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Conversations with Our Relations: Keitha Keeshig-Tobias

Aani! Dolly Berlin ndizhinikaas.

(Hello! My name is Dolly Berlin)

I am a burlesque showgirl and event-producer-on-pandemic-hiatus based in Tkaronto (Toronto).

A proud Indigiqueer/Bi+ mixed Ojibwe woman, I am very excited and honoured to collaborate with Never Apart to bring you this column highlighting Two-Spirit and Indigequeer folks making waves in the arts.

This month, I’m chatting with a politically charged artist mama who’s most recent project came across my path in real life. En route to an appointment, a striking image caught my eye; a Hudson Bay coat emblazoned with beadwork patches across the back in a store window. In a rush, I didn’t have time to stop and examine much further. Down the street a sign above another business read “Moccasin Side Trail Indigenous Art Crawl.” Intrigued, I snapped a quick photo to look up later. The crawl is listed in solidarity with small businesses, and spans the densest kilometer of Roncesvalles Avenue in shop windows.

A few days later I head back out to take it in. While some of the displays include delicate ink sketches of nouveau style figures, others, like the jacket, are provocative. The beading on the jacket actually depicts the smallpox virus. Another window displays a Hudson Bay blanket also adorned with beaded viruses. In a toy store window, an orange t-shirt (a symbol to promote awareness about the residential school system) is screen printed with an illustration of a child holding their shorn hair. A chocolate shop window displays a long red dress (the symbol of awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit People) carrying the names of Eisha Hudson, Regis Korchinski-Pacquet, Chantel Moore, Joyce Echaquan, and Sierra Chalifoux-Thompson, all lost in the past year. Pieces such as these are accompanied by educational information sheets, but there are also banners, art prints, beadwork, painted jackets and other items attributing the art to Keitha Keeshig-Tobias.

Her website states “I have an eclectic range of interests and experiences from which to draw inspiration; a love of creativity in all its forms.” I have to agree. I absolutely love the idea of presenting art in this way, some soft and some hard, along a stretch of sidewalk. It’s innovative and timely given Ontario is again in shutdown mode. Everyone loves a little window peruse in their outdoor time! Response from the neighbourhood has been supportive.

Keitha agrees to chat with me and tells me she doesn’t identify with labels but describes herself as a matriarch. Now more than ever, I believe in the power of matriarchs’ tough, loving energy to guide us into a better future.

Hey Keitha, Introduce Yourself!

My name is Keitha Keeshig-Tobias. Biizindam is the name given to me by my grandfather, it means she who listens and learns, and uses what she hears. I come from Chippewas of Nawash Unceded Neyaashiinigmiing, also known as Cape Croker. I grew up here in Toronto going to Central Tech taking art, and recently started doing my artwork again. I had stopped to go to University and raise children and started doing it again 3 or 4 years ago.

You wear many hats from pen and ink, to murals, beadwork, and garment art. So many skills! What medium did you begin with and where did it go from there?

My favourite is the pen and ink work. It takes a lot of focus and you have to have the proper energy level and concentration; it’s very easy to make a mistake and ruin the whole piece. You have to be peaceful. With some being already done, I’ve been translating them into beadwork or murals. I found some paints that mimic the blue inky quality of my work. So, I’ve used that as the base for other things and start building from there. I see a new medium and say “I want to try that”.

Your pen and ink illustration style you describe as “N8V Nouveau.” I really love the vintage contemporary feel and that you’ve branded your style. 

It’s artwork I’ve been doing basically since highschool, when I look at my old sketchbooks. Back then I couldn’t see how it fit together and became a style, but when I started up with the pen and ink a few years ago, everything just fit. My favourite artist is Mucha. He did so many different things; he collaborated with architects, and jewellers, clothing. I like that aspect, that it’s not one medium.

This past month you presented “Moccasin Side Trail Project” as an art crawl in store windows along the main drag of Roncesvalles Avenue. What was the inspiration?

It started last summer. I have a friend and partner I’ve been collaborating with; we were trying to put together an art show and then Covid hit. We also used to go to a lot of activism events, protests, and talks. It’s really difficult to go out and do that, with wanting to take care of other people and making sure you’re not spreading the virus. So we started making banners and putting them in store windows; one or two here and there. Stores where you see “Black Lives Matter”, or “I Support My Neighbours in Tents.” These businesses were the ones we started talking to first and asked them if they’d like to see some art work. We thought “we’ll just make it a big art show” and put it up and down the street. My artwork has big activism and human rights messages. So we started with stores that were along those lines, and once we had a few store owners who really support that and want to send the message to the community, other businesses came along.

It’s the whole community thing; what you can do with love from your neighbours. Everyone is suffering hard with mental health issues and trying to find some hope. I think it’s a good thing to go out and get some fresh air, new ideas, new conversations.

Moccasin Side Trail is going to be a permanent, constantly changing kind of thing with other stores or galleries or whatever else happens. I have my murals up to be permanent and added to all the time.

Do you have plans to bring the crawl to different neighborhoods?

We may later on find another neighbourhood. Right now we’ll probably wait until the fall to do that because my mural season is starting up. I’ll be concentrating on that, which is constantly outside and away from the internet and wifi.

This happened amidst the latest Ontario shutdown; were any displays affected?

There was one at the Likely General, who had 5 pieces in their gallery space in the back of the store.

Do you have a favourite piece from the crawl?

My favourite is the paintbrush carrier at My Olive.

(The piece depicts a woman holding a paintbrush against a bow, in lieu of an arrow.)

Some pieces were listed as part of the Truth and Healing Project. Can you tell us a bit about the project and what it entails?

It’s the project I set up with my friend Tanya. Again, we were thinking of starting an art show, and she’d seen my Hudson Bay blanket. We were walking around Kensington Market and saw a Bay jacket and said “ding ding”!

We now have a list of beaders that we call the “viral beaders” who participate in these projects, and they bead little smallpox or tuberculosis medallions to sew on the jackets. We also have a list of beaders who will do this for people. You can contact us to get beadwork done, and they will bead you a custom virus medallion to attach to your Hudson Bay paraphernalia to say, “I understand the truth and I have paid back and acknowledged what happened.”

If you don’t look at these awful things they are still going to be there, but you can look at this sad part of history, understand it, and make sure it never happens again. If you’re just going to hide it, it will happen again..it comes bubbling through the paint.

It’s amazing how the energies of the blankets and jackets change once the beadwork is introduced on them. They feel much different. Before they feel very prickly and itchy and once we’ve sewed on the medallions feel much better; warm and more fuzzy, less prickly.

Apparel in general is so interesting to see blended with art and messages. 

I was doing it in highschool! We used to paint the back of our jackets, alter our pants, add petroglyphs and feathers and beads to clothing, things like that. I started doing it then looked in my old sketchbooks and realized I was doing this a long time ago!

And your beading is beautiful; the pandemic seems to be giving beaders time to either work on it more or work on even for the first time.

I find it very mindful. It brings you directly to the present. Sometimes when I’m having trouble getting bad thoughts out of my head or changing a mood..ok, start beading. Concentrate on that. I started picking up beading again when I did the blanket.

What’s been your experience connecting to your art and community through the pandemic?

Art is the only thing that’s taking care of me right now. It’s like my therapy, and I’ve been super creative. I don’t like being online too much, I’m not that kind of person. Mostly what I’ve been doing to keep myself up is playing Beat Saber. It’s a VR video game where blocks fly at you, and you hit them with lightsabers in time to music. A little exercise is always good. It’s a lot of fun, as close as I can get to going out dancing in a club again.

What’s next for you? 

I’ve got a mural project coming up that I have to start painting soon, then around the end of July I’m starting to paint the Coxwell Underpass. My partner on that will be Chippewar.

In setting up this chat, you mentioned you don’t identify with labels but describe yourself as a matriarch who is creating a world where her children are safe to be anything they want to be. What does being this type of figure in the modern world mean to you? 

There’s so many of us women who are running our businesses and taking care of our children. It’s a different kind of woman or feminine energy than the rest of the world is used to, but it’s something that has always been there and actually, needs to be talked about more. It’s not what most people would think as feminine, but is a very strong, motherly instinct. Yes we’re going to love, and kiss you, and hug you, and raise you. But, we’re also the momma bear who is going to attack anybody who comes after their kids. Somebody who’s strong. It’s also very Indigenous energy. There are many Indigenous nations who have established matriarchy already; they are the ones in charge. A lot of Nations have forgotten this kind of role in their societies as they go along with colonialism, Indian Affairs, Chief and Council. It’s a word that tells a lot of things about me. And I shouldn’t have to be gay to care for gay rights; you should be able to live and be free to be, not have to be scared or worried that someone wants to harm you just for who you are.

Respect to matriarchs! You can see many of the pieces from the crawl, murals, and more on Keitha’s instagram and website.  Also visit The Truth and Healing Project account. 

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