube. You end up missing out on a lot of content because in many cases you luckily happen to find something that might be interesting.

GW: While examining subjects such as mourning, loss, grief, colonization, physical and emotional recovery, I’ve noticed moments of relief, of lightness. What does it mean to you to include absurdity, humour, and tenderness your work?

SN: Without those things to me it would be very boring. (laughter) People ask: “Where does your humour come from?” I don’t know where my humour comes from, it just kind of happens that way; it’s something that I can’t get away from. I would say: “Oh I’m gonna do it that way, it’s kind of funny.” Then other people think it’s funny too, so I keep it in there. [laughter]

The absurdity … I don’t know if you have seen Dance of the Canoe Pants (2005) I think that you can find it online, it was on Urban Shaman2. I don’t know if it’s still there, but it’s kind of absurd. I think it is about healing, it is about stimulating, breaking little bubbles, and it is also about being respectful. I don’t want to do something that would make people feel bad or angry, or they have been taken advantage of. I really try to be thoughtful in the work and being absurd at the same time. So people can respond to it the way I want them to, or you know, not always. Maybe people think that’s too weird, but I can’t relate to that! [laughter].

GW: So we can say that when finishing a project, your collaborators don’t leave feeling heavy, or more scared, because of revisiting trauma in a way that is more damaging or haunting.

SN: Right, yeah, I try to be more sensitive and inclusive of other people’s feelings and where they are coming from.

Still from Shelley Niro's Kissed by lightening (2009).

Shelley Niro, Kissed by lightening (2009). Video, 89:00 minutes.GW: Yes, I think that this energy is definitely present. Also, I wish to insist on the word tenderness since there are a lot of tender moments between your characters. I was wondering how important it is to you to showcase that.

SN: I think kindness is one of those things that I try to infer in the work. If you can put tenderness in the work, why not? It creates a sense of a community, and this is the community I want to come from, where tenderness is practiced.3

GW: I think that in general people don’t talk enough about how resilience is about the capacity to love and hold one to another. Like, that’s the glue which overtime allowed people to survive.

SN: Yes, and I think that it is so important in Native work right now because, in a lot of our portrayals, tenderness is not always a part of it. Survival is a big part of it, but a love situation; it is hardly ever there.


Erika deFreitas, real cadences and a quiet colour
Erika deFreitas, real cadences and a quiet colour (2017). Single-channel video, 05:13 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

Geneviève Wallen: When did you start to integrate video as a medium in your work, and how do you think that it has widened your artistic vocabulary or language?

Erika DeFreitas: Performance art was the focus of my practice, but that shifted in 2006 when I was in graduate school working on my master’s. I started to work with video in 2007 for a work that I created with my mom called the Truth of Lineage. I found that video was a bridge between live performance and still photography. It was a way of working in a private space and still being able to do performative, gestural work that could be dissem- inated publicly. It changed the way that I thought about and engaged with performance in my practice

GW: The close and continuous collaborations with your mother in creating works have previously been addressed in interviews and exhibition essays. However, I wish to explore how these instances of tension, relief, and vulnerability in your video performances are informed by your daily interactions. Can you comment on the ways in which working alongside your mother and investigating transgenerational emotional and physical baggage fostered a healing space for both of you?

ED: This question is really interesting. A lot of what I talk about with my mom in our work is about the types of loss that occur through the process of migration, like the loss of family or memories, a lot of trauma is involved in such loss. These topics don’t naturally come up in our everyday conversations, so the work we make together creates opportunities for this dialogue to happen. Often there are times that the ideas alone for a project is enough to get the process started. However, it’s when I get to see the work in front of me and start the editing process, that I can concretely begin to talk about what I’m trying to conceptually achieve—and it grows. It’s during the final stages of this process that I’m able to talk with my mom about what the work is doing. It has been interesting for me to see those moments when she realizes that I have been listening to her when she shares stories of back home. When those stories are told through a gesture that might look small and might be quiet, they say a lot, giving my mom a way to speak about her experiences and have her experiences validated. At the same time, a starting point might be the concept of pre-mourning the eventual loss of my mother, but then takes on a form that expands beyond that to address portraiture, post-memory, performance for the camera, labour, and gesture. Recently, I’ve become more aware that some of the work is also about my mom mourning her mother and I’ve thought that perhaps this fear that I am so preoccupied with is something I inherited. I don’t know if any of our work has been healing for either of us, but as wonderful as it is to have such a relationship where we can work together in this way is, it is also very challenging to be so vulnerable.

GW: However, one could argue that since your mother found a safe space to share her experiences via your collaborations, in turn, it can transform what has been subconsciously passed down to you.

ED: I think that it will happen in time for me. There are many things about my mom that I am finding out, little anecdotes. I often think how has she been living with this and never talked to anyone about it? It’s heartbreaking!

GW: As previously mentioned, there is a number of written materials analyzing the relationship between you and your mother. However, while working through mourning, trauma, and presence/absence in your maternal lineage, something that is highlighted is also the absence of your father. Are you open to expand on that?

ED: You are honestly a brave interviewer because people don’t go there! [laughter] It is so exciting that you address that.

During a critique I had while doing my master’s, someone said something along these lines: “what becomes so strongly present is the absence of the male figure.” Up until that comment, the absence of the male figure never occurred to me. I never mentioned it to anyone

or thought much about it after. I appreciate you bringing it up at this point in my career because I think that subconsciously his absence is embedded in this ‘fear’ of loss. I think as children we experience traumatic events that we move forward from and surpass, and as I’ve gotten older I am allowing myself to think about these experiences and there is a heightened awareness that in his absence he is still very present. I am really interested in contemporary theories of hauntology, especially Derrida’s theory of the spectre, that even in someone’s absence they are still present. My father is very much that quiet, ever-present spectre.

GW: When thinking about transgenerational trauma and familial healing, I can’t help but muse on my ancestors, the sacrifices, the deep love, and the circumstances that have brought me here today. The two single-channel videos; forgive me for speaking in my own tongue (4 minutes and 12 seconds before entering melancholy) (2016) and to practice the study of breathing (it seemed to me more than just to speak,) (2016),4 profoundly resonated with me in that sense. I mirrored your breathing and found it emotionally challenging. What did this work open for you, while performing?

ED: That video was an emotional work to create because with each breath I took I was thinking about those who came before me and all that happened in order for me to be here. I was thinking about those who fought to continue, those who sacrificed so much. I was thinking of the ancestors of our ancestors, of their ancestors. I was thinking about my grandmother and mother who didn’t have it easy, but they fought and they continued. I thought about those whose ability to breathe had been taken away from them and about my responsibility to continue the breathing of those who couldn’t out of personal choice or because it was stolen from them. It is really important for me to be mindful when thinking about people who choose to stop breathing and being respectful of that. I can see the act of breathing and the choice to not breathe as a form of resistance. In a way, the act of breathing is also about controlling narratives. So whether we chose to breathe or not to breathe we are creating a narrative. Our choice to breathe is our exercise of agency to move forward and to continue.

What is also interesting is when you mentioned that while watching the video you also tried to consciously practice breathing. It’s similar to other’s reactions to my video, real cadences and quiet colour (2017),5 where some people have mentioned to me that they found themselves mirroring the movement of my feet in the video. I am interested in how we learn gestures by seeing them and through repetitive motion can also be bound to labour. I am also invested in the idea of inheriting memory, inheriting familial, particularly from the mother’s side of my family. Is this learnt behaviour, or is this something that it is so intrinsic in who we are? It is about traces, and how our bodies are traces of who have come before us and almost a sort of blueprint for who will come after.

GW: Do you believe that, in some fashion, this mirroring of gestures is a conduit for knowledge transfer?

ED: Yes, that to me is exciting. It means that there is a life beyond the work that doesn’t have to just exist on the wall or some space, and that in a way it is ingested by the person experiencing it.

Still from Erika deFreitas, forgive me for speaking in my own tongue / to practice the study of breathing (2016).
Erika deFreitas, forgive me for speaking in my own tongue / to practice the study of breathing (2016). two-channel video, 11:02 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

GW: How do you see notions of agency in relation to the fear of loss playing out in the making of the personal/communal digital archive? What do you see as healing in this process?

ED: I think it relates to making us present (referring to the Black body). I am really interested in the digital archive and historical archival processes, and how easily accessible digital archives are now that they’re so vast, but how that vastness becomes a sea of everything and anything. How do we sift through it all? How do we contribute to and maintain this archive? What’s great about this growing archive for communal healing is that it’s so easy to see someone who shares similar experiences; we no longer have to live in isolation. It is accessible and empowering as you can add your own voice, it’s a way to learn and allow for opportunities for growth and connection. In a way, the work I’ve created with my mother over the past twelve years is an archive of sorts—one where we can see how time has impacted our bodies, and how my body become more and more similar to hers. What is interesting is the role of the archive in relation to memory and the potential ephemerality of the archive. My use of photography and video speaks to this. I like to think about things being conceptually linked in ways that might not be explicit.


Pamila Matharu, fracture (2003)
Pamila Matharu, fracture (2003). Video, 03:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

Geneviève Wallen: While video work is not one of your primary mediums, I am interested in hearing how, for example, the videos fracture (2003) and haphazard (2003) have influenced your artistic vocabulary.

Pamila Matharu: In 2008, I seriously shifted my focus towards social practice art, be it socially engaged, artist-led, and/or critical pedagogy. I am now returning to installation and new media now through these strategies.

GW: Oh you are? Amazing, what a great timing for this interview! [laughter]

PM: [laughter] Yeah … I also thought that with the explosion and growth of digital literacy, it became less charming to identify as a video artist or a media practitioner at the time (damn Steve Jobs!) [laughter], I also got a lot of curatorial pressure to produce more stories on film and video. I was self-taught when it came to film/video, but I did take one course with documentary filmmaker Brenda Longfellow at York University, which was instrumental in my early understanding of video work. I still count her as one of my “femtors”. I mostly learned through watching media arts festival culture.

fracture uses the family archive, family footage, and what I was trying to do then—and there is a personal story attached to it—it was about healing on a number of levels. On September 11, 2001, I had a very severe head concussion. Nobody really knows the real reason why I made fracture, and I am disclosing that now. I had a severe head concussion that was quite painful, and I had to stop a lot of things in my practice, so things changed. I made fracture after I had gone through my undergraduate degree—I was tired due to my personal health crisis and former unchecked adverse childhood experiences. I had no energy to do yet another certificate, I just wanted to do one course! [laughter] I finished my studies at York University and decided to return to school and enroll in a part-time course. It was through a college that doesn’t exist anymore, it was called Atkinson College. Documentary filmmaker Brenda Longfellow was teaching an evening course in introductory film and video production. At the time, I needed the instructor-led learning modality to help me finish because I was struggling cognitively with a lot of challenges specific to work completion. So I went in knowing that I would use my personal archive work. From 2001 to 2003, I was struggling with memory quite a bit and I started to lose visual memories of my father because of the impact of this head concussion, and it really troubled me. I lost my father about 28 years ago to suicide; therefore, I’m a trauma survivor of suicide loss. fracture is about loss and mourning, and what happens when memories fade. How do we keep memories of people alive? I really wanted to explore that idea of memory and what it means to me, and how memory is healing because the older I get, there is more time that I don’t have him present in my life. I’ve known my father now more in absence than presence. I only had close to 16 years as a child and I am 44 now, and I’m remembering his absence longer than I experienced him in real life.

GW: And, as a viewer, I could see and feel the tenderness that was put in that video, while witnessing the reconciliation between presence and absence. What is the role of the rhythm and sounds that were weaved into the chosen archival images?

PM: I am using the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also passed, a prolific Sufi Qawwali singer. I wanted to include something that was in a way a signifier of my identity/culture, but not necessarily phonetic words; it’s a devotional raga closest to my mother tongue, Punjabi. In fracture, I am walking and I am lost. I am lost because that’s how my memory functioned after the concussion, aimlessly walking and thinking, I am trying to convey that. And I didn’t really have any professionally honed skills in video production at the time except for analog photography. My collaborative life/art partner at the time, Marilyn Fernandes, did the camera work and my hairdresser was proficient at Final Cut-Pro, and he helped me cut and make the final edit. [laughter] We were still learning on clunky tape-to-tape video, it was early Final Cut-Pro days. [laughter] So fracture is really dear to me and I do want to go back into my personal archives… Recently I’ve been thinking about utilizing my family archives and looking at issues around gender identity/expression and how I have negotiated and moved through the politics of femininity and feminine gaze, inside out.

With haphazard, that was made specifically for a site-specific installation at Gallery 44 around 2003. I’m examining breathing energy into space, looking through the yogic modalities of breathing as a contemplative healing practice. I was trying to find non-invasive, non-Western processes, and these were my early days of recognizing these ancestral gifts that were present in my life. However, I was not reaching for them at the time. I layered the word prana6 in a vinyl text to examine liminal space between travelling (through Pearson Airport’s fairly new Terminal 1) place, movement and breath. These are the two videos that I made, so let’s see how I come back to it. [laughter]

Still from haphazard, a video by Pamila Matharu
Pamila Matharu, haphazard (2003). Video, 04:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.Still from haphazard, a video by Pamila Matharu
Pamila Matharu, haphazard (2003). Video, 04:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

GW: Together, we have explored the personal side of healing through video performance. What do you think about the potential for a broader reach of the affective qualities of video performance, how can it be received and shared within a community?

PM: To think that now you have so much access to be self- taught with the plethora of online tutorials and whatnot, if you have the will and the desire to tell a story, to make a story, then do it. It’s your own personal healing, and creative expression is a natural part of that. So, if we look at concepts of self-care and healing, creativity is definitely part of the permissible human condition, it’s got huge value for time memorial, not just relegated to Western culture’s concepts and standards of art, or supply and demand in the academy or out there in the market.

The role that social media plays now, is that you can tell stories and share them with the world, the world is your audience, right there. Whatever you use as a portal to house your video, then, go for it. If you want to just exist on Vimeo, it’s possible. In Toronto, there is a significant rise of content producers outside of the city core, residing in the margins. They are not going through art schools, not going through the academy, not training in classic theatre, yet they produce rich, nuanced, well-developed remixing of their historical and non-Western cultures, in a contemporary language. They’ve got the tools, they just got the desire and will to tell stories, and they’re rewriting the scripts.

GW: So do you see the democratization of knowledge and access to the digital realm as intrinsic to their healing properties?

PM: Yes, I think access is the keyword. Who gets to play? The digital archive is again an access issue, who gets access to the archives, who gets archived? Maybe your local convenience store owner, who is now retired, has a whole stack of gig/jam flyers that you don’t have any access to (in any archives), perhaps they’ve been collecting something from a long, long, long, time. We’re seeing shows now being developed around personal archives and the power of community building and community engagement. There is something very strong in that experience, which institutions cannot replicate from the inside; they have to bring the living, breathing community in.


Kim Ninkuru, bless the dark skin femmes who won’t shut up and are always ready to fuckup the fun. @azealiabanks
Kim Ninkuru, bless the dark skin femmes who won’t shut up and are always ready to fuckup the fun. @azealiabanks (2017). instagram video, 00:10 minutes.
Kim Ninkuru, untitled
Kim Ninkuru, untitled (2018). instagram video, 00:15 minutes.
(this video still is part of a series of short instagram stories that later have been included in a video work that ran for 1:48 seconds. this work has been featured in the co-curated event Eye blink; Hashtag Solidarity at the Gardiner Museum in April 2018.)

Geneviève Wallen: How do you see the relationship between personal/communal healing and the digital archive?

KN: My [Instagram] feed is intentionally 90 percent Black people, I want my feed to just be mostly Black people, so I can get information from that. Oh, so this Black girl just posted two pictures of herself back to back, “alright, sis, thank you for giving me permission to do that too.” It works that way, it’s archiving for yourself but you’re also giving permission to so many other people around you, and I am given permission by so many women that I am following to say things, express myself, post that silly picture you want to post just because, and I think that’s when healing happens. And it goes with personal archiving and I can always go back, a lot of it is about giving permission and being given permission.GW: Over time, you have developed a strong online persona under the Instagram handle, Sista Betina. How would you trace the integration of social media and video in your practice?

KN: That’s a really good question because it makes me think a lot about how Sista Betina happened. Sista Betina is the second part of my online presence, cause I started off doing things, mostly on Instagram, online under the handle Black Supremacist. When I changed my handle to Black Supremacist it was kind of when it was decided that it was going to be a platform to talk about the realities, les non-dits, things that people don’t really talk about when we discuss Black people’s issues, especially when it comes to Black trans people. So I was like, OK, I am talking about this, I just went with that name. At that time [2013] Black Supremacist was an iconic move because I’d think of those Hoteps7 wanting to make an Instagram profile under that handle, then finding out that it was taken by a Black trans woman and that thought made me giggle. [laughter] I wanted the name to reflect the content and, since I didn’t go to college, or had any kind of art training per se, I saw Instagram and social media as the only outlet I had permission and access to use. I didn’t have platforms to write think pieces and stuff and I don’t even think that my writing is that good, so the captions under my Instagram pics and videos became my critical analysis; mini write-ups.

GW: What did it represent for you the transition between the Black Supremacist handle to Sista Betina? Did the content change?

KN: I feel that the change happened when I moved to Toronto from Montreal [in 2016]. It was kind of like a strategic thing. I feel like I was introduced to the Toronto art scene through a very corporate, capitalist point of view, so that made me back down a little bit. Because I was like, “wow, I don’t know if I can keep Black Supremacist alive, and just be able to have these collaborations with people and be able to do these gigs and get these coins.” I felt like people would do a double take on it and it’d be kind of touchy. So that’s one of the main reasons why I switched to Sista Betina. I really wanted to continue that Black legacy, through Black African culture specifically, and Sista Betina is the name of a song from South Africa by an artist named Mgarimbe—it is one of the most famous songs all over Africa, it crossed borders.

GW: What is brilliant about your image and video captions is how you intentionally make the viewers hyper-aware of their positionality as well as the ways in which they may consume your content. Can you expand on the importance of self-preservation, and creating a safer space for yourself on online platforms?

KN: For me, it is a necessity. It is just a reminder that, OK you can have access to certain places or conversations, but when you enter the realm of my online world, which is my Instagram page, you are going to feel that you don’t have access to these conversations that easily. I stress on the fact that I’m only speaking to women like me. And I am hoping that it pushes people to be like, “if I don’t have access to this conversation on her page, then I have to think about how I’m going to maybe bring these conversations and experiences to other spaces,” or “I have to check myself about what I’m doing with the access to those conversations and experiences, just like collect my people and be like, how are we dealing with these lives in our communities?” So that is what I am hoping for. When I’m saying, “Don’t you dare like this, if you are a cis woman, don’t you dare like this if you are not Black,” it’s because I’m trying to say, “You have access to all of this knowledge but in this particular place you’re not allowed to say a word or manifest yourself in any way.” It’s a lesson on humility and listening. That aspect of creating a space for people who have an experience that we share together makes me feel like there is space for myself, and it is absolutely about self-preservation because I am creating my own boundaries.

GW: I totally believe that by doing so, it pushes us [the viewer] to go beyond the overly self- congratulatory culture of liking and sharing socio-political posts since the boundaries that you are setting in your posts demand greater accountability.

KN: Yes, exactly, that’s what makes the conversation go further. I love this one line from this song called Fighting Temptation by Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, and Free. In her verse, MC Lyte has a line that goes: “show me you’ve got my back, love me from where you at.”8 You know what I mean?! If you actually do love me, you can show me love from afar. You can open doors for me that I don’t have access to, and step out of the room. That’s showing love. I feel like I really connected with that line a lot, that is literally what I am trying to get to every time that I am trying to create boundaries. There are so many ways of showing affection and appreciation that doesn’t necessarily mean to be in my bubble, so I feel like that’s where self- preservation is.

I’m speaking to Black women and girls who are trans and/or dark skin, who are refugees, who are immigrants or who don’t live on this continent, who live in other places that are far less kind to Black trans women and girls, that is the truth that I am trying to speak to. Like if it reaches someone, I hope it’s that person, but like I’m really not caring for how [other] people are receiving my online content.

GW: In the performances that you share on your Instagram account, you have explored carelessness and joy, which, like anger, are still contested territories in the expression of Black womanhood. Can you comment on the healing benefits in exploring a full emotional spectrum from anger to joy; what do think it has done for you?

KN: I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve seen like a Black woman posting on Facebook: “Oh yeah, I woke up today and I’m feeling good.” Seeing someone happy and experiencing joy, that makes me happy. Like seeing a lot my Black trans sisters posting that they are having a really great day. I’m like: “Wow, praise the Lord, praise everything that is holy, I am so happy for you sis, I am so happy you’re having a great day, like a 100 percent.” I feel that joy coming to me as well. I made the decision to intentionally be happy, or intentionally seek out comfort within myself and with other people. And that really came when I decided that I was done teaching people how to love me and how to care for me. When I decided that I wasn’t going to teach those lessons anymore, or think about why people are not giving me this or that; I was like “what are you offering yourself?” I realized that, wow I’m giving myself so much love through all that I have done for myself in order to survive to this point.

Scrolling through my Instagram, that is where you see the shift. I feel that I have trapped myself in what is very like an angry Black woman character (or at least, that’s how one could interpret my work if they only experience it on @sista_betina). Perhaps it is the kind of thing that we do, thinking that there is nothing else, especially as Black women. It is the only side of the spectrum that people know (or want to acknowledge). What I am going to focus on is making things better for myself and people like me. It was a conscious decision to show that I am happy and that I experience joy and that I am not necessarily angry. But my anger also gives me joy. Even if I am angry about something, like I am still laughing, sis! [laughter]


  1. Overweight and Crooked Teeth, 1997. 05:00 Based on a poem by her brother, this experimental video frames issues of Native identity by reversing stereotypes. This video is archived and distributed by Vtape
  2. This video is still available on the Urban Shaman Gallery Website. Dance of the Canoe Pants, 1 minute, 31 seconds. “Dance of the Canoe Pants” has six dancers wearing quilted canoe-shaped costumes that they pull up over their jeans and then dance to a marching tune while these canoes protrude in front and behind their hips. In this video, the dancers also swing hatchet and tomahawk shaped props around, and there is another scene where they dance on the banks of the Grand River which is intercut for a few seconds before they begin to wobble and fall on stage.
  3. Video still from the movie Kissed by Lightning (2019) which was written and produced by Shelley Niro. It is a drama that explores grief, memory, healing, community support, reclaiming ancestral healing tools, and learning how to love again. Mavis Dogblood (Kateri Walker) is an artist living on the Six Nations Reservation. After the loss of her husband Jessie Lightning (Michael Greyeyes), Mavis buries her grief and immerses herself in her art, recreating the faces, stories and the memories of her deceased husband. This video is archived and distributed by Vtape.
  4. The work forgive me for speaking in my own tongue (4 minutes and 12 seconds before entering melancholy) and to practice the study of breathing (it seemed to me more than just to speak) were featured in a group exhibition at Daniel’s Spectrum entitled Black Toronto 2116, presented by Black Future Month and curated by Danilo McCallum. The exhibition ran from March 6th-April 10th, 2016.
  5. real cadences and a quiet colour. 05:13 minutes. real cadences and a quiet colour is a study of portraiture and gesture. Unbeknownst to the artist and her mother, their feet appear to be choreographed and at times their movements mirror each other in strangely familiar ways.
  6. Prana is an Ayurvedic word for breath, life force, and inner energy.
  7. Damon Young explains that: (…)the working definition of “Hotep” has morphed into an all-encompassing term describing a person who’s either a clueless parody of Afro-centricity—think “Preach” from Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood—or someone who’s loudly, conspicuously and obnoxiously pro-black but anti-progress. Damian Young, “Hotep, Explained,” The Root, May 3rd, 2016
  8. Fighting Temptation, Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, Free, 2003. Songwriters: Jonathan Burks / Melissa Elliott / Lashaun Owens / Karriem Mack / Lana “mc Lyte” Moorer / Walter Murphy / Gene Pistilli / Marie Wright. © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Spirit Music Group, Global Talent Publishing.
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