Saige Mukash’s biography is as short as her images are forthright. In her submission to the Magenta Foundation Flash Forward awards, she simply wrote: “My name is Saige Mukash. I am 21 years old, Cree photographer from Whapmagoostui, Quebec.” She followed with an equally crisp artist statement, recounting portraits of children who attended residential schools. “They’re heartbreaking,” she says. “Those photographs were taken to document progress on assimilating us. All the children have their hair cut and wear uniforms. They smile in the photos but, in reality, we know it was not a good place. That’s why I wanted the people I was photographing to wear traditional clothing and to show pride in who they are.” The five pictures she supplied show tenderness, joy and strength, as well as the sensitive talent of the budding photographer. And that is exactly what Flash Forward is about: celebrating up-and-comers.
When the competition launched 13 years ago, its founders noted a dearth of attention being given to new Canadian lens-based artists. “The intention was to support and encourage photographers in the country, and stack them up against their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom, to show that there was a class of highly talented voices not getting the exposure they deserved,” explains MaryAnn Camilleri, Magenta Foundation’s president. Over the years, Flash Forward has become a milestone in a young person’s career. It’s a much-needed pat on the back telling you you’re heading in the right direction. And, when the organization celebrated its 10th anniversary, it became clear that the list of winners is a who’s who of contemporary photographers.
Still, by allowing artists from only three Western, mainly English-speaking countries to enter, the contest’s breadth was limited. Many stories, approaches and aesthetics were absent. Thomas King, in The Truth About Stories, reminds us that once we’ve heard a story, we can no longer claim ignorance. I would go further: Once you’ve seen a story, it becomes harder to dismiss as fabricated. Images are, for the most part, a reflection of the world in front of the lens as understood by the person behind it. Hence the importance of nurturing diverse sets of eyes. If our perceptions of communities such as Ms. Mukash’s is to move past stereotypes and become more just, nuanced and respectful, we need photographers who challenge existing representations.
In that spirit, this year, Flash Forward lifted its geographical restriction and decided to focus on four special categories – racial issues, climate and the environment, LGBTQ+ issues and female-identifying photographers. The submissions and the 100-plus selected artists are much more eclectic than before. That was the point. We grow by learning about Maysa, a black Brazilian girl, competing in the still-segregated “Young Miss Brazil” beauty contest, or of the cycle of violence and environmental degradation that threatens Somalia’s very existence. We shift our perceptions when seeing South African trans sex workers as fashion models in the work of Jan Hoek, or how Nina Roeder deals with the death of grandparents who were chased out of their homes after the Second World War.
Reflecting on her intentions, Ms. Mukash expressed hope that her project would “help stray away from the stereotypes our people are put in.” Accomplishing that entails not only making the images, but having them seen and discussed. This is where competitions like Flash Forward have a role to play; to direct our gaze towards spaces we might not otherwise look at.
What makes you proud to be Cree?
“The reason why I am proud to be Cree is because of what we, the Cree people, have accomplished in the past since the signing of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). We have come a long way since then. Also because our mother tongue [the Cree language] remains strong.”
Natasia Mukash, Whapmagoostui, Que.
What were the difficulties you faced as a young Indigenous mother?
“I had just turned 18 before giving birth to my first child. At 21, I had my second child. I had some fears at the beginning, but when I held my children in my arms, I had a moment of peace and I told myself, ‘I can do this.’ I didn’t know how I was going to do it. The difficulties I faced then were the stereotypes of young single Indigenous mothers being unsuccessful and uneducated and not only that, I was an artist. I faced this really difficult time in my life where I had applied for college, and won a scholarship to attend an art school. I felt really motivated and proud of myself to have won the scholarship. But, in the end I found out that my file at the Cree School Board wasn’t taken seriously; it was not looked at at all. I was told that our people need police officers and nurses; jobs that are ‘beneficial to the Cree nation.’ After that it felt like I was going to have a hard time breaking that barrier of being an unsuccessful, uneducated, single Indigenous mother. Now, I am 39 years old. I am a successful artist in the Cree nation. I have four children and a supportive partner. I have broken those barriers. How do I know? Because every day I see my strength and passion reflected in my children.”
Rain Iserhoff, 13 years old, from Whapmagoostui, Que.
Why did you choose to Sundance?
“The Sundance is a place to pray for healing. When I was 12, I got really sick, and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. And, when I got better, they still didn’t know what caused me to be so sick. I chose to Sundance as part of my way of healing from that sickness, so that it wouldn’t come back. The Sundance is a three-day fast, and you dance and pray for those three days. My first year of Sundancing, It was very hard for me. I was very emotional through the ceremony. I was very emotional about being sick for a long time, and it made me sad that my sickness worried my family so much, even though I was very positive I was going to be okay. I am very proud of myself to have finished my first year; it brought me a lot of healing that I needed. I think that these healing ceremonies are important, and I wish that everyone at least once in their life would attend these ceremonies, because I want them to see that before the non-natives came and took away these ceremonies saying they were bad, they [were] actually not bad at all. The ceremonies bring a lot of healing our people need. I chose to Sundance to heal. It’s the kind of lifestyle I will follow, a healing one.”
Kyle Bobbish, 21 years old, from Chisasibi, Que.
What does being Cree mean to you?
“Knowing where I came from. Knowing my culture, continuing my culture and preserving it.”
What makes you proud to be Cree?
“That my culture is still strong. It makes me proud that I speak my language. I feel more connected when I am out on the land when I hunt because I know I am practising and continuing to do what my ancestors did, but in a more modern time.”
Judy Tookalook from Kuujjuarapik, Que.
What’s the cultural significance of your outfit?
“The amautiq I am wearing is not what I would wear to carry my child on my back. But it is made the same way. This one is just for style. The temporary tattoos I am wearing would have special significance to my life achievements, or life skills I’ve accomplished. They would represent things like finishing a sewing project, childbirth, if I lit a qullik and many other Inuit traditional lifestyles. It’s very awesome to wear this traditional clothing. And I think, ‘How did our people come up with all these things? They sewed their own clothing, and made their own tattoos and made their own sleds. We lived in the snow. It’s amazing how we survived and lived back then.’ I find it very amazing to still be able to wear the traditional clothing in today’s society. It is different how we practise our culture today, but we are still a very strong culture.”