El Alto

Vanessa Dion Fletcher – Canada

Finding Language

Vanessa Dion Fletcher discusses her solo-exhibition Own Your Cervix and the performance Finding Language, highlighting an important juncture of disability and indigeneity in her practice

Finding Language at Cripping the Arts, 2019. 

Could you tell us more about your practice and how it’s developed since your solo exhibition, Own Your Cervix, at Tangled Art Gallery in 2017?

My practice follows a lot of different mediums, themes and ideas – I sometimes have a hard time summarizing it because I cast a pretty wide net. With that caveat, I can say that I work a lot in performance, video and textiles. In the exhibition, Own Your Cervix, I was using porcupine quills but I hadn’t yet learned the embroidery techniques. So I was using them as whole objects on sculptures. Since then, I’ve learned the embroidery techniques and my practice has somewhat focused on that over the past few years.

At the 2019 Cripping the Arts Symposium in Toronto you performed Finding Language. Could you speak to aspects of performance in your work?

Finding Language comes from my experience of language and disability. When I was small, pretty much as soon as I started school, the education system diagnosed or categorized me as disabled. For a long time, I thought about my experiences of disability as being mostly situated at school, but that’s evolving now.

I started thinking about English; English is the only language I speak. The Lenapé language and the community that my family comes from have very few speakers. There’s actually no first speakers, so there’s really just a handful of people who still speak it fluently. Speaking in English, writing in English, and trying to communicate in a world that values and prioritizes the written language, was the focus of the work.

Originally, this piece was conceptualized as a kind of workshop activity and I was thinking about how it’s really fun to look at the way that written language appears in our everyday life. I wanted to go and look at different examples and investigate them as this performance/ scavenger hunt by traveling around the room and discovering different things. Whenever I found a word, I would look it up in my Lenapé dictionary. The dictionary I use was written by John O’Meara. He writes, “This writing system is based on the linguistic transcription system used in Goddard (1979). It substitutes English-based characters or sequences of characters for several symbols commonly used in phonetic transcription systems”.  What I understand from this is that the system is utilitarian or made up — created because of the focus on written text over oral communication. When you open the dictionary, it’s full of words, for example [and I am reading from the dictionary] K-U, K-W-U-L-U-P. At the time I was such a beginner, I had little to no idea how to pronounce the words. The dictionary has a pronunciation key, but it’s complicated and you have to read it. How silly! Reading how to pronounce something. In the performance I  was trying to find the word in the dictionary and then sounding it out and trying a couple different ways that it might be pronounced. It was an audible struggle but aspirational and was drawing attention to the materiality of language. The way that words physically appear in our space; and then through this pronunciation trying to draw attention to the way that those sounds are formed in our mouth and move out from our breath to the world.

Eliza Chandler (Assistant Professor, Disability Studies at Ryerson University) once mentioned how that piece very clearly demonstrated  some of the ways ableism and colonization have connections. It’s really interesting because there’s an oral tradition in Lenapé — it’s ephemeral. t’s not until an outsider comes and creates this dictionary that for you there’s a disabling factor. Had you had access to the oral traditions perhaps you wouldn’t have had that disabling experience in learning it. Your piece is really identifying an important intersection of disability and colonization, which is a theme in a lot of your works. On that note, could you expand a bit more about your exhibition Own Your Cervix.

Own Your Cervix is the result of a long period of interest and investigation so I could talk about it in a few different ways. One is from the personal experience of feeling shame and discomfort around my menstruating body. I am also very aware of gendered violence in general, particularly in Indigenous communities or perpetrated against Indigenous communities. I was thinking about reproductive justice and bodily autonomy in different contexts. I think about a body —my body — that can produce children in this colonial world that I live in; the different effects that it has personally within my own family and then with my community. I wanted to speak from my own experience, but to not limit other people’s engagement or understanding because there’s a lot of connections to be made across communities through these experiences.

Imagen de primer plano de 'Colonial Comfort' de Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Imagen de primer plano de púas de puercoespín crema y marrón saliendo de una tela color marrón.
Foto de la instalación de Vanessa Dion Fletcher "Own Your Cervix". Un sofá victorian con púas de puercoespín que sobresalen de la tela. Detrás del sofá hay una pared roja donde cuelgan siete aros de cuentas.

Colonial Comfort in Own Your Cervix by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Tangled Art Gallery, 2019. Photo: Jonathan Balazs. Courtesy of Tangled Art + Disability.

The exhibition was quite multifaceted; there was a lot of physical, two dimensional, and three dimensional work in this space. There was also a performance aspect; I extended invitations to the Tangled audience to do a self exam that could or could not include looking at one’s own cervix. Within the gallery space, as part of the installation, I had all of the materials necessary to do a cervical self exam: a speculum, hand sanitizer, lubricant, a mirror and a flashlight. It’s a pretty simple setup, but a few of the tools, specifically the speculum can be difficult to obtain individually. I made a bench for people to sit on while participating in the self exam. The bench is 18 inches in height with removable legs, upholstered in leather, and one side has a plastic covering with a beaded patch that looks like blood. It was important to me that I tried to frame this as a kind of process of self-reflection that was open to people of all genders with any kind of anatomy and  not assume how anyone with or without a cervix might want to participate.   I really wanted to make sure to use language that was open to all people. There are always improvements or adjustments that can be made. Tangled gave me feedback from visitors to the gallery using wheelchairs who found the setup of the room a little difficult to get in and around.

Outside the self-exam area, I had a little Victorian-style settee, which is a little two-seater couch, and a couple of chairs. I wanted to use furniture to think about the way that menstrual blood has the potential to talk about a relationship to the body and people’s fears or experiences of staining furniture or sitting on furniture that has been stained. The furniture became sculptures, but I was also thinking about it from a very performative place; thinking about the influence of  European and Victorian themes of morality on our current understanding of menstruation, the performance or politics of it, and how these influenced furniture too. 

I read that the Victorian era was sometimes called the era of “colonial comfort” because of how technology enabled advances for curved wood and springs to make furniture and homes more comfortable. As I was reading, I realized furniture was comfortable for some people while being  incredibly violent and uncomfortable for others. Also, the building of railroads (through immigrant labour) across North America,  a colonial historical moment, was also important because that allowed the furniture to be distributed quickly across the continent. All these colonial moments were tied to the Victorian-era furniture I used. I had them upholstered in white fabric and a floral pattern and then poured my menstrual blood decoratively onto the pattern. And this is where I use the porcupine quills to look like they’re growing out of the furniture with the fabric around the menstrual blood.

The way you amplify the pieces with your menstrual blood was this really interesting way of engaging with a disability arts audience. On the one hand, you created these invitational seating spaces because folks who have that access need could sit on one of the chairs, but you also employed porcupine quills in the larger settee. For the Tangled gallery staff, it was a moment of contemplation on how  folks will interact with that couch in a way that it’s intended to but also create access. In the end, we made the decision to inform every guest who came in that the porcupine quills were there, but it was up to them to decide how much they wanted to interact with the settee or if they wanted any help navigating the piece. In a disability arts gallery setting that’s really provocative because in this case,  access is not necessarily comfort and safety all the time; instead, access is about creating entry points into the works. 

I think it’s really interesting because I showed the Own Your Cervix work at my graduate thesis exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To keep the audience safe, they asked that I put the settee on a plinth so that people knew that it was art and not to touch it. I think I like that approach of having somebody there to tell each person “there are quills there and if you want to touch some, you can”, or “here’s how you stay safe”. I provide access, but in this case, it’s more true to the work. I wanted it to be on the floor, so it’d be part of the room and not separated by a pedestal. 

The context of a disability arts space versus one that doesn’t have access in its mandate is really interesting, as it seems that this  intersection helps to create and illuminate the original intentions of the piece. Whereas the idea of putting your work on a plinth is almost antithetical to your original piece, because it’s about enacting some of the aesthetics of a colonial art world onto your art piece in itself.

Yes, to go back to the self exam, I was trying to create a situation where people have their own agency to decide how they’re going to participate, or touch, or be in the space.

Finding Language: Video footage by Kavya Yoganathan and Hannah Fowlie. Photography by Michelle Peek. Editing by Marion Gruner, Billion Ideas. Music by Ziibiwan. Produced in collaboration with Vanessa Dion Flecther by Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life, a project of Re•Vision: The Centre for art and Social Justice at University of Guelph, 2021.  

Vanessa Dion Fletcher is a Lenape and Potawatomi neurodiverse Artist. Her family is from Eelūnaapèewii Lahkèewiitt (displaced from Lenapehoking) and European settlers. She employs porcupine quills, Wampum belts, and menstrual blood to reveal the complexities of what defines a body physically and culturally. Reflecting on an Indigenous and gendered body with a neurodiverse mind,  she creates art using mixed media, primarily working in performance, textiles, and video. 

She graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2016) with an MFA in performance and York University (2009) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She has exhibited across Canada, and the US at Art Mur Montreal, Eastern Edge Gallery Newfoundland, The Queer Arts Festival Vancouver, Satellite Art show Miami. Her work is in the Indigenous Art Centre, Joan Flasch Artist Book collection, Vtape, Seneca College, and the Archives of American Art. Vanessa is a 2020-2021 Jackman Humanities Institute fellow at the University of Toronto.