First Nations artist explores ‘indigenous futurisms’ in his Woodland-style work

Art by Tsista Kennedy and republished with permission.

Woodland style art can be characterized by its colorful figures, dark black lines, and as one British Columbia art studio describes it, as “native art that blends traditional legends and myths with contemporary mediums.” It’s a style that 19-year-old artist, Tsista Kennedy, of the Anishnaabe and Onyota’aka Nations of London, Ontario, Canada has embraced, making a distinct mark by incorporating the traditional and the modern. Kennedy's work can be seen as murals in local health centers, in galleries, and as the visual brand for the Indigenous Friends Association, a social enterprise focusing on how technology can support indigenous communities.

This genre of art is often credited to Norval Morrisseau, a First Nations Ojibwe artist from Northern Ontario, who developed it in the mid-20th-century. However, many artists put their own mark and interpretation on the style. Kennedy states the importance that art has had in his life, “My artwork is a reflection of my perspective as a young indigenous man and father navigating colonial and traditional settings and ways of life.” It's a story that he tells in an audio format uploaded to YouTube about “growing up as an indigenous boy with long hair.

In an email interview with Rising Voices, Kennedy shares his approach to his art.

Rising Voices (RV): What is your approach to incorporating elements of digital media and technology into your artwork? What is the message that you seek to share by combining those elements? 

Tsista Kennedy (TK): My approaches for incorporating elements of digital media and technology into my artwork did not exist until I’d been hired by the Indigenous Friends Association. Prior to joining the amazing team behind IFA as an illustrator, my artwork was quite limited to utilizing in-the-moment sources of inspiration and involved little to no concepts of “indigenous futurisms.”

As I grew to understand the mission and vision of the Indigenous Friends Association and was able to apply them both to my own perspective as an artist, my illustrations for them grew to be a more natural feeling and genuine. ‘Inspire and support the imagination of Indigenous communities to create and maintain their digital technology to further their autonomy.’ When I was able to apply this mission to my own life, and the future I want for my children, grandchildren, and so on, it felt as though a switch had gone off in my thoughts.

No longer did I limit myself to this binary creative process of creating artwork. It wasn’t simply portraying events of the past, or events in the moment; I was given a key that had unlocked the door to exploring futuristic indigenous concepts within my own mind, and more imaginative concepts as a whole. Because of this newly found gateway to let in ideas from a futuristic concept, incorporating digital media and technological elements simply came as easy as applying my past concepts of traditionalisms and modernisms. The ease of doing this was simply a matter of becoming familiar with the concept.

RV: What is your advice for others who may wish to explore how traditional indigenous imagery and art can mesh with digital technologies and the internet?

TK: When I was struggling to mesh traditional indigenous imagery with digital and technological concepts, my supervisor within the IFA had given me some powerful words to help me. ‘It can be as simple as realizing that there are indigenous people in the future,’ is what she’d told me. When our ancestors were met with the threat of genocide from the colonizers, they thought of indigenous people in the future; safeguarding our ceremonies, traditional knowledge, languages, and sacred items. We are those indigenous people in the future, and because of them we can have all of those things with us today.

My advice to anyone else who may struggle initially in exploring this concept of ‘indigenous futurisms,’ or more specifically combining indigenous imagery with digital technologies, would be to ask yourself this question:

“What are you doing today that will change the lives of your great grandchildren for the better?”

Growing up as a native in the city, I didn’t have my culture around me all the time as spiritual nourishment. When I was exposed to my culture, there was no gradient between my life navigating colonial education and sitting in a lodge during ceremonies. I was either in a public school preoccupied with classwork, or in a ceremonial setting receiving teachings and living in the moment. I feel as though these circumstances conditioned me to never think about combining digital technologies with our culture or communal advancement/healing without the help of the IFA.


RV: What has been the impact or reception to some of your artwork incorporating imagery of technology or some of the pieces that showcase popular culture like the Baby Yoda/Mandalorian piece?  

TK: My artwork showcasing popular culture through a woodland-style aesthetic typically receives quite a bit of appreciation from other indigenous people. My woodland Baby Yoda in a cradleboard with the Mandalorian gained a huge amount of popularity, seemingly overnight. My woodland style ‘Bepsi‘ artwork that I created earlier this year sparked the same type of reaction.

One observation that has always remained constant throughout the past two years of my artistic career is that we as indigenous people love to see the world around us indigenized; it nourishes us with a sense of hope and belonging. It reminds us as indigenous people that we are still here, and we always will be.

My gift of creating artwork serves as a visual megaphone to the world, and through it I am able to take familiarized non-indigenous concepts and make them indigenous. I hope that in doing so I am inspiring indigenous youth to do the same through discovering, exploring, and utilizing their own gifts in a creative and thought-provoking way.

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