5 Questions to Olivia Shortt (multi-disciplinary artist)

Olivia Shortt (she/her/hers: Anishinaabe from Nipissing First Nation) is a Tkarón:to-based multi-disciplinary artist. She was one of six composers commissioned to write for JACK Quartet as part of their JACK Studio, with each composer receiving $5,000, workshops, recording sessions, and performances with all travel expenses covered and ongoing advising from JACK and a mentor network. Additionally, she was commissioned by Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music program. While the premieres of these commissioned works have been cancelled or modified for live streaming due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we still wanted to take the time to chat with Olivia about her work and her activism.

The work created for your JACK Studio commission centers on the Murdered, Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S) people of the USA. This and other indigenous topics are rarely discussed in the arts–particularly in concert music–and your background is rooted in Canada. So how did you develop this project, and what stuck out in your international assessment?

While my artistic training comes from several degrees in classical music performance (saxophone though!), my creations and compositions have all been inspired by my work in theatre, so my work usually has some kind of story that it’s trying to tell (even if it’s not obvious). My process for the body remembers for JACK Quartet started with the question, “What story do I want to tell with this work, and what impact can I make within this platform?” which led me to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s essay the body remembers when the world broke open. I love the laughter of Indigenous women–it’s often gregarious and sounds like it’s coming from somewhere deep within the body, somewhere filled with love. I’ve been thinking a lot about matriarchal systems in Indigenous communities vs. the colonial patriarchal world that we exist in now, which then led me to thinking more and more about the numerous cases of MMIWG2S in Canada and asking, “What is happening in the United States?” This question led me to a deep dive over many months where I was reading and finding out how little information was available through the government itself. Most information available was through the various smaller news networks and grassroots initiatives attempting to get the message out there.

From the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls Report:

“The National Crime Information Center reports that, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.”

Olivia Shortt--Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Olivia Shortt–Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Do you see your work as cultural integration? Do you distinguish between your activism and your musical career?

Being alive and Indigenous is an act of addressing politics in itself: Indigenous people still aren’t being treated equitably or with respect here on Turtle Island (North America) or elsewhere. There was a period of time when Indigenous people couldn’t congregate in large numbers, let alone present their art to the public. I come from a lineage of strong people who overcame a lot of their own struggles and personal traumas. My father, who dealt with years of abuse, racism, and poverty over the course of his entire childhood, was able to get his college degree much later in his life. My maternal grandmother left Ireland with her sisters and traveled on a boat for two months when she was only a teenager to immigrate to Canada post-WWII in the hopes of something better for her family. I’m proud to be who I am today because of their strength, which gives me a chance to be successful in a world that is racist, oppressive, and inherently capitalist. I don’t distinguish between any of these concepts (cultural integration, activism, my musical career) because that choice never belonged to me or my ancestors in the first place.

You navigate political and cultural histories that are broader than typical civic discourse, and I can’t help but wonder if this empowers the way you understand genre and interdisciplinary work. You’re not only a multi-instrumentalist, improviser, composer, sound designer, and theatre artist, but you are comfortable in a range of leadership roles such as theatre producer, alumnus of the New Orleans artEquity facilitator training program, and a member of the Toronto Arts Council’s Leaders Lab. Do you see unique connections between your Indigenous heritage and your success in creative work?

Building up community and supporting community (mostly through capacity building) are the main factors to my success and a fulfilling artistic practice. I have a ‘people-first’ policy in my personal and artistic practices. I choose the people who surround me and exist in the same working spaces with me before I start thinking about other factors like specific works or pieces of music. Working with empathetic, kind, loving people has ensured that my art-making practice is safer in regards to the spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of my life. I choose to navigate the stories that make up peoples’ histories because we each have so much to offer and I think that is the most beautiful way to draw ideas for making art. I use my artistic platforms as a way to tell stories: sometimes they’re sad and sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re more rooted in theatre and movement and sometimes they’re more rooted in concert music. I see myself less interested in existing in one type of space or medium because that doesn’t allow me control over my safety and the safety of those with whom I am working with.

You’re based in Canada, but have performed globally from Melbourne and Sydney, Australia to New York City, USA. Have you noticed different engagement with your project themes based on locale? What are the most frustrating knowledge gaps or heartening moments?

Having had the privilege to travel and be able to meet with Indigenous peoples elsewhere, I noticed that we’re all in a similar boat regardless of what territory we live in. Colonialism destroyed hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of languages, cultures, traditional teachings, and ways of living. We all have different names for these stolen moments, but essentially, we’ve all gone through many versions of a government attempting to silence and erase Indigenous peoples.

I think some of the most heartening moments have come from folks saying YES. The fact is (and I’m about to generalize) that many organizations who work in a Western colonial way don’t really understand what it means to make impactful relationships with the artists they work with–regardless of heritage or background–and don’t take the time to figure out how to do that. Working with organizations like JACK Quartet and Face The Music has created many “I’m not crying, you’re crying!” kind of moments for me that make me feel not only heard but valued.

Olivia Shortt--Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Olivia Shortt–Photo by Alejandro Santiago

You were also commissioned by Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music program this season. That work incorporates text and music as well as a consultation with a Lenape Elder (George Stonefish) to create a musical land acknowledgement. Would you tell us more about the consultation and what would be a desired response to this work once it is eventually premiered?

Indigenous people have been acknowledging the land, nation, or territory that they are working on, living on, or sharing for thousands of years; it’s not a new practice for us. I knew that even before my collaboration and commission with Face The Music had been confirmed that I would want and need an Elder from the territory of Manahatta (Dutch version of the Lenape name for Manhattan). Since I wasn’t from that territory, I wanted to ensure that I was being respectful as a visitor, so I ended up getting in touch with the American Indian Community House who directed me to George Stonefish, a Lenape Elder based in NYC. Working in predominantly white spaces can be very difficult to navigate and exhausting when there’s often a lot of emotional labour involved for the person navigating that space. George was a part of my first workshop session with JACK Quartet and gave us an overview of the history of the area we were on, his own history (including his ancestors) and was a kind face that felt familiar (even though we hadn’t met until that first session).

I hope that this piece will provoke a lot of questions in non-Indigenous people and get them wondering about how they can support the Indigenous peoples who are often the main land and water protectors (which let’s face it, we need to be thinking more about this in an age of a global climate crisis). I’m hoping that settlers today will consider how they can do better than their ancestors while not being afraid to fail in the process of reconciliation and learn from their errors. The United States exists on stolen land (with stolen people) and a population that often wants to ignore these horrors that include mass genocide and the dismantling of many nations and their rights. “Indigenous people are still here.” I often hear this said because the USA (similar to Canada) wants to stifle and erase the histories and peoples who were here first. It’s hard for many people to hear and digest this information, but once the conversation is started, I think a lot of good work can happen between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. I’m hoping this can be a provocation for everyone to start this conversation and consider donating to organizations who are doing valuable (and often volunteer) work for Indigenous communities.