An Interview with Sage Paul

Interview by Gesig Isaac

Gesig: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your art.

Sage Paul: My name is Sage Paul. I am an Indigenous woman. I am Denesuline from the caribou clan and was born and raised in Toronto. I currently live and freelance in Toronto with my fiancée, playwright Cliff Cardinal, our dog Frodo (the happiest living being of all time), and our Bengal cat, Tiga. When I wake up, I start my day with the view of an art deco building from our 5th floor apartment window across the skyline. It’s like we live in the sky. Then I get to real life.

I am an artist and designer. My mediums include mixed-materials, craft, fashion, costume design and visual arts. Broad, though I feel the language and beauty of those materials and practices weave a succinct narrative. That narrative comes from a deeply personal place from within a collective experience and blood memory. My most recent work is called Re-Dress (Redress), which is a pair of caribou antlers I saved (…purchased back) from a trendy furniture store in Toronto, and with the help of my mom, I am clothing the antlers with the beaded-red peyote stitch.

In practice, I usually finish the production of my work with my sister and mom (in fact, I think my mom’s helped me bead or sew everything I’ve ever done). The very act of making clothing or art with my mom or sister is an act of resistance and the restoration of Indigeneity from the grounding of family. It’s this kind of space I hope to maintain, for the fundamental necessity that family and land thrive. This philosophy activates sovereignty, culture, and resistance for balance in our modern society.

Gesig: Tell us about your Setsuné project.

Sage: Setsuné means “grandmother” in Dene and we are an Indigenous fashion incubator founded by myself and Erika Iserhoff. Gabi Caruso of Red Pepper Spectacle Arts was also vital in the development of the Incubator. Setsuné was founded for the purposes of creating a collective platform for Indigenous women who create works in fashion, textiles and mixed-materials. It is a platform that provides access that we didn’t find anywhere else: to traditional practices, techniques and skills. We create and exhibit our works in an artistic context within an Indigenous framework. Setsuné is the largest project I’ve been working on for the last few years.

Our programming includes a series of hands-on workshops in an intimate communal environment facilitated by Indigenous artists from across Canada. The series takes place in downtown Toronto right now, with the goal of touring them, and includes hide tanning, fish scale art, silk screening, sewing, moose hair tufting, roach headdress making, regalia making and any other skills or knowledge we seek. These workshops are traditional, cultural and contemporary; they’re for anyone and everyone with amplified access for young, self-identified Indigenous women. The workshops are truly Indigenous in a traditional and contemporary sense in the very act of us doing it.

Our first exhibit speaking to cultural appropriation is called Indian Giver: Truth Telling and Narratives of Representation. Exhibited artists were selected by community members, and then artists worked together and independently to develop pieces in fashion, textiles and mixed materials. The final works are diverse in form and craft. They are unique, empowering and abstract as they relate to fashion. A group of 8 artists opened this exhibit to a really great response at Gallery 1313. The show will be touring Canada in 2017.

Access to this type of knowledge, skill and space has built a community of artists and creators that now work together outside of the workshops within their own practices. The strong sense of self-determination and community is a positive and inspiring outcome that we see from our programming. It is really rewarding and exciting. The platform we so greatly needed was actually more widely necessary than we knew. This community of Indigenous artists continues to grow. There are now multiple requests coming to Setsuné from mainstream and western organizations who want to collaborate with us and the artists we work beside.

We are committed to bridging the gap between Indigenous artists and the mainstream art, fashion and retail sectors. We will maintain community and sovereignty through our partnerships as we continue to grow. Two of our goals are to be working nationally and internationally and have a permanent home for a gallery, retail space and studio. We listen to each other and the artists we work with to ensure we are serving the needs and desires of our community.

Gesig: On the Setsuné website you mention being anti-fashion- tell us more! What does that mean?

Sage: Personally, being anti-fashion is about using fashion as a medium to share my vision, tell my story and assert my political views; and not a commodity. I am free to create work not confined by the constructs of the fashion industry or the history of western fashion. It’s a simple concept that I hope lets people experience my work in an accessible way.

The inclusion of “Anti-Fashion” on the Setsuné website is about shining light on the work that takes back our ways and stories implicated by cultural appropriation and commodification. Just being native is political because we are not supposed to be here. We have experienced the largest genocide in history and we’re the fastest growing population in Canada. There are now a number of artists using fashion, textiles and mixed-material as an art form to reclaim and broadcast our culture and ways. Anti-fashion builds a platform through the fashion industry and the mainstream to widely celebrate our stories and ways for and by us.

Gesig: Can you define what is “traditional”? Is it definable at all? Is that something you get hung up on in your work?

Sage: Yes, traditional is definable, although I know there are years and years of academic discussion about it that we could get into. Traditional is the way things were done in our community before me and us, the way we continue to do them and how we will do them in the future. To put it simply, traditional is cyclical, evolutionary and timeless in a way that respects our ancestors, family and land, and in turn, myself. Knowing and practicing traditional ways keeps us alive.

When it comes to getting hung up in tradition: I get hung up on a lot of things in my work. It’s a part of the challenge and process of creating. What comes out in the end is what the work wanted to say, whether or not there are traditional aspects.

Gesig: Are there taboos for you? Things we can and cannot touch as indigenous people who are looking to our ancestors and culture for inspiration?

Sage: There is an individual responsibility to be respectful and accountable for how we “use” culture- our own culture and others. If you think you’re doing something wrong then you probably are, and that is the light-bulb moment to go find guidance from Indigenous leaders, knowledge holders, community members… I think it’s important to question oneself throughout creation, especially if something is ceremonial or sacred. Being inspired is only one part of the creative process and doesn’t justify cultural use. Looking to ancestry or culture for inspiration stirs a lot of questions. This exploration makes our ancestors proud and resonates with future generations.

More importantly though, there’s a wave of non-Indigenous artists and designers who are looking to use their art to honour our culture and in doing so furthering their own career. My advice for these heart-in-the-right place assholes is that they should fuck off. Whatever that warm feeling in your heart that’s making you feel really good about yourself, you should ignore it. Buy a Cris Derksen album. Go to a rally. Vote with your heart; but don’t steal our fashion like you have everything else.

Gesig: What advice do you have for folks who maybe didn’t grow up around parents who created art, practiced their culture etc?

Sage: For those who are interested in art and for those seeking to understand more about their culture, my advice is to jump in! Dig deep for that knowledge, because it’s there: Setsuné, cultural and community centres, friends, family, elders, art, libraries, within yourself, everywhere. There’s a lot of really beautiful and not so beautiful parts of art and culture that will take a lifetime to understand. The important part is to just listen.

Gesig: Have you seen a surge in upcoming Native fashion designers in the past little while? If so, why do you think that is?

Sage: There is definitely a surge of Native designers and craft artists since even only ten years ago. It is important to acknowledge though that there are millions of Indigenous artists who create fashion and craft and have been doing it for a long, long time – craft, adornment and storytelling through dress and utility is ancient. I think modern visibility of our art has grown because of the fact that we reclaiming our ways. Since contact, our ways and culture have been violently exploited by the colonizer and we are only the first, second and third generation since the residential school system, which banned practice and visibility of our culture. We still thrive and continue building and rebuilding our platform and economy that supports each other. This includes supporting our artists, designers; buying Indigenous-made, and encouraging larger society to do the same.

Presently speaking, there is a sense of pride from within our community to see and wear our stories by our designers. It shows we are here and alive. On a practical level, we also live in the digital age that connects and grows our national and global Indigenous community and economy.

Gesig: What future projects are you excited about? Tell us about them!

Sage: There are a couple big projects confirmed for Setsuné, including the tour of our exhibit Indian Giver in 2017. Confirmed stops are Toronto, North Bay, Regina and several others to be announced. The tour will also offer hide tanning workshops and panel discussions. All details for this will be available in the new year with dates and venues at our website, as well as at our presenters’ sites.

Another project we are working on is in partnership with a large retailer that upcycles the unused textiles of the retailers’ products.  We are designing illustrations for a collection of textile-based products. We will work with Indigenous women specifically for the development of our own fashion and textile retail businesses. The completed collection will go on sale early next year in Toronto. The partnership will allow us to fairly employ Indigenous women artists and also supports the growth of Setsuné.

We are condensing our annual workshop series into a weeklong seminar. Old School Seminar brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, cultural leaders, and arts and crafts leaders for an immersive program of North American Indigenous dyeing and weaving workshops. Lectures will explore the symbolism, storytelling and identity of our culture through these mediums. Dates will be released in the new year with the full program of activities.

Personally, I am working on a few costume design projects, including design for two plays written by my partner Cliff Cardinal and a Young People’s Theatre production Munschtime!, a play based on the stories of Robert Munsch and directed by Herbie Barnes. I am also working on a play produced by Storefront Theatre called Divine about water diviners. I’m looking forward to dreaming up the style of these characters, it’s a magical experience to create and design someone’s vision and story. I’m super stoked about all of them!

I am also in the research and development phases of working on a multi-faceted, conceptual project of fashion, storytelling and video. And another fashion collection. These are for 2018.

Wow, 2017 and 2018 are going to be big years! Thanks so much for reaching out, this was a lot of fun to share.

Sage Lovell
Sage Paul is from the caribou clan. She loves beauty. Her work reflects her values in family, culture, and resistance through fashion and mixed-materials. She most recently was a curatorial leader and exhibiting artist of Indian Giver: Truth Telling and Narratives of Representation (2016). She has completed three fashion collections and designed wardrobe for film and theatre including collaborations with Danis Goulet, Kent Monkman and a Centre for Indigenous Theatre production directed by Herbie Barnes. Sage is the co-founder of Setsuné Indigenous Fashion Incubator.

Gesig is a mixed race, half-breed Forest-Femme demon. She currently resides in wolastoqiyik territory.

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