Meet Dayna Danger: McGill’s Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence

Dayna Danger

Talking with Dayna Danger, McGill’s Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence for 2022, is nothing if not a rollicking, fascinating adventure. Veering this way and that, a scheduled 20-minute Zoom interview turns into an hour-long discussion of history, philosophy, laughter and thought-provoking ideas. “Hey, this is also how I know I’m Indigenous, because I can’t tell a straight story ever,” Danger said with a chuckle. “It’s always in a circle.”

Founded in 2019, the Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence program is one of the initiatives funded by the five-year US$1.25-million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in to support McGill’s Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative (ISCEI). The program brings practicing artists to campus to continue their work, share their expertise, interact with students and faculty members, and enhance knowledge of and exposure to Indigenous art among the campus community and the public at large. 

Danger is a visual artist. Through utilizing the processes of photography, sculpture, performance and video, Danger creates works and environments that question the line between empowerment and objectification by claiming the space.

“Dayna Danger’s work challenges long-held stereotypes of Indigenous art. Through mediums like photography, performance, and beadwork their art practice creates space for community, conversation, and representation,” said Gwendolyn Owens, Director, Visual Arts Collection at McGill. “The Indigenous Artist in Residence program is a terrific opportunity for students to interact with artists like Dayna Danger who are important, not just because of their identity, but also because they are original and creative thinkers.”

Dayna Danger will deliver their first Artist’s Talk as Mellon Artist in Residence on February 21, at 2 p.m. The presentation will take place on Zoom. Registration is required.

The Reporter spoke with Danger recently at the very start of their residency.

You are the second ISCEI Artist in Residence. How important is it for McGill – and other institutions like McGill – to have initiatives like this?

It’s a great initiative. I’ve been in think tanks on different Indigenous committees that have been pushing for something like this for a long time.

When you enter into new spaces, if there haven’t been [Indigenous] people there before us, it’s a huge learning curve, both for us interacting with the institution and for the institution interacting with us.

Our wants and needs are not always the same as what you would find in standard western institutions.

In what ways?

I don’t want to pan-Indigenize, but there are a lot of differences in the way we like to work and the way we like to communicate. We know what is most effective for us and our communities, how we want to put our art out there, and what relationship-building looks like.

Sometimes Indigenous artists can be skeptical about who they work with because if we don’t know you, we don’t know what that relationship – what that reciprocity – will look like, and what people’s expectations are for us.

The fact that McGill has so many Indigenous staff on board who are leading this is great.

Tell us about your family.

My father is Polish and Roman Catholic and my mom is Métis-Saulteaux. There’s also some Scottish and French there.

My great grandmother, whose about to turn 100, speaks three different languages.

She’s was born on the land, not in a hospital, born by Métis midwives in Camperville. She was telling me the story about how much she hates stoves. When she first moved to the city, she just wanted a fire to make tea, and she couldn’t figure out the damn electric stove. She just didn’t like it and found it so cumbersome. It was so much easier to make a fire at the fish camp or wherever she was working. I think about that a lot.

I saw a video in which you describe yourself as ‘a Métis-Saulteaux-Polish, queer, Two Spirit, hard fem, visual artist.’ It immediately brought to mind Walt Whitman’s famous ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large. I contain multitudes).’ How do the multitudes contained within you inform your art? Are there contradictions and conflicts that manifest themselves in your work?

I live for the contradiction. It’s the questioning. In my work, I’m always asking questions. I don’t claim to know the answers and I don’t know if other people know the answers. But, because of my upbringing, I’m open to every perspective and answer.

Do I contradict myself? I feel like that’s a really huge part of the Métis identity.

These are questions I get asked a lot – What does it mean to be a Métis artist, what does it mean to be a queer artist? It’s important to talk about different world views, about resistance, about pushback.

Even in my body I have many different world views which are at odds with each other. There’s a whole history of the Métis along with our Indigenous ancestors. It’s a coming together of different world views and wanting to hold on to that spiritualism and culture.

And for me, I used to [call myself] hard fem, but that’s changed because everything is so fluid. What do you do when you, as a person, feel very fluid in your presentation? What I look like now versus what I looked like then? It’s very different. How does that change and shift my perception?

You use a lot of different media. Do you choose the medium depending upon the question you are asking or the contradiction you are exploring?

The Outlander, Bad Girls, 2013, 44 x 66 inches, digital photograph

I have a set of tools and in my wheelhouse, there is photography, there is sculpture, there is performance, there is video. I am getting more into illustration now because of the beadwork I’m doing.

Maybe I’m drawn toward those contradictions because I’m living in a world that doesn’t quite feel made for me.

This could be the little crux on my back from being a recovering Catholic [Laughing]. I do not fit into this world whatsoever. But I respect that that’s the faith my family has chosen. But what does that mean for me, knowing that I probably will never be accepted in the church or as part of that community?

I’m always thinking about that. Where do I belong? Just trying to understand the historical erasure of queer and trans people. Any sort of gender presentation or gender variant, anything outside of the nuclear family when I was growing up was not accepted.

Having lived through that experience, there are some mediums that I’m drawn to. With photography I am able to build a whole world in one frame. I have one shot to try and deliver the message, the idea, I want to get across. That’s why there’s so much symbolism, little hints and cues.

How important is it that people “get” the ideas you are trying to convey?

You might need to be in a certain demographic to understand some of hints and get some of the messages. And I like that. I like that there are a lot of clues and that, if you’re someone who isn’t in one of those circles that I circulate through, you might not get it.

I really work with this idea that not everything is for you.

There is a lot of art out there that I don’t like and maybe I don’t get. But I respect it and appreciate it because we can’t just have one kind of art for us all. That’s the multitudes.

What are your plans for the residency?

One of the projects I will be working on has a soft title called Neglect.

Sometimes we neglect ourselves for the greater good, other times we forget to take care of ourselves. And there’s an aspect of neglect with nostalgia and wanting to hold onto things but not really having the care or attention that needs to preserve them.

For instance, I have a bunch of taxidermy that I’ve had for many years. I love it, but because I was so overworked, as a Frontline worker-activist at a native women’s shelter, and going to school full-time doing my graduate degree, moths ate this rabbit that I had.

The other day I was cleaning out my medicine box where I keep all my tobacco and sage and other stuff. There was this whole bag of cedar that was rotten and I thought ‘Oh my god, this is perfect for my new project!’ Of course, my partner was saying ‘What the hell! That should go into the garbage.’ [Laughing] But I said no it needs to serve its purpose and then we can throw it out.

It’s about having to say goodbye to things. You come to a point where you just have to bury some things and let them go because you can’t hold on to everything.

What are your earliest memories of art?

Art has been around me for as long as I can remember.

When my little sister was born, I was relegated to the basement, and for me, the basement was full of scary stuff. I had a very active mind as a child.

But my mom had a spot in the basement where she did her crafts, with a big fluorescent light under which she would make dream catchers and earrings. We’d go harvesting for red willow and a lot of the materials that she used. I’d watch her making these beautiful things.

At night, I would beg my mom to come downstairs and craft because the fluorescent light coming through a crack made me feel safe because I knew she was there. And whatever my mind would conjure up, knowing she was there kept it at bay. Right from when I was very young, art gave me a feeling of safety.

So, you were exposed to Indigenous art at a young age? 

Well, it’s interesting because we never really talked about that in our home. Ever. My mom was really just starting to lean into the culture because for a lot of my family of a certain generation, it wasn’t OK to be a native. Many had been harassed.

That is such a common story for a lot of Métis people. There’s a lot of shame of being mixed. I think it’s a whole eugenics thing. You weren’t seen as having one bloodline, you were a half-breed.

I’ve only just learned that my great grandmother used to bead and make her own shoes and mukluks. They were living on the farm, they were living on the land. It wasn’t really a farm it was kind of a haphazard farm. It was really just a farm to keep the family alive.

So what does it look like when you, a Métis artist, rekindles that past and those traditions and bring them into your world view?

Kandace Battle Axe, Kinship Masks, 2016, 60 x 75 inches, digital photograph

That’s kind of what I’m doing with the beadwork [on leather fetish masks]. I was using a lot of black on black for a while because I really wanted it to be very covert and make people really look for the answer – if there was an answer.

Traditionally, of course, [Indigenous bead workers] use a lot of colour. I went the complete opposite.

We always talk about the dichotomy of tradition and contemporary. There is a legacy that I want to honour while asking how does that read now? How does it evolve and change? And part of that evolution is how I’m looking at it.

It’s perfect me because I approached it kind of out of left field. And now I want to approach it more traditionally with floral patterns and representations.

Of course, when you look at the beadwork it’s not just flowers. Those flowers are representations of people. That’s what I’m starting to uncover now in talking to other Metis bead workers. What are the symbols that we used?

I remember Jamie Morse telling me about the oak leaf and how that was a way of showing a trading post. When you’re looking at some Métis beadwork you may be looking at a map of an area. It looks really pretty and beautiful but it actually shows you the way. How wonderful is that?

Dayna Danger will deliver their first Artist’s Talk as Mellon Artist in Residence on February 21, at 2 p.m. The presentation will take place on Zoom. Registration is required.