Ithin-eh-wuk—we place ourselves at the center: James Nicholas and Sandra Semchuk

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Ithin-eh-wuk—we place ourselves at the center: James Nicholas and Sandra Semchuk

Curated by Timothy Long
28 January – 16 May 2021

For fifteen years, James Nicholas and Sandra Semchuk collaborated on a series of nationally exhibited photo-installations and videos which unveil the mindset and effects of colonialism through the lens of their remarkable intercultural marriage.

This exhibition brings together for the first time a comprehensive selection of their collaborations, tracing their creative output from their initial meeting in 1993 until Nicholas’s accidental death in 2007. Their work reveals a profound commitment to dialogue in which Semchuk’s identity as the child of Ukrainian-Canadian settlers from Saskatchewan meets Nicholas’s experiences as a Rock Cree man from Manitoba.

The title of the exhibition is taken from the 2004–2005 photo-text installation understoryoverstory, a set of fifteen photographs of an abandoned road in northern Saskatchewan, one that was originally built by Cree workers under the direction of Semchuk’s father Martin. While in the accompanying texts Semchuk reflects on her father’s respect for the Cree even as he opened their land to development, Nicholas responds with forceful poetry about the rights of ithin-eh-wuk, his people:

listen, acknowledge that we exist
we are not shadows of shadow cultures
we have inherent rights to the land    our laws of being    ithin-eh-wuk
we place ourselves at the center

The questions Nicholas and Semchuk ask of each other are personal, at times humorous, at other times painful. As Semchuk notes, they recognized that their relationship was “an opportunity to make political, social and psychological structures created by histories of colonialism, occupation of the land and racism visible to ourselves and others through our art practice.” Whether dealing with the marginalization of Ukrainian-Canadian settlers or Nicholas’s experiences as a residential school survivor, the effort is always, in Semchuk’s words, “to recognize the truths in each other’s stories.” At the same time the works embrace a “more-than-human” context by honouring the land, plants, and animals that ground their stories.

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Responding to an earlier presentation of their collaborative work Taking Off Skins (coll. Vancouver Art Gallery), Métis artist and curator David Garneau writes, “Despite their difference (bodies, genders, nations), these artists share a profound togetherness. Semchuk is clearly present in these images in a way that was acceptable to Nicholas. He appears to not only feel safe but welcomes their collaboration, their shared agency, the opportunity to make the personal public. Folks I talked with felt this as articulating a deep sense of conciliation.” Guided by equality, their collaborations are love stories that open us to an honest and compassionate consideration of who is in the centre and who is not.

Read more about the exhibition here.

About the Artists

James Nicholas was a visionary activist, orator, author, poet, actor, and video/multi-media artist who throughout his life advocated forcefully for Indigenous language, culture, and self-determination. Born in 1947 into the Bird Clan of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation of Nelson House, Manitoba, he was deeply influenced by the Rock Cree oral traditions and knowledges of his family. With future Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, Nicholas attended residential school in Manitoba, a traumatic experience which motivated much of his later work. Employing his skills as a writer and negotiator, he worked with the chiefs of northern Manitoba and the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation to strengthen governance and administration, while also pressing federal and provincial governments on issues including land claims, fiduciary responsibility, economic development, child welfare, and education.

In the early 1990s, Nicholas gave away all his possessions and moved to Vancouver where he became an actor, writer/poet, video artist, and collaborating artist with his wife Sandra Semchuk. In 1995 he played the lead role in a Banff Centre of the Arts production of The Sun Raiser by Yves Sioui Durand. His other acting credits include a number of films, as well as a recurring role in the popular Canadian television series Nothing Too Good for a Cowboy (1999). Shifting his political interests into art making, he worked with First Nations artists such as Dana Claxton and Donald Morin. Nicholas’s collaborative work with Semchuk (1993–2007) spans photography, text, and video and looks critically at the relationships between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous. In 2006 he won the Best Experimental Film and Video Award at the IMAGeNation Aboriginal Film and Video Festival in Vancouver. On October 15, 2007, Nicholas died while visiting the fishing camp of a friend near Lillooet, BC where he slipped and fell from a cliff.

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Sandra Semchuk is an artist, photographer, educator, and storyteller who for fifty years has created photo-based works grounded in empathetic insight, resistance to dominant and dominating culture, and a deep respect for the wider-than-human context. Born in 1948 in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan to a family of Ukrainian and Polish descent, Semchuk attended the University of Saskatchewan and University of New Mexico. In 1971 she became a founding member of the Photographers Gallery in Saskatoon. Considering recognition as the basis for identity formation and change, Semchuk moved from witnessing as observation in her early co-operative self-portraits with friends and family, to a practice of moving parallel in her multi-frame gestural self-portraits.

These works, along with intergenerational and intercultural collaborations with her father Martin and husband James Nicholas, were featured in how far back is home… (Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, 1995), a mid-career survey signaling her importance to photographic practices in Canada embodying interrogation of the self, dialogue, and the recognition of painful colonial histories. Beyond her collaborations with Nicholas, she has worked with a number of Indigenous artists and elders. Her investigation of Ukrainian-Canadian histories led to the publication The Stories Were Not Told—Canada’s First World War Internment Camps (University of Alberta Press, 2018). Recent work engages the wider-than-human—the forest—and the overtone singing of Jerry DesVoignes. As a professor at Emily Carr University (1987–2018), she has influenced several generations of students and artists. Her work has been exhibited and collected nationally and internationally and in 2018 her achievements were honoured with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

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Image (top): understoryoverstory (detail), 2004-5, 14 digital lightjet photographs, 76.2 x 95.3 cm each. Photo by Don Hall.

Images (middle & bottom): Installation views of Ithin-eh-wuk—we place ourselves at the center: James Nicholas and Sandra Semchuk, MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2021. Photo: Don Hall.