Portia Priegert: The Art of Ullus
The Syilx language of the original aboriginal residents of the Okanagan is filled with interesting words that inscribe a radically different worldview. One such word is ullus, which translates as"a gathering of people for a common purpose." It is an apt metaphor for a collective of indigenous artists who pool their expertise with film and video to tell stories about social issues, political histories and cultural traditions.
Members of the Ullus Collective have completed some 40 media productions since they began meeting in 1995, helping to give voice to a people largely silenced by colonial policies in a bleak chapter of Canadian history. But the roots of aboriginal media production in the Valley go back as far as the early 1980s, according to Tracey Jack, the collective's chair. It's not surprising many aboriginal artists choose to work with moving imagery. A good medium for storytelling, it dovetails with indigenous traditions of oral history the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next. As well, the history of artist video is entwined with identity politics and political activism, making it attractive for some aboriginal artists.
A 1997 study by the Indigenous Arts Service Organization, a non-profit society that supports B.C.'s aboriginal artists, found that media artists were under-represented. That prompted Ullus members to organize screenings and training sessions to raise the sector's profile. "Even though we are in the Valley, and even though we're just a small group of people working together because we love our craft . . . we wanted to show that we could do it really well," says Jack, known for her on-air work on CHBC. One early highlight was producing Ullus Magazine, a program about aboriginal issues broadcast on Shaw Cable in the late 1990s. As well, the collective has organized an annual film festival at the Okanagan's public art galleries for the last six years. This year's version, Reel Rootz, included Mothers Milk, a story about pregnant women addicted to crack, by Ullus members Aimee Lezard and Mariel Belanger.
The collective is housed in the En'owkin Centre, a private indigenous cultural and educational institution on the Penticton Indian Reserve. Its 30 members live throughout the Valley and include writers, directors, producers, actors, journalists and technical experts. "The collective is a really amazing group of people," says Jack. "We are positive. We are energetic. We are focused. We have vision. And we have a lot to add to the community in terms of building bridges and an understanding of who we are." The collective has few resources and survives due to the determination of its members, who are committed to promoting themselves as professional artists. They can use a video camera and a couple of computers on loan from En'owkin, which also provides administrative support. Jack is passionate about the collective, donating her time and even dipping into personal funds to support its activities. She urges anyone interested in its mandate to donate equipment or other resources to help the collective reach its goal of becoming an artist-run centre with a paid staff person.
The latest initiative of the collective is to organize, in partnership with the Alternator Gallery for Contemporary Art, a national festival celebrating aboriginal media arts. On Common Ground, which runs June 10 to June 14 at the Rotary Centre for the Arts in Kelowna, will host more than 100 delegates from the Independent Media Arts Alliance, a non-profit organization that serves thousands of media artists and cultural workers across the country. Local residents are welcome to attend screenings and talks, which include a keynote address by Bill Barclay, a leading Maori filmmaker from New Zealand. UBC Okanagan is hosting on-campus activities with the help of Stephen Foster, an aboriginal video artist who teaches at the institution. In conjunction with the festival, the Alternator will exhibit work by leading aboriginal artist Dana Claxton and Jayce Salloum, a Kelowna-born artist whose 2005 video about the legacies of colonialism on the Valley's indigenous communities asked local residents to confront their complicity with ongoing inequalities. The festival's opening ceremonies, including a traditional feast, will be held at En'owkin.
Jack hopes various communities will participate in the festival, observing that art can be a catalyst to encourage conversation between people from different backgrounds. "Any time you eat together, any time that you're festive together, any time that you celebrate together, you're on common ground with your colleagues whether they are black, white, pink, blue or purple," she says. "To reach that common ground, we have to make it a relaxed environment and a safe environment for everybody to dialogue and talk about these really important issues that are sometimes not easy to talk about in terms of censorship, in terms of racism, in terms of gender, in terms of sexual equality."
Portia Priegert is an artist, writer and former director of the Alternator Gallery. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications.