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Interviews / February 23, 2021

A Conversation with Whess Harman, the New Curator at grunt gallery

Keeping community engagement at the forefront, they speak about upcoming goals in their new position—and centring accessibility with Queer ASL and more
Whess Harman. Courtesy grunt gallery. Whess Harman. Courtesy grunt gallery.
Whess Harman. Courtesy grunt gallery. Whess Harman. Courtesy grunt gallery.

In late January 2021, grunt gallery in Vancouver officially announced that Whess Harman would be its new curator. Harman, a Carrier Wit’at multidisciplinary artist and curator, moves into the position after having worked alongside the gallery through numerous projects over the years.

In a video interview with Harman, we had the opportunity to discuss the importance of community-engaged programming, the challenges of navigating a pandemic, the need for accessible practices, and the maintenance of safe spaces. From the comfort of our homes, Harman and I, joined by their cat Chi, held an engaging conversation.

Adrienne Huard: You’ve been collaborating with grunt gallery since 2018. What are some of the projects that you worked on with them previously?

 Whess Harman: We just finished the ninth issue of the Together Apart Zine. Over the last year, we’ve released six issues, all 2S/Indigiqueer content with two separate editorial terms. Brandi Bird was our first editor and Kaya Joan was our second. I was just putting together our final report for it and we had 38 artists involved in total, and 50 new pieces of work were generated. Sometimes zines can feel slapdash, just put together, but once we assembled it all, it was like, “Whoa, that was a big project that somehow managed to still happen this year.”

Aside from that, I co-curated Marlene Yuen’s show with Vanessa Kwan, “Cheap! Diligent! Faithful!,” which was up before our current exhibition by Tsēmā Igharas titled “Black Gold,” curated by Natasha Chaykowski. It’s beautiful. I also helped with Meagan Musseau’s exhibition. So, I’ve kind of been in an assisting curatorial situation and then curating my own projects alongside that.

Tsēmā Igharas, <em>Black Gold</em>, 2021. Installation view. Courtesy grunt gallery. Tsēmā Igharas, Black Gold, 2021. Installation view. Courtesy grunt gallery.

AH: So, you started off at grunt as an intern curator, and now coming into the position of curator shows the gallery’s dedication to support and mentor emerging voices. What was the progression like for you coming into this role and what does that kind of mentorship mean to you?

WH: The longer I’ve been at grunt and the more I’ve heard about how other folks began there, it’s a very similar story for all of us in that we’ve usually been brought in through smaller contracts. I initially started with a contract to curate the Spark: Fireside Artist Talks series and then from that, they were like, “We like working with you. We’re going to figure out some ways to bring you in.” And within a month, they applied for the Early Career Development grant from the BC Arts Council and for funding with the city to do the Together Apart Queer Indigeneities symposium.

Right from the start, I felt like they were invested in having me there, it’s a really supportive place. Having been there during the transition while Glenn [Alteen] was getting ready for retirement and handing off the program director position to Vanessa [Kwan], it was wonderful to witness because there was so much care put into that.

I’m still learning though. I’m trying to get out of the habit of asking permission for everything and recognizing that I also have agency. I feel like it was a slow progression over the last three years, of them convincing me that they want me [laughs].

AH: Your artistic practice is so multifaceted and diverse. Does your practice have an effect on how you view curation and stepping into curatorial roles?

WH: It’s been a positive effect. The advantage of having worked as an artist more than as a curator means that I got to work with other curators. I had the opportunity to see how they operate and pick out the things that I enjoyed about working with certain people, and then try to replicate it. Also, once you’re in the space and talking about how art is going to fit on the walls, it’s just easier to navigate when you have practical knowledge because you’ve done it yourself. I love working with artist-curators.

AH: It seems that relationality is central to your curatorial practice. The way you’re grounded in building and maintaining relationships within community is so prominent. What kind of community outreach programs are you planning?

 WH: The curator position at grunt relates to exhibitions, which are well established and the thing that we are most comfortable with planning. The Mount Pleasant Community Art Screen (MPCAS) is also shifting over to be more my responsibility. That’s where I see the most potential and flexibility in terms of what we can do going forward. We do a couple of different things, like commissioning works. We also have curatorial terms with folks like Justin Ducharme, who just finished his. Bringing people in, in that way, is something that I’m looking forward to, especially as someone who doesn’t particularly work a lot with digital media.

Then we’re waiting to hear back on funding for another Together Apart project. We’ve basically applied to have an Indigenous writer do a pilot episode of a narrative podcast. We’re trying to work more on our accessibility and anti-oppressive practices. One part of that project is to have the writing done by Indigenous artists and then we do all the work to produce it, like scoring, actors, et cetera. We will also have someone do a descriptive transcription for hard of hearing and deaf audiences, and a tactile edition as another option. A big focus for us right now is trying to increase our accessibility options for people because the pandemic really highlighted deficiencies.

AH: How has the pandemic affected grunt gallery and what are some of the ways you hope to navigate it?

WH: We have an accessibility committee, which is mostly organized by Kay Slater, our exhibitions manager. They do a lot of amazing community work around accessibility, like a Queer ASL (American Sign Language) program, which grunt partook in. The staff did that together—we completed the first level of it. We’re also expanding into offering community workshops and programming for captioning so that not only are we learning it internally, but we’re offering it to the community as well. We now have funding to do those captioning workshops, which is actually better funded than our exhibitions program at the moment.

Grunt Gallery, <em>Together Apart Zine</em>, 2020. Issues 4–6. Courtesy the gallery. Grunt Gallery, Together Apart Zine, 2020. Issues 4–6. Courtesy the gallery.

AH: What can we expect in the future at grunt? Are there any details you’d be willing to share?

WH: To some degree, since last year and this year as well, I feel like we’re just trying to make sure we stay afloat [due to the pandemic]. We’re also debating on how to do our submissions process this year because we skipped it last year. But we are still planning to do the MPCAS with two submissions per year.

Right now, I’m doing research in the community—doing studio visits with people that we would normally see quite often at exhibition openings. Because we have Emily Carr University of Art and Design across the street now, there have been more students coming to openings and, in particular, a very specific group of students who have been working loosely as a collective in other spaces. So, I’m doing studio visits with them in hopes of having some of them apply for the cohort portion of the Early Career Development grant. Though the deadline is this July, we’re planning for 2022 so that everyone would actually be able to physically gather.

AH: It sounds like you folks work toward connecting with people who are either emerging or not as established in the art world. There are so many people who have important things to say and you are doing that meaningful groundwork to provide a platform.

WH: We try to do our best. I think a lot of institutions have had to look at themselves this year and maybe found that they didn’t like what they were looking at. But at grunt, we were able to look inwards and say, “Okay, it’s not perfect but we are proud of what we’re doing.” And that’s been a really important thing to hold onto.

grunt has always had a stance as an incubator rather than necessarily being the authority or at the forefront. It comes up a lot with the Together Apart projects, where we’re working with many young emerging 2S/Indigiqueer artists. It’s more about creating a space that is safe for them to express themselves and not putting too many impositions on their work. Some of the work is just so raw and it’s generous of them to share. I just want to make sure that it’s treated with care.


Update: This article was corrected on February 24, 2021. The original used the capitalization “Grunt Gallery” rather than “grunt gallery.”

Adrienne Huard

Adrienne Huard is a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer Anishinaabekwe registered at Couchiching First Nation, Ontario, and born and raised in Winnipeg. After graduating in 2012 from the University of Manitoba with a bachelor of fine arts majoring in photography, she pursued a bachelor of fine arts in art history at Concordia University in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Huard graduated from Concordia in April 2018 and went on to complete OCAD University’s graduate-level program in criticism and curatorial practice. In September 2020, she began the PhD-level program in Indigenous studies at University of Manitoba. Huard’s research focuses on desire within Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous visual culture, specifically located on the Prairies. Her goal is to highlight these practices, which are often overlooked by the contemporary art world, while pushing to make them more accessible for Indigenous artists to participate. Huard curated her first program of queer Indigenous/Two-Spirit short films—titled Kinship and Closeness, co-presented by MEDIAQUEER.CA—which toured extensively across Canada in 2018. Since then, she has developed a curatorial collective, gijiit, alongside her collaborators Jas M. Morgan and Dayna Danger, who continue to work between Montreal and Toronto. Huard was Canadian Art’s Summer 2018 editorial resident, and is honoured to continue her journey with the publication as an editor-at-large.