Gwen: Welcome to uOttaKnow, a podcast that illuminates, inspires and entertains produced by the University of Ottawa.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Science. I am also the President of the Equal Chance Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women and Black communities across Canada.
uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa alumni and researchers around the globe at the cutting edge of their fields. Listen in for thought-provoking conversations on today’s trending topics.
Today’s guest, Caroline Monnet, is a graduate of the University of Ottawa and a multidisciplinary artist of Anishinaabe and French descent from Outaouais, Quebec. She studied sociology and communication at the University of Ottawa and the University of Granada in Spain before pursuing a career in visual arts and film. Her work has been shown widely internationally, everywhere from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal,, as well as in film festivals such as TiFF, Sundance and Cannes. In 2020, she received the Hopper Prize and the Sobey Art Award—Canada’s pre-eminent award for contemporary art.
Caroline uses visual and media arts to demonstrate a keen interest in communicating complex ideas around Indigenous identity and bicultural living through examining cultural histories. Her works address the consequences of colonialism. She uses Indigenous methodologies to renew outdated systems. Caroline, thanks for joining us today from Montreal!
Caroline: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.
Gwen: Well, I want to start off with a question that we are asking all our guests this season on creativity and inspiration. What sparks you creatively, and could you share a pivotal moment in your life where creative inspiration took hold?
Caroline: I find inspiration everywhere. The conversations I have with my friends, with my family, sometimes something I hear in the news. Even just seeing a photo on Instagram can really get me thinking about things. Sometimes it almost gives me flashes of ideas that begin growing in my head, that simmer a little on my mind and eventually become a more concrete idea. I also love it when I walk or go for a jog. My best ideas, I think, come when I’m in motion, either when I’m driving or . . . . It seems that the idea of moving forward allows for some reflection, some creativity. Often, that’s where I get my greatest inspiration.
I can’t recall a specific moment where my creativity was suddenly triggered, but I have always loved places like museums or cinemas. I find that these are places where people . . . it’s almost sacred; people have to whisper, people go into these places and show great respect. I’ve always been a little fascinated by this idea.
I find that cinemas, art galleries and museums are places that give us different perspectives of the world. These are sociable places where there is discussion and ideas can be exchanged. If you can build new ways of looking at the world . . . a lot of times that’s really where I get all my inspiration and how I understand a little bit about what’s going on in the world, what people want to talk about.
Gwen: That’s fantastic. I like the notion that moving forward is the driving force behind your creativity; it allows you to envisage the future with a much more positive mindset. You recently returned from Europe where you were for the opening of your work Debouttes, which is now part of the permanent UNESCO collection in Paris. Congratulations!
You also completed a residency this year in Gothenburg, Sweden…and you have upcoming solo exhibitions in France, Florida and New York. You have become a world figure in art. You live in Montreal and you are a multidisciplinary artist of Anishinaabe and French descent. How does it feel to share your work and thoughts on Indigenous identity and bicultural living far from Outaouais where you grew up?
Caroline: Of course, it’s strange when you’re from a small region like the Outaouais, when you grew up in a small place like Aylmer, it’s hard to throw yourself onto the international scene. At the same time, my mother is Anishinaabe and my father is French. I grew up between France and Quebec, so I was already open to the world and wanted to travel from a very young age and discover new people.
What I think is great about art is that we can share our First Nations realities beyond our borders. I really see it as a privilege to be able to express myself on the international scene that, through my work, I am able to raise awareness, to talk about things that are really important to me, including the reality of the First Nations. Then, to connect my work with what is happening in the rest of the world, with other nations, other cultures, other ways of perceiving things, other philosophies. For me, it is a means of sharing.
Basically, my works have always focused on a very sociological angle. Looking at others has always been very important to me, and I consider my ability to access the international scene to be a real privilege.
Gwen: Speaking of this sociological angle, if I may, let’s circle back to your time at the University of Ottawa for a moment. What impact did your studies in sociology and communication have on you as an artist and a person?
Caroline: Ultimately, it was my detour to art that has been very useful to me. I don’t come from an artistic family. I didn’t know that you could make a living out of it; be it as a director, filmmaker, visual artist. I knew I wanted to go out and meet people, and I wanted to have a look at the world. I have always been intrigued by society. How do we develop? How are societies formed? Sociology appeared to me as the best way to learn more about the world I live in.
Plus, I see artists as sociologists. Our role as artists is really to offer a view of the world, to propose dialogue, a way of seeing, and perhaps also a way of condemning certain things. At any rate, I have always had the desire to change the world in my own way. At first, I thought it was through journalism and sociology, but I realized later that, for me at least, it was more through creativity.
Art allows me to break stereotypes. Especially, as we were just speaking about the international scene, it allows us to break the stereotypes and preconceived ideas. Everyone has the impression that Canada is a progressive country where everything is rosy, where life is good. Canada’s dark past is often forgotten. So that’s it. History, sociology, art, for me, it is a combination of intermingling influences.
Gwen: That’s exciting! Caroline, you speak of art as a real space for dialogue, exchange and discovery. You have expressed the joy of being able to share not only your culture, but also the realities of Aboriginal peoples. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about the joys and challenges of bringing your work to the international scene.
Caroline: I haven’t come across too many obstacles. After that, there is the challenge of working hard and continuing to believe in your dreams and continuing to believe that you have the potential to progress. The work of an artist is a real profession. People often don’t realize that we work all the time. We never stop; are minds are constantly inspired. There is no closure; at the end of the work day, when we go home, we stop thinking about the work we have been creating. We are constantly inspired. Sometimes the challenge lies within balancing professional and personal stuff.
Then, my joy comes from being able to talk about my work, getting to know myself through my work, being able to pursue my passions through my work, communicating that to others, and realizing that what comes from me, what comes from my person, my opinions, and my views can touch people emotionally. That’s the greatest compliment.
Gwen: Caroline, you mentioned balancing your professional and personal life. Would it be possible to elaborate on that? Because I think there are many people are unable balance the two all the time. How are you able to do that?
Caroline: In the early days of my work, my studio was definitely in my living space, my living room was transformed into an artist’s studio. It took a few years before I could really find a proper space and separate these two work and living spaces. Because otherwise I was working weekends, I was working even on my birthday, I was working every day. It became almost an obsession, because when you work on artistic projects, you are 300% into it. We are completely immersed in it. As long as the project remains unfinished, it’s all we can think about.
I think finding a balance is knowing how to set your personal and physical boundaries as well and telling yourself: “I need time for myself.” There is something more than just art, work and all that. I don’t think it is just in the world of art, it must apply to other professions also. I’m very lucky to be doing a job that I’m really passionate about, where I feel like I’m learning every day, I’m pushing myself to the limits, I’m always growing, there are great challenges. That’s why I work in so many different media; it allows me to maintain my curiosity about discovering all sorts of things through my collaborations, through the subjects I explore. Yes, it’s a way for me to discover all sorts of things.
Gwen: It’s true that you use a lot of different media. You have pursued a career both in the visual arts and in film. Creatively, how do these two different fields inspire you? Does each have its own way of nurturing your artistic vision? What made you decide to explore both of them?
Caroline: They are two different media and two different ways of working, but for me, it’s all in the same realm of exploration. One influences the other. Basically, my intentions are the same in both. Generally speaking, I’m referring to self-determination. I take a personal and contemporary look at issues that affect Indigenous communities or contemporary issues in our society.
I really believe that the message or concept I am exploring will determine the medium I choose. There are things that are much better expressed in sculpture than in images, in movement for example, and vice versa. Sometimes words are not needed to discuss certain things. It’s better expressed in painting or sculpture. I am very conscious when it comes to choosing the best way of expressing a message I want to share.
Gwen: To continue in the same vein, I would like to know a little more about your creations in visual arts and in your films. It’s amazing to see the projects you post on your Instagram @Coco.Monnet. In 2021, you posted Wolves Don’t Play By the Rules, an embroidery on Tyvek with bold shapes and blues, whites and black. The middle of the piece reads, “Wolves Don’t Play By the Rules”. Could you tell us about this piece and what inspired it?
Caroline: Of course. This is part of a long series of embroidery on Tyvek, an air barrier membrane. It’s a material used in construction. I use construction materials a lot in my visual arts. You can probably see this air barrier membrane when you see residential homes being built. This allows the entire house to be covered to prevent air from entering.
Wolves Don’t Play by The Rules, is the title of an original song by Willie Thrasher, who is a wonderful Inuk songwriter, composer, performer. Elisapie Isaac, also an Inuk singer, later did a cover of the song. I love that phrase. I think it speaks to resilience in the face of the Canadian government’s assimilation policies. The resilience to wanting to fit into the norm of a society that expects everyone to be the same. For me, it also speaks of survival, of native philosophy, of this idea of not being tamed and of being able to live life as you wish. I’m giving a sort of nod of approval.
Gwen: I’d like to touch on your first feature-length film Bootlegger, which won the 2021 imagineNATIVE – Best Dramatic Film Award, the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival – Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award, as well as the Best Screenplay Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. You both directed and co-wrote the script alongside Daniel Watchorn. The film, which is in French and Anishinabemonwin, follows Mani, a young master’s student who, after several years away, returns to her home reserve in Northern Quebec. Once home, she gets involved in the debate around a referendum on allowing the free sale of alcohol on the reserve. It engages themes of colonialism, community and identity. Could you tell us about what inspired you to tell this story and to make a film of it?
Caroline: Of course. I started writing the film in around 2015. That’s a few years ago now. At the time, there wasn’t much talk about Indigenous issues in the media. Indigenous cinema was almost non-existent, especially in French-speaking Canada. I wanted to tell our story, and from the inside. It is always told by others. I find that it is always told in a very dark shade and not exactly as I know it or as I am told.
At the time, when I started writing the film, many communities across Canada were holding referenda on the issue of alcohol prohibition in their communities. Does it work? Is it not working? Also, to think that my grandfather, his generation, raised six children, but was not legally allowed to drink a beer. If he were to have a beer after his work day, he was put in jail. It’s amazing to think that the Indigenous people are considered second-class citizens and that they don’t have the same rights as other citizens, even though we are all part of this country, of this society.
I wanted to stir things up a little bit, to challenge the stereotypes of alcohol and Indigenous people, and to talk about these paternalistic laws that still govern us, the Indian Act, to talk about it to educate, to raise awareness and to show how beautiful our communities are, how resilient they are, how they are organizing themselves and how much better things are if we make our own decisions. The film is about that.
Gwen: That’s wonderful, Caroline. Thank you so much! Well, we have a special spotlight question for you today from alumnus Jon-Ethan Rankin-Kistabish, a member of the Abitibiwinni First Nation now practising law at Murdoch Archambault. Jon-Ethan graduated from the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law – Civil Law Section. Today, he serves his alma mater as a member of the Indigenous Alumni Council, which contributes to the University’s Indigenization targets set out in the Indigenous Action Plan. It also provides support to Indigenous alumni and to current and future Indigenous students. Jon-Ethan, thanks for joining us today!
Caroline : Kwe', Jon-Ethan!
Jon-Ethan : Kwe', Caroline, Kwe', Gwen! It’s a pleasure to join you on the uOttaKnow podcast today. Caroline, it’s so nice to meet you. First of all, congratulations on your film Debouttes, which is now part of the UNESCO collection.
Jon-Ethan: I am delighted as an Anishinaabe to see an Anishinaabe expressing our cultures and telling our stories through her works internationally. I have travelled to many countries and I can say that there are, in my opinion, not enough people who know about who we are. Thank you for your great work. I’ll continue with the special question I have for you. Caroline, over the last few years, especially with the discoveries in Kamloops and the Joyce Echaquan case, have you seen a growing interest in First Nations art, your art? If so, how has this changed your art and even its place in society?
Caroline: I would say that a lot has changed in the last 10 years. I’ve been doing contemporary art and making films for about 10 years. But I have really seen a difference since the last year, unfortunately, because there have been . . . . Although Indigenous people have been quite present in the media for unfortunate events, it has nevertheless awoken an entire population to our realities; more people are becoming interested. I have the impression that we have more and more allies who are interested and who want to show their solidarity.
It is simply that people now know that there are 11 Nations in Quebec, something that, a few years ago, we always had to repeat. I have the impression that now people are aware because they did their own research into it. They started coming to us because they thought, “This is not right.” I mean the Joyce Echaquan case or the Kamloops findings, we grew up with that. We know about it, it’s not new. It’s not news to us, but it was news to the rest of the population.
It’s really created a craze for art and artists. It’s as if the institutions realized the role they had to play in making a difference. There was more and more collaboration with other artists. Then, my work, which was already quite political or with a strong commitment to talk about Indigenous issues, found an even more important place, especially internationally, to enter the collection of UNESCO with a work that features Indigenous women activists and speaks of the resistance of women.
Yes, I think that in the aftermath of those events, Indigenous art and Indigenous artists are becoming more and more visible. They are not asking to be more visible, they are just speaking up.
Jon-Ethan: Thank you for that great answer. I agree with you, we are speaking up. I hope that this enthusiasm, this interest in our culture, our Nations, our histories will persist over time.
Caroline: I think that, more and more, we have platforms to express ourselves. Maybe that’s what these last events have allowed for. We are no longer just a little story in the media. We have a real voice to discuss what’s going on. I think that all of a sudden society at large, society in general, feels concerned about what is happening because it is a common issue. If there is to be true reconciliation, there must first be an understanding of what is happening.
Jon-Ethan: Thanks, Caroline
Jon-Ethan: Chi-miigwech, Caroline.
Gwen: Thanks, Caroline for answering Jon-Ethan’s question.
Caroline: It’s my pleasure.
Gwen: I’d like to end today’s conversation with something we’ll be asking all our guests this season. Who inspires you the most right now and why? It can be someone very close to you or someone you’ve never met but who inspires you!
Caroline: That’s an excellent question. I want to say that it’s the next generation that inspires me a lot. Today’s youth, the way they use social media to express themselves, this desire to be unique and proud of their culture, to promote it, it’s almost contagious. I’m very proud of the young people. I think they know where they want to go, they know what to do, they are proud to be Anishinaabe or Atikamekw or Inuit. They are proud of their culture. I think it’s beautiful to see. They use TikTok or Instagram, or any way they can to spread their culture proudly. That’s it, I applaud them loud and clear.
Gwen: Caroline, you have been a great source of inspiration to us today. I’m sure there are many listeners who will want to know where to find you online. Can you tell us where to find you?
Caroline: Of course I have a website: carolinemonnet.ca. My last name “Monnet” with a double N, not to be confused with the other artist Monet. Otherwise, Instagram is always very easy because it’s where I most often “post” my latest works and current activities. It’s just coco.monnet
Gwen: That’s great to know. So people can also follow you in many ways, whether be on Instagram, or through your website. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, Caroline.
Caroline: Thank you. Thanks for the invitation.
Gwen: uOttaKnow is brought to you by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. It is produced by Rhea Laube (“lau” like pow…”bay”) with theme music by alumnus Idris Lawal (“la” “wall”). This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French or to find out more about uOttaKnow please refer to the description of this episode.