I would like to introduce Melissa General, an artist whose work I had the honour to write about from the exhibition Mikwenim (Remember). The exhibition was curated as part of the Asinabka Indigenous Film & Media Arts Festival in Ottawa, Ontario last year and also featured the work of Jo SiMalaya Alcampo. Asinabka is coming up on its 5th year and runs from August 10-14, 2016.
Melissa’s work is a gentle understanding, a familiar longing for home. Her series Keyahre: I Remember consists of photographs, video installation, and seven white child-size dresses embellished with Mohawk words. I felt a connection with the work even though there are 1000s of kilometers between our communities.
I was thrilled when she agreed to write about her experiences with photography and staying connected to Six Nations while living in the Six. Tea & Bannock, please welcome Melissa General.
Many years ago I moved from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory to Toronto to study art at the Ontario College of Art and Design. As a shy and awkwardly quiet young Mohawk woman, moving to Toronto was a challenging transition for me. Growing up I visited Toronto frequently with family and friends but, until I moved my entire world was located at the corner of Fourth Line and Tuscarora Road. My best friend lived down the road from me on the other side of Fifth Line. My Uncle Dave lived one road over on Onondaga Road and my high school was a fifteen-minute drive away. It was a big move for me.
When I began my studies at OCAD I experimented in several areas, initially focusing on installation until I took my first photography course. I took PHOT-2B03 Introductory Photography: Black and White, and when it was over I cried because I knew I’d have to wait through the summer to have darkroom access again. Photography was a new medium with its own language that I was determined to learn how to speak. I made plenty of mistakes through the process and had my share of difficult critiques but, I worked hard to learn.
In the last two years of my studies at OCAD I was still quite shy and began to use myself as a subject in my work. I enjoyed the solitude of working on my own and quickly realized that much of my work was about learning and understanding who I was and about my Indigenous identity. I possessed a limited amount of knowledge about my culture and history so I began to learn about myself through my process and photography provided me with a voice when I was too timid to have one.
Now, years after graduating from OCAD and completing my MFA at York University, my practice has now evolved to include photography, video, audio and installation work. My Indigenous identity continues to be at the core of my practice and includes concepts involving land, memory and history with the majority of my work being produced on Six Nations Territory.
I am still based in Toronto, working and teaching at OCAD University with the Indigenous Visual Culture (INVC) program. As a young student at OCAD I hoped to return to the university to teach, so I’m very excited to be faculty for Indigenous Visual Culture. I feel fortunate and very proud to support the talented Indigenous artists who call the INVC Student Centre their on-campus home. I have shared my experiences with them as a young OCAD student navigating their way through university and I offer them my support in successfully completing their studies.
Melissa General is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design and completed a Masters of Fine Arts degree at York University. Her work has been exhibited at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Harbourfront Centre, Art Gallery of Peterborough, Gallery 101, Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography and has been included in the 2016 Contemporary Native Art Biennial in Montreal.