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Christos Dikeakos: Sites & Place Names at CAG

Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa

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Crossing over and remaining on stolen land

Just over thirty years ago, in the summer of 1992, Christos Dikeakos presented an exhibition of photographs at the Contemporary Art Gallery. While that sentence in itself does not sound particularly radical, the contents of the exhibition certainly were. Dikeakos has been a member of the contemporary art scene in Vancouver since the late 1960s—and exhibited a lot in this city before and since 1992—but the timing of this exhibition was significant. At a time when Indigenous voices were just finally beginning to be represented with a meaningful degree of agency across popular culture, Dikeakos, a white immigrant settler, shared a public exploration of the aesthetics of being a foreigner to stolen xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ lands, further magnifying the importance of Indigenous voices in the spaces we inhabit.1

Though their names were not listed in the exhibition texts, Dikeakos collaborated with Sḵwx̱wú7mesh- and Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking knowledge-keepers to make panoramic images of sites in Vancouver, overlaid with glass panels that bear the traditional names of the places photographed. Aptly named Sites & Place Names, this exhibition immediately stood out as an exciting and striking part of CAG’s archive. While collaboration with Indigenous knowledge keepers is not a substitute for opportunities given directly to Indigenous artists and creators, I was deeply intrigued by the idea of exploring the positionality of being an immigrant settler on stolen land.

Migrants navigating existing systems of colonization and white supremacy are absolutely  impacted negatively; as a racialized person who is also a migrant, I have experienced this firsthand. I know what it’s like to experience negative stereotypes and perceptions of white settlers—what it’s like to speak English with a multi-lingual speaker’s accent, to be asked invasive or accusatory questions about my upbringing and culture, and to be denied opportunities as a result of my identity. These experiences are also of course compounded at additional intersecting oppressions, such as being of a marginalized gender, fatness, queerness, disabled-ness, etc.

That being said, immigrant settlers often hold privilege and are complicit in the ongoing colonization of stolen land. Though non-white home ownership is largely below the national average, Indigenous people have the third-lowest percentage of homeownership across racial categories identified in Canadian Censuses.2 While this colonially-gathered data is helpful to provide clear information, the attitudes that result in these material conditions can be seen in a variety of contexts. An example that comes to mind is when I became a “Canadian citizen” (in October of 2020, just a few months before I discovered this exhibition in CAG’s archive), and the presiding white judge said to all the brown people taking part in the mandatory ceremony, “Now, when you look up at the mountains, know that they are yours.” It is crucial to the continuation of the colonial project that part of being a non-Indigenous Canadian involves a false sense of ownership of land that has been stewarded for thousands of years, before the nation-state even existed. Although gestures of mobility, like “Canadian citizenship,” are conditional and can be taken away, migrants—especially those who are racialized—are often forced to align with the Canadian nation-state out of survival, and encouraged not question the role we play in colonial violence, such as land theft.3 While the necessity for people to migrate often comes as a result of land theft in our regions of origin, questioning our positionality is a necessary part of the struggle to dismantle white supremacy, which encompasses the xenophobia that directly affects us.

Dikeakos’ exhibition Sites & Place Names serves as a layered way—both materially and conceptually—to examine the complex relationship immigrant settlers navigate every day, in the medium that, presumably, has brought him solace and has served as a way for him to process the continually changing world around him. The words Dikeakos shared in his artist statement—based on a letter he sent to the Musqueam and Squamish Band Councils when he hoped to embark on this project—felt incredibly familiar to me: from the age he emigrated and arrived to Canada with his family (he was nine years old and I was eight), to the difference in language, to the early interest in art, to the curiosity about Indigenous histories that seem to be hidden just below the surface of the bright, shiny, loud Canadian national identity.4 Though much of CAG’s archive was interesting to me, Sites & Place Names really hit close to home in more ways than one.  Aside from the parallels in our identities, personal histories and creative interests, Dikeakos’ project also included images of sites that were physically situated near the place I live.

I was born in what is colonially known as Guadalajara, Jalisco. I emigrated to and spent most of my youth in Amiskwaciwaskâhikan (so-called Edmonton). When I moved to MST (anglicized version of the host nations, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh) territory over five years ago, I decided to live in the West End neighbourhood. Though I’ve moved once, this is the only area in the city I’ve lived in. As I’ve learned over time, in large part due to the Squamish Atlas website made by the Sníchim Foundation (formerly known as Kwi Awt Stelmexw), this specific part of the local region holds a lot of cultural significance with our Indigenous host nations. Given this knowledge, it made sense to me when I recognized two sites included in Dikeakos’ Sites & Place Names as landmarks that were a close distance from my house, and these images felt like key anchor points when I was considering creating a response to this project as part of my residency with CAG.

Christos Dikeakos is one of the artists that has permanently linked Vancouver’s contemporary art world through the realm of photography. Long before this, before the land was colonized and named “Vancouver,” there was an incredibly rich world of Coast Salish weaving production in this area. Thanks to contemporary artists such as Ang George and Debra Sparrow, Salish weaving continues to be a force in current art discourse of the area; their work in education and revitalization also allows this to be a form of work where other young Indigenous artists can bring their own voices. Jalisco—the area that I’m from—is another area with an abundant history of textiles, particularly those involving weaving and embroidery. Using textile creations as a way to process some of the concepts that Dikeakos raised with Sites & Place Names felt like the perfect way to both honour my identity and refer to a manner of making that is widespread and important in this region.

The two sites I wanted to revisit from this exhibition were X̱wáy̓x̱way (colonially known as Lumberman’s Arch) and Áx̱achu7 (colonially known as Beaver Lake). Though the latter is listed in Sites & Place Names under the Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ name “hahcha,” I used the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name listed in the Squamish Atlas, which served as my primary external source of reference for this project. I chose these two sites somewhat randomly, based on the images I saw from the exhibition and their proximity to me, but they are sites with important connected histories in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh culture. While “X̱wáy̓x̱way” translates to “Sx̱wáyx̱wi mask place,” it was at Áx̱achu7 where two masks are said to have risen to the top of the water, after the lake took audible, echoing breaths.5 It was this site that I decided to weave an image of first, testing out the method of striped colour-blending used in sarapes (woven textiles from Jalisco) on the luminous greens and yellows of the water plants for the first time in my work.

The site of X̱wáy̓x̱way, however, is nearby and was a permanent living village for over 3000 years, until the settlers seized the land and began evicting Sḵwx̱wú7mesh families to build the road around what in the 1880s came to be called “Stanley Park.” I took this same road to visit the site, out of both care for my body and its sometimes unpredictable chronic pain, and for convenience. I hadn’t actually visited X̱wáy̓x̱way before embarking on this project, though I knew from Dikeakos’ images that it was a public park or play area of sorts. In both the photos from 1992 and in my visit in July of 2022, there was an eerie emptiness to it. Though I can’t say with certainty what time of year Dikeakos’ photo was taken (it looks like the rainy winter season), even at the height of summer, I, my two friends, and one of my dogs were the only ones walking through the brightly-coloured splash park during most of our visit. Walking across the turquoise swirls on the pavement, I was intrigued by an oddly-shaped climbing structure; upon a closer look, I noticed that it was clearly shaped like a steamboat, with its flag at full mast. The imperial absurdity of this was striking—the city had decided to create a public reference to the vehicle that was crucial to the colonial commandeering of the region, specifically in an area where people lived for so long before being forcibly displaced. Before this happened, there were large multi-family longhouses, where many potlatch ceremonies were held.6 It was a longstanding site of familial growth and celebration, but now the smell of warming fires and red cedar are long gone. The stark contrasts between intergenerational living, settler colonialism, and now supposedly-playful public places made the documentation of this site feel crucial to this project. The history of this site aligned well with Dikeakos’ interest in creating a discourse for “countering the postcard image of Lotus Land that has come to characterize the public representation of Vancouver.”7 I knew I wanted to include this appalling boat monument in my own woven response, and decided to make it central to the image, though in my weaving the flag on the boat unintentionally fades back into the mountains, dissolving some of the shameless arrogance with which it stands in its physical form.

In order to also incorporate the textual elements—which felt like the crucial part of including ancestral knowledge of the land—in my textile response, I decided to create accompanying embroideries on canvas. In these, I wrote the text similarly to how it appears on the Squamish Atlas, with the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name bolded, then the translation of the name into english, and then the colonial name below, inverting the word that appears with quotation marks in order to question the validity of the colonial names. While Dikeakos incorporated this traditional language knowledge though the use of sandblasted glass panes—alluding to public information didactics and perhaps veils of national idealism—I wanted to incorporate it through a material that matched the tenderness of hand-woven pieces, and emulated a manner of making from the area in which I was born. I attached these embroideries to the bottom warp threads, permanently joining these local sites with their true names.

It is undoubtedly a complicated thing to be of a marginalized identity on stolen land, especially when your experience of marginalization is based on leaving the land where your ancestors existed. These complexities also certainly don’t negate the privilege that is involved in the ability to pursue opportunities of survival and joy through inter-national mobility. Though the act of making art does not by itself resolve or even necessarily lessen the complexities of these conflicting truths, synthesizing projects like Dikeakos’ Sites & Place Names help to generate conversations that question the colonial project. Bringing attention to the shortcomings of popular perceptions, and systems of power, has a real effect on many communities’ ability to thrive.

Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa

Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa (all pronouns) is a racialized immigrant settler of mixed heritage. They live and work on the stolen ancestral territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ families and nations. They are a Disabled bilingual worker, learner and artist whose practice incorporates reading, writing, weaving, printmaking, and more. Keimi’s work holds central their learnings from Black Feminism and practices of Disability Justice. They are interested in anti-colonial research and learning, accessible spaces, and liberated futures. Keimi was the Timelines artist-in-residence at CAG in 2022.


1 This amplification of Indigenous voices was due in large part to the recent Oka Crisis of 1990, an illegal occupation of Kanien’keha:ka land that garnered a high amount of media coverage, allowing Indigenous land defenders to speak publicly on an international scale.

2 Housing Research: Research Insight November 2021, page 12. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

3 Revocation of Citizenship. Government of Canada: Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship.

4 Christos Dikeakos, Artist Statement. Published in the exhibition publication for Sites & Place Names, 1992.

5 Áx̱achu7. Squamish Atlas.

6 Randy Shore, “Before Stanley Park: First nations sites lie scattered throughout the area.” The Vancouver Sun, March 17.  

7 Contemporary Art Gallery News Release. Christos Dikeakos: Sites & Place Names. 1992.