Note from the Author:

My homelands are in southwestern Nigeria. I am an Indigenous Yoruba from lands which have been swallowed into this nation state formulation for the benefit of white supremacist imperialism. The seriousness with which I approach my identity as Indigenous is not one that can be overstated. As yet, Indigenous African identity, that is the Indigeneity of continental Black African’s whose known/most recent ancestral connections are within the landmass of Africa, has gone more or less untouched, or dare I say, ignored. The fight for Indigenous African sovereignty is one I would argue does not get attention because positioning the fight in those terms alone is an anti-neoliberal, settler-threatening act of coalition building with global Indigeneity.

Nevertheless, that is the place from which I enter my critical relation to the work of Indigenous activist and artist Ka’ila Farell Smith, the work of a creator and activist (like me) who(like me) is of peoples who are ‘precolonial’ with a “narrative that is geographically, cosmologically and ontologically tied to their land. [Whose] relationship to land and identification as such, starts with territory which carries a polyvalence regarding ancestry, origin, spirituality and so forth”1 albeit with important differences along with those similarities.

When I spoke to Ka’ila to prepare for this essay, I was living in an Airbnb I had rented in Portland, OR for six weeks. At the time I was working for an affordable housing organization to help secure stable housing for marginalized people, the kind of stable housing that I could not secure for myself. During that time in Portland, spending time with Ka’ila’s work in person, via the MESH exhibition at Portland Contemporary, and speaking with her one on one, the urgency of Indigenous sovereignty struck me in new ways. After my time in Portland, I would go on to move four times in the next month and remain without long term or stable housing for about a year. The complex connections between neocolonialism, infrastructural breakdown, and resource extraction that lead to my experiencing long-term placelessness began to illuminate through my communion with Ka'ila and her work.

Ka’ila’s Artwork

The first works I saw from Ka’ila were the Land Back series. I was searching for works to decorate the interiors of the office of my employer. I wanted to find works that were unapologetically decolonial, that could stand as a haunting in that space, a recognition of the settler-colonialism that made the office of this mostly-white organization possible. Markings that would be there long after I left.

In her Land Back series, Kai'la outright refuses settler claims to land and attempts to hide colonialism within some distant past. In these works, land, historically imagined by western epistemology as abstract, object, and able to be extracted from, is an alive and complex palimpsest. Ka’ila brings together both the material and the immaterial, the conceptual and the tangible. Wild harvested pigments from Klamath lands, barbed wire, and other detritus from the

1 Roxanne, Tiara. (2019). Digital territory, digital flesh. A Peer-Reviewed Journal About. 8 Machine Feeling. 70-80. 10.7146/aprja.v8i1.115416.

land used as stencils. Ka’ila takes us beyond the representation of the land, bringing its materiality to be felt and embodied through the works. Each piece holds an invitation to be briefly with Klamath land if we are willing to be present without needing to hold the fiction of circumscription. If we are willing to betray the colonial conceptualization of land as something static enough for colonial notions of ownership. The works offer us a chance to understand that land is not merely a site but an emergence, not a romanticisation but an archive of what was and what is.

Ascend (2021) and Descend (2021) of the Land Back series include visible strokes of rage, pain, and aggression; the red dragged hand markings repeat themselves in Kai’la’s pieces on Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons. Marks that look like scratches and lines that suggest movement and direction force us to imagine Kai’la making the work, her hand and her tools, as well as the energy and emotions behind this mark-making. These exist alongside markings that suggest ease and respite, large sections of white paint, repetitive halo-like shapes, and conical openings that suggest ascension or landing. Explosions, consolidations, moving above, breaking through, going beyond; I see these sentiments present in both pieces. A sense of grappling with the darkness and horror of Indigenous conditions, such as the conditions of the mass murder in MMIP. The presence nonetheless of spirituality, the notion of something beyond this material world. But in presenting these themes in both pieces, Kai'la does escape the trap of romanticizing the spiritual world and erasing the gruesomeness of this one. Instead, we are shown a politicized spiritual vision between the two works that resists binary opposition. The Land Back series strikes me as a series of anti-imperialist living landscapes and altars that honor the every unfolding-ness of land.

Ka’ila’s voice as a multidisciplinary artist, a writer, and painter, comes through in the poetic use of language in her work. One of the pieces that strikes me the most in its evocative use of language is her print “Alien Invasion, 1492,” a five color lithograph developed during her residency at the Crow Shadow Institute of the Arts. Amidst dark and moody colors, Black vigorous lines that fill up a majority of the canvas is the word “un-erasing”. For me, these words speak to a powerful message about loss that suggests erasure or loss, is not final. Whether through necromancy or ritual, perhaps through the vigorous lines made in the piece itself, the artist is undoing erasure, the most grief-inducing and ongoing legacy of colonialism. The possibility that we as Indigenous people can “un-erase” suggests a capacity to view ourselves as newly powerful within the settler- Indigenous hierarchy.

The graphic elements of singular words can be seen throughout the Land Back series. Many are words that have been used as propaganda to mediate US imperialism’s imaginings of Indigenous peoples in North America. “X-tinct” (MMIP, 2021) “Savage'' (Ghost Dance, 2021). Others are directives that could be spells. Words that seem to by their utterance—make something happen, or restore something. “Skoden (let’s go then)” “Stoodis (let's do this)” (SKODEN, flat 1, 2019) or more intensely “Human” (Get Out NDN, 2018), “LAND BACK” (Extraction, 2021), and once more “Un-erase” (I I I I, 2018). They remind me as a viewer and artist of the layers of archival work that go into creating from an Indigenous worldview and perspective. Not only does the inclusion of these words act as a poetic element in the reading of

the work, these works also mediate or label the pieces themselves in ways a museum placard or words within an archive would. Instead of creating a clean and un-messy archive, though, we are offered one full of ecology, rage, emotion, entanglements, and layering.

A sense of archive is present within the works that expands far beyond the lettering within the pieces. In creating energetic gestures that go beyond gentle brush strokes, that seem to erase the hand of the artist. Instead, her work leaves us with echoes of her body. We can almost visualize her making these works. In choosing to create markings that suggest and evoke her embodiment, Ka'ila imposes the presence of the living archive that is the Indigenous body. The works are evidence of the constantly evolving legacy of Indigenous ancestors and of those who will become ancestors. They are memories, documentation of living.

To present the directive of land return within artworks as Ka'ila does is critical and impactful because aesthetics are the key site of how decolonization is and continues to be abstractified, and turned into what Eve and Tuck describe as 'metaphor.' Ka'ila uses aesthetic mediums, the naming of her works, presence of pigments from her Indigenous land to ruin the potential for her artwork to be a site of settler comfort. These pieces all materially tell a story of Indigenous sovereignty. The drawing lines, boundaries, limitations, creating new terms of relations, new demarcations of refusal are all the documentation of Indigenous movement, Indigenous agency, agency granted from the land and Indigenous relation.

Ka'ila’s Activist Work

Settlers of all backgrounds, whether white or non-Black people of color– as they often are in my part of the world, attempt to erase the settler versus Indigenous divide as part of the larger settler-colonial project. What moves me about Ka'ila’s work, both as an activist- artist, is that every space she is in is about refusing to allow these attempts to go off with ease. Several times a year, you can find Ka'ila placing her body on the line with other Indigenous people seeking to protect the earth. Ka'ila uses her voice, platform, and body to stand against pipelines, lithium extraction, and in opposition to wealthy corporations. Her work is far from symbolically activist; in 2021, she stood against government bodies like the Oregon Department of Justice as one of four plaintiffs suing the department for their illegal surveillance of herself and other water protectors opposing the Canadian corporation Pembina's Jordan Cove Energy Projects on their ancestral homelands.

In her 2019 open letter “Why I Refuse To Hang My Paintings in Governor Brown’s Office,” the deepest and unapologetic intersections of Ka'ila’s activist-artist hyphen are on display. As she states straight to the point and without mincing words (emphasis my own):

I am an Indigenous artist based in Klamath County. Recently, Governor Kate Brown invited me to show my art at her Salem office as part of the annual “Art in the Governor’s Office” program—an invitation they say is “considered a lifetime honor.” I declined.

I said “no” because Brown can’t have it both ways. She can’t support Oregon tribal members by showcasing our art while at the same time refusing to stand up for us when a huge fossil fuel company tries its very best to ram a fracked gas pipeline through our traditional lands—a pipeline that would threaten our sacred sites, the natural resources we have harvested for millennia and the safety of our women.

Ka'ila—like any artist who claims to center their work around values of justice, purpose, and community, works and moves within the context of a dominant culture that does not share any of those values. In fact, in the neoliberal and tokenistic world of contemporary art, these values are lauded in theory and antagonized in practice. The steady stream of representative politics that is ever present in galleries is not to be questioned, and the clear conflict of interest between the aforementioned values and the powers at large are meant to be swallowed under “compromise.” The social capital that is promised through allegiances with people in power is meant to have more meaning than the urgency of Indigenous sovereignty.

In the face of this environment where becoming a token within neoliberalism is supposedly the best that the world has to offer marginalized artists, Ka'ila said, “No.” And not only did she say no, but in her open letter she invites this refusal into public discourse. It is one thing to resist the temptation to partake in an exchange of capital that is dehumanizing your people at large.t is another thing and a different act of courage altogether to post your “No” in the public sphere to honor your ancestors and start a conversation. Her “No” is a no to prioritizing representative politics above structural change, and no to the constructs that compel marginalized creators to do the same out of desperation.

As an Indigenous Nigerian artist who works within the context of Africa’s most popular, most neoliberally caustic, and extractive art scene, the example is profound for me. Ka'ila’s example of what it means to be an artist who navigates from a sense of collectivism and refusal has been life-affirming. As she states in her own words:

The role of creative fugitivity in a corporate colonial empire has become essential. As a content creator, writer, mark maker, and mentor, I’ve removed my labor from the urban center focusing my conceptual practice of performative painting with the land. This performance of refusal and flight is rooted in learning decolonial modes of resistance and freedom for my ancestors and contemporaries.

Ka'ila illuminates the risk and the great courage it takes to be an Indigenous artist living Indigenously. The risk that it is to be an artist within the extractive capitalistic framework colonialism has forced all of us into, risking loss of financial gain and, therefore, material security for the sake of their values. I am from a place where the dominant art scene is such that those who have the privilege and social capital of being able to push back against these systems are still too caught up in narratives of Nigerian elitism, a sense of victimhood, and respectability politics. Even when they know intellectually that radical refusal is necessary, but emotionally are too filled with shame and fear to attempt. The illusion is that there is no other way, no choice, and no options. Though I have always known in my heart these limited imaginings to be false, seeing a good example that affirms new possibilities has breathed more courage into me.

To me, Ka'ila’s work as an activist-artist is a heartfelt example of what it means to live Indigenously. More and more, I believe that as an Indigenous person, my work in the world now is to go beyond being Indigenous by birth alone. To instead, move in a way of seeing and being and relating to the earth that honors and protects with reverence ties to land, people, and Indigenous ways of life. This is an opportunity not necessarily afforded to all, and yet for many of us that are granted this opportunity, we have- under the tide of capitalistic extraction and imperialism- lost our hope to live Indigenously and our knowledge that it is a possibility. While settler-ism relies on an attempt to erase these stories and Indigenous ties to their land, Indigenous art such as Ka'ila’s force such attempts to face their reckoning.

In October of 2021, when I first connected with Ka'ila for the purpose of this essay, I was housing insecure. I spent the better part of that year, August 2021 to August 2022, housing insecure. This time of challenge has illuminated a link between housing precarity and colonialism that was previously hidden for me, hiding behind internalized meritocracy narratives, shame, and victim blaming. I have been challenged to refuse the imperialist narratives that would have made me not understand that my placelessness is the result of settler-colonialism and imperialist capitalist extraction both in my homelands and in North America.

Throughout 2021-2022, I struggled to find the words for this essay. I struggled to find what I sought to say about Indigenous sovereignty in Ka'ila’s work and the clear courage and audacity to claim what belongs with us; our Indigeneity, our land, and our righteous indignation against any forces that would have us believe otherwise. Rather than belonging to us, Indigenous land belongs with us, in our hearts and daily lives, as part of our embodied experiences, art, and writing. I began to find the words that affirm this as I found my way back to my own Indigenous homeland and to my righteous indignation against the forces that have sought to erase my Indigeneity, my right to Indigenous sovereignty, and sought to make me placeless. It is no accident to me that I find the ability to express the impact of Ka'ila’s work on me, as I also find the path to rematriate home. More than anything else, I am grateful for the kinship and mentorship Ka'ila’s purposeful work offers Indigenous artists globally seeking to live Indigenously. I am grateful for the emboldened courage her work and ways of being have impacted and will impact people like me, Indigenous kin she may never meet.

This essay was commissioned by Ditch Projects in conjunction with Ka’ila Farell Smith’s exhibition Ghost Rider: Performing Fugitive Indigeneity, with generous editorial support from Critical Conversations and The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.

Mukhtara Ayọtẹjú Adékúnbi Yusuf (they/them) is the descendant of Yoruba tradeswomen, așǫ oke weavers, onifá, and eleégún. Through practice and theory, warp&weft, writing and design, their work highlights the generative qualities of indigenous thinking, story-healing, relations and accessibility. Their practice explores ontology and relationality beyond the individual. Through rematriation, narrative and Yoruba theology, they explore methods to heal the ontological wounds created by coloniality, heal the Indigenous-self and recover its relationship to non-human others.

Mukhtara is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at NYU Tandon’s School of Engineering in the Integrated Design and Media program and holds a BA from Dartmouth College, an MA in Communications and Media from UCSD and an MFA in Design from UT Austin. Mukhtara’s courses cover black embodiment and spatial design, racialised trauma, settler colonialism within the African context, and black and indigenous ecologies. Mukhtara is the founder of ILẸ an indigenous agricultural healing laboratory based in Ibadan, Nigeria, as well as the organising founder of African Indigenous Sovereignty.

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