On Being Bound by the Land and Time Traveling With Artist/Activist Tsema Igharas


Tsema holds part of a work in progress called “sign of the times” for her upcoming show, “future generations”.

Tsema Igharas is an interdisciplinary artist and member of the Tahltan First Nation who combines traditional Indigenous cultural practices and her fine arts background to create colourful, thought-provoking installations and performances that are equally visually compelling and politically pertinent.

Tsema’s most recent projects for her upcoming show, “future generations” (opening May 25th at Artspace in Peterborough, Ontario), include a moose hide apron decked out in handsewn penny beads and a vivid red drum affixed to a temporary signpost. Her piece, “An Experiment in Tahltan Futurism” is currently on display in Chinatown’s Skwachàys Gallery as part of “The Tribe Has Spoken” group show, until June 10th.

If you can’t think of what to make…make something.

Where did you grow up? Smithers BC / Tahltan Territory.

What is your neighbourhood and what makes it home? Chinatown, Vancouver. It is home because of the combination of grit and glamour. I love having access to experiences, stores and food that are good quality and not too pretentious.

Your neighborhood haunt? Yoko Yaya 123 dollar store. You can get everything and anything there. It’s right across the street from me and I’ve been there to get supplies in my pyjamas — oops.

Where do you go to escape? Mobi, our Dodge Sprinter van, and whatever adventure we are on. My husband and I built and lived in Mobi the van for the last year and you can follow our adventures on our Tahlipino Instagram.

A current curiosity or burning question on your mind? “How do I glue plexiglass to wood?”

A lesson you recently learned? “Beautiful oops,” another name for “happy accident”.

Your first memory? In my neighbour’s barn loft, colouring on the walls and singing “Bermuda Bahama, come on pretty momma…”

Describe your artistic practice in ten words or less. My work connects materials to mine sites and bodies to the LAND.

“Ejinda:Push It!” performance, photo by Jessica Wittman for Sled Island

Why pursue art? Art speaks when words cannot.

A time you’ve witnessed art make a change? I recently was told a story of a boy who hadn’t spoken in years and came in contact with my work, ‘Ejinda:Push it!’, which is a moose hide that the viewer can also touch and hear, and he spoke to his class about the work and the importance of this material in his culture. There are many moments when art has made a change, but this moment really stands out to me.

Are you an activist? Yes.

What does ‘activism’ mean to you? Means.

You’re a performer. What embarrasses you? Glitches in the performance. People assure me that only I know, but I have had an artwork break in performance and the pieces go everywhere. People shriek and I have to pretend it’s no big deal. Also, one time I made too many Riot Rock Rattles for my sound piece and they took a long time to pass out and collect. I tried to make it look intentional, but I was really scrambling to collect them before it got awkward.

The last thing that made you cry? It’s embarrassing. I was lost and driving to Seattle by accident when I left Richmond Ikea. I cried.

The last thing that made you laugh out loud? Dipping my paintbrush in my coffee instead of water.

Something of no monetary value that you hold on to? I carry rocks, especially Obsidian, everywhere I go.

The last unexpected source of inspiration? Plastic-wrapped firewood at Canadian Tire.

Your personal motto? If you can’t think of what to make…make something.

A project that you would like to tackle in the near future? The next project I am tackling is called ‘Ore Body’, which will be a year-long reflection on measured of worth and material, especially mined for. I will be traveling to mines in Tahltan Territory and to the oil sands, then responding through writing and art.

If you could have a conversation with anyone living or dead, who would it be? I would love to have tea and visit with my Great Grandma, Mary — my grandfather’s mother who was a knowledge keeper, hunter and midwife. I am told I inhabit a lot of her characteristics and I want to live up to her legacy.

  • "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" - Tsema sewing penny beads onto a moosehide apron | photo by Stephanie Chow
    "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" - Tsema sewing penny beads onto a moosehide apron | photo by Stephanie Chow
  • "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" - close up of penny beads | photo by Stephanie Chow
    "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" - close up of penny beads | photo by Stephanie Chow
  • "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" - Tsema sewing penny beads onto a moosehide apron | photo by Stephanie Chow
    "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" - Tsema sewing penny beads onto a moosehide apron | photo by Stephanie Chow
  • "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" | photo by Stephanie Chow
    "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" | photo by Stephanie Chow
  • "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" | photo by Stephanie Chow
    "to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization" | photo by Stephanie Chow
  • "An experiment in Tahltan Futurism" | photo courtesy of the artist
    "An experiment in Tahltan Futurism" | photo courtesy of the artist
  • "An experiment in Tahltan Futurism" | photo courtesy of the artist
    "An experiment in Tahltan Futurism" | photo courtesy of the artist
  • "An experiment in Tahltan Futurism" | photo courtesy of the artist
    "An experiment in Tahltan Futurism" | photo courtesy of the artist
  • "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
    "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
  • "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
    "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
  • "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
    "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
  • "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
    "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
  • "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque
    "Sinuosity" with Jeneen Frei Njootli | photo by Nicole Levaque

A misconception that you’d like to eradicate? “Issues in the north (protesting, extraction practices and power dams) do not concern every Canadian and everybody.” Actually, we are all connected through material and power consumption. Those issues far from the concerns of the city are in fact all of our concerns.

The last book you read? ‘Islands of Decolonial Love’, by Leanne Simpson.

The person you most admire? My grandfather, Willie Williams.

What was your biggest takeaway from art school? Build a solid conceptual foundation and material library to build art from.

The hardest lesson you’ve learned? It is not my responsibility to change people’s minds.

A hidden talent? I make really good cookies (maybe not so hidden since I share them).

A skill that you wish you had? Learning languages.

Who has been your biggest mentor? Brenda Crabtree. She is so supportive and keeps me on track.

Name your three favorite artists of all time. Merrit Johnson, Ai Wei Wei and Rebecca Belmore.

Your favorite natural material to work with? Antler. They are sculptures growing out of animal heads!

Your favourite synthetic material to work with? Acrylic plexiglass.

An untapped/underrated resource, in your opinion? I am getting this from my brother who is a mining engineer: asteroids – mine them for materials instead of here.

I believe that we create the future by mentoring the next generation in Indigenous philosophy and to fight for the Land – to live on a parallel plane.

The ugliest thing in the world? Colonization.

What impression do you hope to leave on audiences/viewers of your artwork? That everyone is connected through natural systems and resource consumption.

Where do you see yourself in one year? Five? A decade? I plan to live between here (Vancouver) and San Francisco for the next year, making art and traveling for research. In five years I hope to start a family with my partner. In a decade, I hope to be in a teaching and mentoring position and living between Canada and the Philippines where my partner is from. The whole time I plan to be making art.

If you could visit/inhabit any era when would it be? I would like to visit the time before contact in North America to see how it was before colonization.

A historical figure that you’d like to meet? Tahltan Cheif Nanock.

A historical event that fascinates you? There are many. But the one that I can think of right now is the “I have a dream…” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. That moment signified a change in thinking about how people are treated and was a giant step to eradicate racism. Of course racism and slavery still exist but movements and moments like that speech are encouragements for a better future.

What do you hope to leave as your legacy? Challenging the status quo through Indigenous Methodologies.

What does the ‘future’ mean to you? I align with Indigenous Futurisms and believe our Ancestors have been generational thinkers and that we are living in their future. What I mean by this is that they see a canyon from a stream or know the land has a different sense of time than what we see as a life term (human life). My ancestors also believed in reincarnation, which is another way to see time. Not only do our grandparents want a better future for us, the future generations, but they live on in other bodies so they are time travelers in a sense. These kinds of ideas are really old (the future is now, time travelers, end of the world) but are being fantasized right now in popular media and I want people to see that Indigenous people have been thinking this way for a long time and have solutions for a better future. Do I believe in reincarnation? Not so much, but I do believe that we create the future by mentoring the next generation in Indigenous philosophy and to fight for the Land – to live on a parallel plane.

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