Joyous resistance through costume and dance at Carnival

Written by Henry Navarro Delgado, Ryerson University. Photo credit THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov. Originally published in The Conversation.

Underneath the façade of the Caribbean carnival, historical, cultural and political undercurrents run deep. A parade participant performs during the Grand Parade at last year’s Toronto’s Carnival.

We partied morning to morning, and a joyous spirit permeated everything; speech, customs and appearances. The centrepiece of it all were wheeled fantasy islands (floats) inhabited by amazingly glamorous yet exquisitely vulgar costumed creatures played by Carnival masqueraders. The best part of the whole affair? People from the community created everything.

With Toronto’s famous Caribbean Carnival around the corner, these memories from my adolescence in the Caribbean return.

Acquaintances from my grandmother’s neighbourhood, La Risueña in the city of Santiago de Cuba, spent a whole year working on their carnival wares. They practised their moves in secret. Their goal was to outdo other townsfolk’s floats, costumes, music and choreography.

Growing up in Cuba, people of all ages and walks of life waited for summer’s arrival. Not because of the heat and humidity (we unanimously loathed that), but because of carnival season.

The carnival served as a collective social valve. This was a time of the year when all conventions and codes of behaviour were thrown out the window. A carefree and tolerant spirit reigned, albeit for a short window of time.

Carnival in Toronto is an opportunity to publically honour diverse ideals of beauty. Parade participants perform during last year’s Grand Parade. Photo credit THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov.

For Toronto’s heterogeneous population, the Caribbean Carnival is an opportunity to partake in a communal celebration of diversity and to publicly honour non-mainstream ideals of beauty.

Most people are familiar with how Caribbean-style carnivals look. They recall a sea of extravagantly costumed bodies swaying to the same beat. But there is something very special to the West Indies’ brand of bacchanal. Underneath the façade of the Caribbean carnival, historical, cultural and political undercurrents run deep.

Colonial authorities mocked

Caribbean carnivals share roots with European traditions, but African and Indigenous influences fundamentally shaped and flavoured their culture. That culture has marinated for more than 500 years in colonial syncretism — a fusion of cultures, symbols and religions. Since the majority of the Caribbean population was of African and Indigenous descent, the region’s carnivals evolved into celebrations of anything contrary to dominant European culture.

They started off as Christian religious processions and end-of-harvest festivities. Over time, the saintly and agrarian elements fell by the wayside.

Revellers decorate costumes with colours symbolizing African and Indigenous deities in Havana, Cuba in 2012. Photo credit Shutterstock.

In western Cuba, carnival metamorphosed from the “Dia de Reyes (Kings’ Days)” celebration. At this week-long event, societies of colour (called Cabildos) had their processions and paraded their kings and queens. In eastern Cuba, carnivals coincided with the end of the tobacco and sugar cane harvests.

At these celebrations, slaves and free people of colour wore hand-me-down or borrowed clothes from the masters. Others donned attire fashioned to look European. They mischievously decorated costumes with colours symbolizing African and Indigenous deities.

Revellers also adopted exaggerated affectations and customs from colonial society. Eventually, more and more openly Afro-Caribbean, Indigenous and syncretic symbols and conventions populated the carnivals. These included demonic characters, degrees of nudity and widespread adoption of percussion instruments.

Colonial powers may have introduced the carnival, but it morphed into public events where a mix of African and Indigenous cultures were celebrated. All was conducive to African and Indigenous-influenced forms of collective dancing and the mockery of colonial authorities.

Celebration and transgression

Even in their original incarnations as religious and agrarian celebrations, the Caribbean’s carnivals were a community affair. Representatives of the different strata of society coordinated the festivities. It was only natural that a competitive spirit promptly developed.

Carnival is a community-building activity. A carnival parade in Old Havana, Cuba. Photo credit Alan Kotok.

Battling among classes and neighbourhoods isn’t just part of the Caribbean carnival. Competition is central to Caribbean carnival’s traditions. This is visible in the rivalry among Brazil’s Samba Schools and the distinction between the upper class “Pretty Mass” and traditional festivities such as “J’Ouvert” in Trinidad’s carnival.

Spending summers with Afro-Cuban relatives in Santiago de Cuba, I witnessed friends and family preparing for carnival. While female participants worked hard for a top spot in the floats, males wanted to be caperos (cape bearers). Capes are flag-like, embellished with symbols and the colours of the neighbourhood.

Utmost secrecy is important when preparing for carnival. Carnival of Santiago de Cuba. Photo credit Christian Pirkl, CC BY-NC-SA.

Later, at the Universidad de las Artes (then the Superior Institute of Arts) in Havana where I went to school, two of my classmates belonged to opposing carnival troupes. Hailing from Remedios, a town in central Cuba, they collaborated in school projects and art exhibits, but never discussed their neighbourhoods’ plans for Las Parrandas de Remedios. Utmost secrecy surrounded their carnival teams.

Carnival in the Caribbean is raw community at its best. Racial and class distinctions are erased; individuals toil, create and sweat side-by-side — unless they belong to competing carnival troupes. This is a sanctioned space for celebration and transgression.

Bodies of disruption

At carnival anywhere in the Caribbean, part of the focus is on the human body. Carnival bodies come in many shapes, sizes, complexions, genders and states of dress. This makes carnival into a primarily embodied experience.

The body was the only agency left to African, Indigenous and people of colour in a colonized context. Bodies are also central to artistic expressions in African and Indigenous cultures where fine arts, dress and performance are on equal levels.

The body in motion is the ultimate form of social, aesthetic and spiritual expression. Such centrality of the body was fostered by colonization and the plantation model of production. Embodied cultural expressions then found their perfect outlet in the carnival.

The carnival body is a collective expression. A reveller on J’ouvert Morning in Trinidad. Photo credit Eduardo Skinner, CC BY-NC.

During carnival, people of colour have a spatial-temporal opportunity within colonial society to publicly inhabit their cultural bodies. Tangentially or directly, the carnival body — adorned with colourful costumes, headdresses, feathers, body paint and different states of nudity — is a reflection of the cultural subconscious of people of colour in the Caribbean.

Carnival costumes contrast Judeo-Christian and European norms, ideals of beauty and modesty and instead celebrate African and Indigenous cultures.

Caribbean carnival’s style of dress became full-frontal outrageous during the 1970s when body-centric approaches reached an all-time high. Multiculturalism and global Afro-centric tendencies greatly shaped the carnival dress during this decade.

The cultural significance of carnival bodies has far-reaching implications well beyond the visual immediacy of the celebrations. As collective entities, carnival bodies constitute political commentary. A parade of decorated bodies performing in unison has a real persuasive power.

Carnival politics

With slavery finally abolished in the late 19th century, carnival’s space for cultural expression and disruption widened. By the 1920s, Caribbean carnivals also became an instrument for social and political campaigning. Under the guise of mindless revelry, coded political messages were disseminated as songs and slogans.

A 1925 photo of Sexteto Habanero in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit CC BY-NC-SA.

Caribbean carnivals continue to serve as megaphones for political and social platforms. An extreme case was Fidel Castro, who used the carnival to attack a Cuban army garrison in 1953. Although unsuccessful, the attempt sparked the Cuban revolution.

Currently, carnivals in Brazil serve as platforms for political debates, including the fate of Indigenous populations. Meanwhile, controversies around carnival funding have exposed racial, social and economic divisions in the Bahamas and Jamaica.

The Toronto Carnival nexus

At Toronto’s Carnival, we can see some of this rich social, political and cultural past. Costumed performers and revellers represent a continuum of Caribbean traditions that originated during colonial times. Yet, Toronto’s Carnival projects them towards the future.

Amalgamating Pan-Caribbean traditions in a cosmopolitan metropolis, Carnival is a public cultural space for Toronto’s racialized residents. There, participation and creation continues to function as community building.

Santiago’s Carnival allowed my teenage self to tune into my Afro-Caribbean heritage. Toronto’s Carnival legitimizes the city’s embrace of its own mix of cultural identities.

The future of local news is one bound with our own

Written by Jaigris Hodson, Royal Roads University, and Asmaa Malik, Ryerson University. Photo credit Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

The future of local news is sobering but not without some measure of hope. By illuminating both the values and challenges besetting local journalism, we can reimagine a new day for local news.

In 2016, the world witnessed a dramatic political shift as Brexit in the United Kingdom, followed by the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, revealed fissures in the modern democratic process.

The emergence of social and digital media as a way to produce, consume and share news was a significant contributing factor to both these events.

Platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter have helped facilitate the spread of “fake news,” which may have unduly influenced the democratic process.

These global events serve as a case study, or perhaps even a warning, about the central role a healthy news ecosystem plays in a functioning democracy. The state of news is under pressure from multiple forces that include digital disruption, the decline of advertising dollars, increased media concentration and an increasingly fragmented audience.

Nowhere are these pressures more keenly felt than in local and community news.

Research into local news shows that it plays a vital role in the health of communities and in a healthy public sphere, especially when it comes to charitable giving, increased turnout in local elections, sharing community stories to enhance social cohesion and strengthening local civic culture.

Despite its benefits to communities, however, the availability of local news is inconsistent, if not scarce, across North America.

In the U.S., for example, lower-income communities tend to have less access to local news than their higher-income counterparts. Similarly, in Canada, research has shown that news about key election races is available unevenly across the country.

Civic reporting doesn’t go viral

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are often seen as effective ways to gather and distribute news as well as to reach new audiences. While social media technology can help shed light on some of the pressing issues of local news, and can also provide low-cost, high-impact ways for local news outlets to share information, it may be unwise to put too much faith in them.

In fact, research shows that only certain types of information spread online. Civic reporting, like coverage of town council meetings or budget briefings, are often drowned out by global and national headlines, as well as emotionally-charged and celebrity-driven news. While these preferences reflect previous analog habits to some extent, audiences’ increasing reliance on algorithms and recommendations has led to a deluge of such content, effectively drowning out the weaker signals from local news.

So, we ask, what is the way forward?

We put together a multi-media publication on local news to explore the changing role of local news in our current media environment and beyond.

Bringing together work from a variety of journalism scholars and practitioners at universities in Canada and beyond, we learned that the future of local news can be understood first by looking at the value of local news, then by considering the challenges facing local news today, then finally in understanding the role of technology in the current and future state of local news.

Local news values

The tremendous value of local news can be seen in work by Ryerson University journalism professor Joyce Smith. Looking at the ties between local news and charitable giving, Smith’s work shows how local news can build community cohesion through the act of community giving.

Similarly, work by journalism instructors Tyler Nagel from SAIT Polytechnic Institute and Alycia Mutual from the University of Northern British Columbia about the coverage of the first cruise ship to go through the Northwest Passage demonstrates the role of local news via a case study in northern Canada. Their research showed that Northern communities are lacking local and public media sources and often rely on southern media to cover stories in their communities.

In this August 2016 photo, a man stands on the shore of the Bering Sea to watch the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity anchored just outside Nome, Alaska. Photo credit AP Photo/Mark Thiessen.

Finally, Carrie Buchanan’s work out of John Carroll University shows that independent, non-profit publications tend to publish the largest number of locally relevant stories in their communities, underscoring the need for alternate non-commercial funding models for local journalism.

Local news challenges

Despite its value, local news faces some tremendous challenges. For example, investigating the changing and complex nature of the local news audience, Lenka Waschková Císařová and her team from Masaryk University debunk the myth that local news audiences are declining due to lack of interest. Through their study of Czech local news audiences, they discovered that while few Czech adults consume local news, it may be partly related to the availability of local news across platforms.

Local news availability is truly under threat around the world. Marc Edge from University Canada West suggests that Canadian regulators have not done enough to curb anti-competitive behaviour by Canadian newspaper chains and that readers who now have fewer news sources to choose from are paying the price.

Phillip Napoli’s team at Rutgers University notes significant differences in local news availability in different regions of the United States. The Rutgers analysis suggests that while some communities may be able to continue under current models of financing, advertising and audience availability, others will need to find creative ways to remain viable.

Local news and technology

Technology may be an additional contributing factor to the decline of local news availability. However, it also offers some innovative solutions.


The first author of this piece, Jaigris Hodson, did research at Royal Roads University to examine whether the popular social media platform Twitter can pick up the slack in election coverage when a local newspaper is shut down. She found that topics that trend on Twitter tend to be national rather than local or hyper-local in scope. This research adds to a growing number of studies of social media that suggest it cannot by itself make up for declining traditional sources of local news.

Twitter isn’t much of a replacement for actual local news coverage, according to research. Photo credit AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File.

Despite this, there is promise in the use of technology to understand the state of local news. Claus Rinner’s team at Ryerson University combined geographic information systems and news content analysis in a new method for understanding patterns of local news coverage.

April Lindgren from Ryerson University and Jon Corbett from UBC showed how participatory mapping can be used to track changes to local news outlets. Finally, work by the second author of this piece, Asmaa Malik, along with Gavin Adamson at Ryerson University, shows the potential for what’s known as natural language processing to help local news audiences and journalists assess news quality. This type of technological initiative is much needed in an era of fake news.

A future bound with our own

Taken all together, the research shows that the future of local news is sobering but not without some measure of hope. By illuminating both the values and challenges besetting local journalism, we can re-imagine a future for local news where some of these challenges may be addressed more clearly.

Perhaps new business models, such as entrepreneurship, can offer one way to help fill a gap that has been left by the old-media monopoly model.

At Ryerson University, for example, journalism-related startups are developing innovative tools and services to serve their communities with news via the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

Local news will not survive if it tries to simply put old wine into new bottles. Instead, local news producers must create news that resonates with their communities. The crowd-sourcing technologies developed by Lindgren and Corbett and the mapping tool created by Rinner’s team may lead to more precise, targeted efforts to address the needs of diverse local news audiences.

At the very least, they encourage us to think outside the box and remember that the audience needs to be attended to before they are ready to pay attention.

Finally, we must remember that local news can be more meaningful to communities when those who deliver it are part of the fabric of that community.

Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna is surrounded by media during the Council of Federation meetings in Edmonton in July 2017. It’s important that local reporters cover local events, not reporters from afar. Photo credit THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Smith’s work on charitable giving showed this, as did Buchanan’s work on independent hyper-local media. A local news organization run by a faceless national corporation will perhaps not be able to garner the support of a community the way a local news outlet can. For this reason, we are encouraged to reflect on the right scale for local news. Small may very well be the new big when it comes to ensuring the sustainability of local and community news over time.

Local news availability impacts each of us in all of our communities. The future of local news is tightly bound with our own as we continue to face the political and economic uncertainties of our times.

Hip hop paves the way forward

Written by Mark V. Campbell, Ryerson University. Image credit Patrick Nichols. Originally published in The Conversation.

‘…Everything Remains Raw,’ a show at the McMichael gallery blends traditional art spaces with fresh ideas from hip hop culture.

Canada’s cultural institutions need hip hop communities now more than ever. I say this after working as a guest curator at one of Canada’s most significant art galleries — the McMichael Canadian Art Collection — for its first-ever show on hip hop, “…Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Toronto Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital.”

The exhibition, on display until Oct. 21, features Canadian photographers, graffiti writers, painters and video artists whose aesthetic renderings of life within Toronto’s hip hop culture in the 1990s and early 2000s are directly related to this country’s global billboard dominance today.

Hip hop culture, dismissed as fad when it first emerged out of New York City in the 1970s, has grown into a cultural phenomenon with global purchase power which translates differently in countries around the world, from France to Mongolia to Brazil.

Through mainstream media, we have been exposed to many nefarious images of Black criminality as well as images of conspicuous consumption.

The social critique and protest roots of this globalized and youth-driven art form, hip hop, provide some responses to these images and ideas.

The exhibition, ‘…Everything Remains Raw’ continues until Oct. 21, 2018 at the McMichael Gallery in Ontario. Courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’. Photo credit Author provided (No reuse).


One needs only to look at the trajectories of the Pulitzer Prize (awarded to Kendrick Lamar this year) or at France’s world-renowned Louvre (which accommodated the filming of The Carters’ music video) to notice that hip hop culture is doing more than entertaining the masses.

The dozen artistic classics Beyoncé and Jay-Z include in their lavish video for “Apes%$t”, range from the Mona Lisa to the Raft of Medusa. Their images are not just an art history lesson, but also, arguably, a rewriting of the aesthetic codes that denigrate Blackness while upholding whiteness as a beauty standard.

A necessary shift in cultural institutions

Hip hop is not just about rap music. This subculture also includes graffiti art, bboying/bgirling (aka breakdancing) and DJing. Hip hop is a multidisciplinary and multi-sensory art form.

Hip hop culture illuminates a way forward within Canadian cultural institutions’ growth, evolution and vibrancy. It may seem that the spontaneity and improvisation of hip hop — cornerstones of the culture’s innovative core threaded seamlessly throughout dance, djing, rhyming and painting — are structurally and policy-wise an impossibility within cultural institutions.

Yet, thinking about how to take hip hop culture seriously for public-serving organizations like schools, libraries and arts institutions, is a significant and necessary shift in values and operational practices within some of our aging institutions.

The exhibit is an example of how an important cultural institution can work with and for hip hop culture in a way that honours the culture’s innovative, multilayered and postmodern nature. Together, with the team at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, we developed an intercultural competency.

This kind of remixed engagement with the works of the Groups of Seven and the thousands of other canonical visual art pieces is only possible with a generosity on the institution’s part to learn experientially about the new audiences they want to cultivate.

Our goal was to curate a group exhibition of a dozen artists from Black, white, Indigenous, Asian and mixed backgrounds in 2018 while staying true to the mission Robert McMichael imagined when he built his gallery in 1955.

Curating is like DJing

In order to accomplish the daunting task of curating a public art exhibition focused on the multiplicity Toronto hip hop, I relied on the skills and values I learned as a DJ.

For 18 years, I hosted and sometimes DJ’d with my team members Kareem, Martin and DJ Spontaneous. We used our research and taste-making skills to find, create and present original songs and remixes. We relied on interactions with callers, guests and the music itself. Spontaneity and improvisation were central to the process.

An image from the show, ‘…Everything Remains Raw’ by EGR aka Erica Balon, Boom Box Love, 2018. Aerosol enamel and acrylic paint on wood panel (96 x 144 inches). Photo courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection .

Many of these collaborative techniques became critical to the success of “…Everything Remains Raw.” We put diversity at the core and worked with the artists to help create an inclusive exhibition.

Diversity at the core

Through an improvisatory outdoor video works by Mark Valino (in collaboration with various dancers), I encouraged an appreciation of the work of Tom Thomson.

‘Everything Remains Raw…’gallery exhibition. Photo courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

David Strickland’s Owl Series was opened up by Norval Morrisseau’s brightly coloured Thunderbird with Inner Spirit allowed for a glimpse into the usage of Cree, Haida and various other Indigenous symbols.

Sheinina Raj’s Ghost of Ghetto Concept (1998) and Elicser’s TDot Roof Tops (2018) both fostered a different appreciation of landscape and environment, one that speaks with and to works by A.Y. Jackson and Emily Carr, among others.

David Strickland’s ‘Spirit Of Hip Hop,’ 2016. This piece shows the elements of Hip Hop embedded within a traditional Medicine Wheel. 30 x 40 inches Acrylic on Canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Hip hop as curriculum

Learning is key here as the gallery hosts hundred of schools each year, where elementary and high school students learn about Canadian culture through the paint brushes of people like Alex Janvier and Lawren Harris.

I learned more about Indigenous life in Canada from Indigenous artists like the painter and sound engineer David Strickland, Saskatoon’s Eekwol and the recently MTV Video awardee Dreezus, than the inadequate curriculum I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s.

Their beats and rhymes are infectious and lure me to look through another window, to see a Turtle Island view of Canadian society, a world few non-Indigenous, settler Canadians know well.

My intercultural competency grows as I experience and enjoy their music, interviews and art.

The presence of these hip hop heads, next to the important works of art-world luminaries like Christi Belcourt, Leanne Simpson and Kent Monkman, are poised to make Canadians more informed and better stewards of the land.

‘Everything Remains Raw…’gallery exhibition. Photo courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Hip hop’s critical attention

It’s easy to consume hip hop as nothing more than entertainment. However, I believe we should strive to engage hip hop as a living and evolving culture that rhymes across national borders and flattens walls to create bridges of intercultural learning.

The harder work is to engage hip hop as a cultural ethos that refuses to solely entertain, extending a long tradition of Black art forms that predate the market and do double duty now as commodities and social critique.

Hip hop in Canada creates the possibility for more and better representations of all of our lives. For example, check out Montréal’s Yassin ‘Narcy’ Alsalman (formerly the Narcicyst whose music, which makes a guest appearance on Ottawa’s a Tribe Called Red’s track, “R.E.D.” illuminates a world of intercultural artistic adventures via Muslim, Indigenous and African American perspectives in hip hop.

Critical attention to, and appreciation of, hip hop artists’ work in Canada is not a magical solution for aging cultural institutions. Policies, budgets, timelines and all the fun stuff of cultural work complicate the work. But this is the work.

The work ahead to ensure cultural institutions reflect our contemporary society will take collaborative yet inclusive muscle, improvisatory poetics and intercultural competency.

From award committees to guest curatorial ingenuity, our cultural landscape can only benefit from spending time with the various innovations that has given hip hop culture its staying power and its consistently replenishing relevance in fashion, music, language and more.

Globally, hip hop culture can have an impact across a variety of geographic, political, linguistic and cultural borders.

If we envision hip hop culture as something other than the dynamic globalized intercultural force it has proven to be, we will miss an opportunity to develop new tools to negotiate our entangled, overlapping and intersecting cultural futures here in Canada.

Northside Hip Hop playlist:

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto is healing and resurgence in action

Written by Riley Kucheran, Ryerson University. Photo credit Red Works Photography. Originally published in The Conversation.

Designs by Jeneen Frei Njootli on the runway at the Frost Moon Showcase at Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto last weekend.

Last week, Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and beyond gathered on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee in Tkaronto for the inaugural Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO).

After decades of smaller endeavours (Chi-Miigwetch to the Elders, forerunners and friends who laid the groundwork), a fully realized IFWTO has come to fruition. Founder and artistic director Sage Paul, along with developmental director Kerry Swanson and producer Heather Haynes, launched a beautiful new festival that centres on community and land.

It was not your typical fashion week.

Signs that Indigenous people do fashion differently appeared early at a preview hosted by the Royal Ontario Museum. Fresh off its installation at a nearby Toronto intersection, Jay Soule (aka Chippewar) hung a sign between two silenced mannequins that asked, “Hey Canada shouldn’t ‘reconciliation’ mean the return of stolen land and honouring the treaties?”

‘I found some electrical tape in a ball on the floor I decided to put an X across their mouth’s to signify Indians in this country being seen and not heard. The way tourism Canada uses Indigenous people as the token marketing tool to the international community. Photo credit (@chippewar)’ Chippewar/Instagram.

A few days later at a reception hosted by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the thunderous songs and spoken words of Rosary Spence and Tantoo Cardinal reverberated through the halls of Queen’s Park. The scene recalled the disruptive power of a painting by Kent Monkman, who came to talk about his recent collaboration with Jean-Paul Gaultier, a noted cultural appropriator.

Daddies (2016) from Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. Photo credit Kent Monkman.

Four days of runways

Four days of runway shows were organized around moon phases — New Moon, Berry Moon, Harvest Moon and Frost Moon — which honoured emerging talent, regalia makers, matriarchs and northern designers respectively.

As an Ojibway PhD student studying the role of clothing in colonization, and Indigenous fashion as a mobilizer of cultural and economic resurgence, I was honoured to moderate IWFTO panels and to witness the workshops and runway shows.

Warren Steven Scott look during New Moon. Photo credit Red Works Photography.

All designers put their heart and spirit into their clothing and honoured the past while looking to the future. My personal favourites included: Warren Steven Scott (Nlaka’pamux, Toronto) of Comrags, whose collection is deeply rooted in family and community and pays homage to the clothing of his aunties (who helped with the crochet); and Tania Larsson (Gwich’in/Swedish, Northwest Territories) a founding member of Dene Nahjo, a non-profit organization that focuses on cultural revitalization projects in the North, like urban hide tanning workshops in Yellowknife.

Larsson’s “Protect the Caribou” piece spoke to the interconnectedness of our relations: Without caribou, there is no Indigenous fashion, or food sovereignty or existence itself.

Tania Larsson’s ‘Protect the Caribou’ look from the Frost Moon showcase. Photo credit Red Works Photography.

Interconnectedness was also a lesson shared in workshops on black walnut dyeing with Carola Jones, and ravenstail weaving from the east led by Meghann O’Brien and Navajo rug weaving from the west led by Barbara Teller Ornelas and her sister Lynda Teller Pete.

Holistic connections

In a panel, Jones and Ornelas discussed the significance of culture, story and process in their practice. We found that common among our Nations is an innovate frugality that comes from a deep respect towards land. Knowledge about plants, growing seasons and sustainable agriculture is at the heart of what makes Indigenous clothing so healing.

Barbara Teller Ornelas and Carola Jones discuss Navajo weaving and black walnut dyeing. Photo credit Red Works Photography.

This is the brilliance of Indigenous design: It is inherently and holistically sustainable, and intimately connected to a web of human and non-human relations. It is also the significant depth lost when cultural (in)appropriation occurs, the topic of a fiery panel with Jesse Wente, Ariel Smith (Native Women in the Arts) and fashion lawyer Anjli Patel.

Teachings about ethics, roles, responsibilities and values are embedded in Indigenous design processes and lost when appropriated. And unless we fix the radically inequitable power imbalance this will not change.

This panel touched on issues such as institutionalized and normalized cultural theft, the lack of legal protection for Indigenous cultural knowledge, and the role of online social media activism in challenging the fashion industry.

Cultural appropriation is not an issue of intellectual freedom or free speech but of colonization itself, the panel concluded. They then discussed Indigenous sovereignty, solidarity with Black Canadians and revolution.

Indigenous futurisms

Indigenous futurisms and the imaginative power of science fiction was the topic of the last panel with Elwood Jimmy, Jeneen Frei Njootli and Skawennati.

We mused on questions posed by Jarrett Martineau on the electronic episode of CBC’s Reclaimed: “How do you imagine the future? What do you want it to look like? And how do you get there?”

Cultural (In)Appropriation Panel. Photo credit Red Works Photography.

We discussed what Indigenous design can contribute to a sustainable future that seems increasingly unlikely, what our clothing might look like in the future and how technologies of communication, extraction, and manufacture might be harnessed by Indigenous peoples.

A chance to move forward

As our gathering concluded, the resounding sentiment was that IFWTO felt like imagineNATIVE in its early years. The film and media arts festival, now in its 19th year, is nationally and internationally recognized. This provides much hope for the future of Indigenous fashion in Tkaronto, Turtle Island and beyond.

That the team pulled off such a comprehensive event in a short amount of time is impressive. Even more incredible is that they carved out space for gathering and celebrating our culture, which, as Jesse Wente pointed out, was illegal for nearly 75 years under the Indian Act.

It is so rare that we gather like this. Early settler-Canadian colonizers saw the power in our numbers. When we gather we strategize, mobilize and revolutionize — not to mention socialize! We need to do it more often.

The four days of IFWTO left me exhausted but spiritually nourished. It is a shining star in a beautiful constellation that guides us forward.

Fashion’s potential to influence politics and culture

Written by Henry Navarro Delgado, Ryerson University. Photo credit Twitter/@Mossimo. Originally published in The Conversation.

Political dressing is all the rage right now, but is it a fashion? A professor of fashion explains.

Political dressing is fashionable right now, but is it fashion?

Celebrities and stars turned up dressed in black at the 75th Golden Globes Award ceremony. Instantly the media was in frenzy over what they dubbed “political fashion statements on the red carpet.” This is just the most recent droplet of a rainy season of purportedly political fashion.

It all started with the pantsuit parties in solidarity with U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. It then progressed with white supremacists uniformed in polos and khaki during their infamous Charlottesville demonstrations last year.

As the effects of Brexit, a Donald Trump White House and the rise of so-called alt-right activism in Europe and North America ripple through the cultural waters, political dressing is trending. Protesters of all stripes — feminists, white supremacists, antifa, nationalists and social justice advocates — are outfitting themselves to match their political mindsets.

This type of political dressing is not the dress code of politicians. This is individuals and groups using everyday dress to express their political outlook. The problem is that often participants and commentators, reporters and scholars, quickly rush to label it fashion. But is political dressing fashion?

What is fashion?

The political dimension of clothing is intuitively understood from the moment individuals are born. Because essentially, human society equals dressed society. What one wears, how one wears it and when one wears it constitutes expressions of degrees of social freedoms and influences.

Dress expression ranges the full political gamut from conformity to rebellion. Simply put, dress style that challenges — or is perceived as challenging, or offering an alternative to the status quo — spontaneously acquires political meaning.

Hence the social power of dress and the political impact of seeing many people dressed in an agreed-upon mode. During the counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, antifa protesters opposing white supremacists wore “black bloc” — an all-black uniform of sorts, meant to show a unified hard stance against anti-Black racist discourse.

Simultaneously, “black bloc” dress indicated a willingness to resort to violence if necessary, much like the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s. The Panthers took advantage of a loophole in the second amendment of the U.S. constitution that made it lawful to wear unconcealed firearms in public.

Members of the Black Panther Party argue with a California state policeman at the Capitol in Sacramento after he disarmed them in May 1967. The armed Panthers entered the Capitol protesting a bill before the state legislature would restrict carrying firearms in public. Men in berets at centre are Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver, left in sunglasses, and Bobby Seale. The policeman holds a weapon taken from the Panthers. Photo credit AP Photo/CPArchivePhoto.

Political dressing is a concerted effort by a group of individuals to call attention to a social issue. They do so by dressing in a codified style. The recipe of political dressing has all the ingredients of fashion, but not in the right proportions.

Fashion — as it is defined — occurs when a society at large agrees to a style, aesthetic or cultural sensibility for a period of time. Fashion’s sizeable social scope and requisite expiration date is what makes it so useful as a marker of time.

One sees it used in film, literature or social science research. Thus, fashion means timed changes in taste at a social scale. Fashion occurs in any realm of human pursuits including arts, music, technology, even scholarly discourse and of course, dress.

The source of confusion

We could blame the political dressing vs. fashion confusion on the ubiquitous and pervasive public presence of the contemporary fashion industry. From the 18th century onwards, a large sector of industry has been occupied with manufacturing what dresses us: This includes garments, accessories, beauty services and products. This industry, along with advertisers, coalesced into an all-encompassing fashion industry.

It’s not surprising then, that in today’s globalized world, most people automatically identify clothes with fashion. After all, they are one of the most visible outputs of the fashion industry. Of course, the fashion industry would do nothing to clarify this; it is in their best interest to be perceived as the source of fashion.

That same fashion industry employs a global army of trend forecasters to fine-comb historical records and a multiplicity of current cultural sources and happenings. They use this data to identify what colours, styles and products people would want next season.

More concerning, though, is that fashion scholars are contributing to the public confusion about political dress as fashion. They are interchangeably using the terms dress, style and fashion without regards for their fundamental semantic difference. There is a cultural explanation for this too. Fashion is an emerging scholarly discipline, which makes it very fashionable right now. Slap the word fashion to the title of an academic article or book and readership is likely to follow.

Is political dressing is fashion trend? The #tiedtogether movement used white bandanas to indicate the ‘common bonds of humanity.’ Photo courtesy of The Business of Fashion

The trend of political dressing

Could it be that like fashion studies, political dressing is a fashion trend? Based on the number of collections that included political statements during the 2017 fashion weeks, the answer would be a rotund yes. Several collections during the last season of fashion weeks employed political statements.

Political runway antics included pink pussy hats at Missoni. There were white bandanas as a symbol of inclusion in Tommy Hilfiger, Thakoon, Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, Dior and Diane von Furstenberg.

Meanwhile, black berets à la guerrilla or Black Panther uniforms were shown at Dior. As well, all sorts of slogans printed or embroidered in a diversity of garments popped up at Ashish Gupta, Public School and Christian Siriano, punctuated by graphic underwear in LRS’s collection.

This, however, isn’t necessarily good news. The fashion industry has a solid record of co-opting political and countercultural movements, marginalized groups and non-Western cultures, then making a good profit out of it.

There would be nothing wrong with making money this way, except that the aftermath of co-option by the fashion industry is cultural irrelevance. Just like other goods, fashion must be consumed before its expiration date.

The good news is that political dressing may be fashionable, but it isn’t fashion. Not even the global fashion industry can prevent individuals from using their dressed bodies as a tool for political discourse.

So go ahead, pick your preferred political graphic T-shirt or wear the colours of your party of choice. Just remember that isn’t fashion, unless most everybody else decides to dress the same for a while. In which case, your options are: Embrace your fashionable status or change either your outfit or political affiliation.