Grant Watson<How would you describe the bridge between your early years and your later academic work? Did you end up pursuing a trade?
Sebastian De Line<Yes—I don’t recall if I ever told you this, but I trained as a shoemaker and worked in that field for nineteen years, so that’s a long time. I guess one of the ways I would speak about my relationship with textiles would be through shoemaking; I even made shoes out of fabric. That’s actually how I ended up in Europe; it’s what brought me to The Netherlands, where we first met.
GW< That’s amazing! So how did it happen?
SDL< I was working for a Dutch-Canadian shoemaker when I was first apprenticing. It was in Vancouver, and he told me that if I really wanted to learn more about shoemaking, I should go to Europe. And then he put me in touch with his family because he came from a long line of shoemakers. I ended up working for his brother-in-law (his sister was married to a shoemaker!) and worked with them when I first moved to The Netherlands.
GW< How did you become a shoemaker in the first place?
SDL< Well, as I mentioned, when I left high school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I saw too many people going to university racking up enormous amounts of debt without any real understanding of what they might want to do to as a profession. What I knew about myself was that I liked working with my hands, and so I went in that direction.
I don’t remember this, but my mom has told me that apparently I was always drawing shoes when I was younger. . . [laughs]. But growing up, she was an artist herself so I remember her drawing all the time. That was my first introduction to the arts, through her practice and going to Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver (where she showed at the time), watching her install, or wandering around and looking at all the prints. And she also used to sew a lot at home. And make quilts.
GW< So you initially began an apprenticeship to learn how to make shoes?
SDL< Yeah. I started apprenticing in Canada for the first five years. I moved to The Netherlands when I was about twenty-four, to continue making shoes there. I primarily did orthopedics because that was the family business of the people I worked for, the Linneweevers. In fact, their last name—Linneweever—means “linen weavers”! At that time, the whole industry had shifted from bespoke to orthopedic shoes because it was a more stable business, financially (as the cost of orthopedics was often at least partially covered by health insurance). The economy had changed and so a lot of small, family-owned workshops specializing in bespoke shoemaking had made that transition.
The challenge is how to pay someone a proper living wage for these crafts, because the actual cost of bespoke shoes, say, exceeds the amount that most people can afford, so it creates this terrible situation where you have highly skilled craftspeople throughout the world who are actually paid very little, for the actual amount of labor it takes to produce the goods. It’s the same in the garment industry.
GW< How was it, coming from Vancouver in your early twenties?
SDL< It was very hard! [laughs] I went to Rotterdam first, and then after a year and a half I moved to Amsterdam. I stayed there and went on to art school at the Rietveld Academie after that. Prior to art school I had a period of working as a freelance shoe designer. I also worked as an apprentice for a Dutch shoe designer named Jan Jansen for a few years. I made prototypes of new designs, or one-of-a-kind things. Sometimes he would have exhibitions in museums based on his long history as a shoe designer, and I would make those special exhibition pieces. There were also special fairs where selected designers were invited to show pieces, and I helped him with those. My relationship to Jan was actually the early part of my moving towards art.
GW< So you were operating at quite a high level in the fashion world, at least in the shoe fashion world?
SDL< Yeah, in the Netherlands, yes. On a very small scale. When it comes to shoe design, unless you work for an established label or brand, it’s very challenging as an independent designer, you know? I always had the work in orthopedic shoemaking while I did those more artistic, fashion-related commissions. I had some touch points, these sort of big opportunities in that scene, but they were never my bread and butter. Sure, I would have loved to launch my own collection, but that requires a lot of capital; it just wasn’t realistic. People often have this kind of fantasy about fashion, they go to fashion school and they think, “I’m going to have my own line” and blah blah blah. The reality is that you can’t compete with those working in the industry—you need a lot of money.
GW< That’s interesting because I remember from London, around the same period. When would this have been, maybe mid-2000s? But also before, in the 90s, fashion students were coming out of Central Saint Martins and they would have three pages in Vogue, but would basically be operating in a very way similar to artists. They had a studio, very low budget production, and were quite precarious.
How did you conceive of becoming an artist and going from shoemaking to applying to the Rietveld; how did that thought emerge?
SDL< You know, to be honest, the thought emerged because of the restrictions that I was experiencing due to visa requirements and being a foreigner. Because I had originally been accepted to go to ArtEZ to study Product Design in Arnhem, where I could have also specialized in shoe design. I got into the school when I was twenty-nine, but could not attend because it was a full time course with no part time option, and with my student visa I would have only been allowed to work ten hours per week legally. So I couldn’t afford it, you know? And as an orthopedic shoemaker, most shops are open Monday–Friday, not on the weekends. So it wasn’t possible for me. I had to think about how do it. And there was a program at the Rietveld that was part time and in the evening.
GW< That’s mostly mature students, right?
SDL< Yeah. It was a five year program. So two years later I went to the Rietveld and started on that trajectory. And they didn’t have shoes, you know? [laughs] The program was “autonomous visual art” and it’s a really solid basic course, so I learned all these different mediums and it just opened up different possibilities for me. I was interested in moving towards installations, and that kind of came from my time with Jan.
GW< And then you studied at the Dutch Art Institute (DAI). What made you choose that as a next step in your art training?
SDL< After finishing my BFA in 2013, I worked with a collective of Dutch artists and designers for a year. A friend of mine, Nil Ilkbasaran, who I studied with at Rietveld, was applying to DAI and thought it would be a good fit for me. This friend knows me really well—we did our entire BFA education together—so I thought, I wonder what she sees in it. I had a look, and to be honest, when I went to DAI’s website I didn’t understand it at all. I found it beautiful and a little bit, you know, what’s the word I am looking for? Clandestine in some way! [laughs]
GW< Yeah, yeah. Obscure!
SDL< So I didn’t really know what I was getting involved in, but I found it intriguing and so I applied. Later I heard from Gabriëlle [Gabriëlle Schleijpen, Artistic Director, DAI] that they were on the fence about my application. They weren’t sure about letting me in because I was so studio focused as an artist. They didn’t know if I could really adapt to all the theory. And look at me now! [laughs]
GW< I know! She’s so proud of you! [laughs]
SDL< I even turned out to be one of her models, too! You wouldn’t have thought.
GW< Yes, it’s amazing! The trajectory is so interesting, and these different lives you’ve led and different ways of focusing your creativity and intelligence during various phases. We met at DAI, where I was a tutor. So I first encountered you as student and an artist, but also as someone who was always making work about language, thinking through those relationships.
SDL< It’s true that I was thinking about language, and also its relationship to weaving. Back to textiles! But I think you were really the one who encouraged me, at DAI, with the idea of a loom. You described to me how to make a simple loom. And I fashioned one, and made some work from there, kind of weaving language through it.
GW< And you later took that and translated it into another kind of art practice, which is an academic one. It seems like the same concerns are at play, it’s just that they are translated into an academic and musicological frame. How did that work; was it conscious or was it circumstantial? Was it politically motivated or was there a sense that you needed to move into the institutions to really address, in a more concrete way, these questions?
SDL< I wasn’t looking for a job in a museum. It came to me! [laughs] For the past year, I’ve been working at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre, which is the museum connected to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. When the museum opened in the fifties they inherited, early on, a collection from the university that was basically comprised of a lot of ethnographic and archaeological donations and gifts from alumni because the university is quite old by Canadian standards. It’s actually older than the dominion of Canada, so it’s one of the oldest in the country. There were a number of donations that were made to the classics department (which is our version of an archaeology department, since we don’t really have one). So, when the museum opened, basically a lot of the university departments went, “Great! Why don’t you take over these collections”! So, this museum covers a lot of different ground, let’s say. It has benefited from philanthropists who are associated with the university because their family were alumni, and their descendants continually donate to the museum. We have European painting as one specialization. We have a very large Inuit collection because we’ve had a number of scholars collect artifacts over the years, so it’s very strong when it comes to Dorset prints. And at the museum there is an interest in weaving, in the textile arts from the North, in Canadian settler traditions of quilt making—there’s also a dress collection.
GW< What is your role at the museum?
SDL< My job is primarily as a researcher. I research collections, I do curatorial research, and I am also the main Indigenous advisor for the museum. In that role, I facilitate relationships with the museum where I bring in elders from the nations that the ancestors were descended from. In order to adopt an Indigenous approach to how we return, or take care of, or access ancestors, and try to build relationships. That’s primarily what my job entails—I don’t know how to describe it, maybe like a bridge between the different nations. I work closely with the collections manager in order to develop guidelines that are based on nation-specific protocols, because we have ancestors from many different nations across the world. There are so many layers to this and I’m still slowly learning. Last year one of the collections I learned about is an Oceanic collection of bark cloth. It’s a collection that covers various places: there is bark cloth from Vanuatu, there’s bark cloth from Papua New Guinea, then there’s bark cloth from Taiwan, I believe, and also from throughout the Pacific Ocean and Oceanic nations. That project hasn’t started yet, but I’ve been researching who to contact. For example, in Vanuatu there is a cultural center that I would like to have an initial conversation with, because I’m not sure that they even know we have their ancestors in the museum. Most people this university didn’t even know about this collection.
One of the things that I’m learning about and that I try to be mindful of is that in every nation there are different teachings and different protocols concerning the different ancestors in the collection. For example, in some of those nations, weaving is considered primarily a women’s teaching, so some nations might have very specific protocols about who can actually even be in direct relation with them. Last spring I organized the first of what will be a permanent annual gathering of the Indigenous Advisory Circle (IAC). It’s mostly made up of Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe knowledge keepers, elders, and also people with specialized knowledge who are from the nations but also work in the museum sector—in conservation, for example—who can give us guidance in terms of access, care, and return. Those are our three main areas, the fourth being looking at things from a nation-specific approach, and that’s a challenge for museums. It’s a fine line between what I learn for myself, the relationship to my community, the ways in which I give back to my community, and what is appropriate for me to share within the settings of an academic environment where education is often an extractive process. So, there are things that I am learning about because they need to get done, but that I don’t write about specifically.
GW< You mean some knowledge contained within your practice that can’t be shared verbally or in a written form?
SDL< Yes, because these things are not for everybody to learn. Museums often say, “well, this knowledge is for everyone” and that’s a very western philosophical perspective based on philosophies of the Enlightenment period and thinking of knowledge as universal—that all knowledges are things that we should have access to. That’s different in a lot of Indigenous nations; they have very specific knowledges and not even everyone in our own nation learns all of those things.
When the museum says, “well, you know, we’ve got to keep these collections because we’re providing this service nationally or provincially or state-wise or locally, as a disseminator of knowledge and as a teaching tool.” Then the questions that often arise with Indigenous scholars (and people like Robin Gray, Dylan Robinson, or Candice Hopkins all talk about this) are a) who is this knowledge really for, and b) what is this particular knowledge that you’re sharing? Often times, given that provenance information is so sparse (if at all) with many of the older ancestors, one also has to ask, what are they actually teaching? It’s usually so abstracted, based on the abstraction of anthropology and ethnography practices in the nineteenth or twentieth century. An example that I’m thinking of is Robin West, who has written about the songs from her nation. She visited the Smithsonian, I believe, and I remember that she was telling us a story about how they had these wax cylinders of songs from her nation and she was asking them about repatriation, and asking, simply, “why do you have these songs?” and their response was, “well, because we can preserve and teach these songs,” And she was like, “that’s interesting. . . what do you know about these songs?” And what they realized is that they know so little about the songs. And so Robin asked, “why do you think you have the authority to teach this when you don’t even really know what these songs are about, and what they do, and what they are for?” She argued that they should go home, because that way her own nation can remember those songs, some of which haven’t been sung for so long because they were not even allowed to.
GW< So we first met at DAI, but reconnected years later when I invited you to participate in the bauhaus imaginista project, which I curated with Marion von Osten. As part of that project, in 2018 you contributed to the symposium “Learning From,” which took place in New York City and involved a research trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (the same one you just mentioned Robin Gray visiting). One of the things that we discussed on that visit was what terminology is used in the museum. Can you say something about that?
SDL< For example, language revitalization is really important to a lot of different Indigenous nations, because we haven’t been able to speak our languages or learn them. Historically every generation is assimilated into colonial states and forced to learn English or French or Spanish or Portuguese. That was one of the things that I was interested in when we visited the Smithsonian. When I learn about something from one of our elders, I don’t just look into a vitrine and see a Haudenosaunee ladle. What I might be taught about that ladle by an elder might be completely different than what is on the museum’s label. Starting with: what is the word for ladle in Kanienkeha? I’ll give you an example. I’m learning to be a fire keeper and the person I am learning from explained to me that in our language the word for fire is the root word for family. It’s really powerful to learn that there are so many more layers. If I go to a museum and I see a spoon, the way that I’m taught about those things in our culture is so much more holistic. If museums really want to facilitate these attempts at revitalization, we have to change our way of thinking about what museums are. Who is our community? And if they’re saying that our community is actually Indigenous nations, what does it mean to take an Indigenous-centered approach? And there’s a lot to navigate in that, because it depends. People will say different things. Some nations will say “return everything.” Some will say, “Woah! You keep an eye on it for us, when we need those ancestors for a ceremony or something, we would like them to come back to the community so we can do a ceremony and they can participate in it.”
GW< How did you start researching in the field of museology?
SDL< I took on a research fellowship after the first year of my doctorate. I worked for a group at Queen’s University who were researching Canadian museums. I was interviewing museum staff and administrators and curators and many different people who worked for the Canadian Museum of History and that’s how that particular kind of research opened up a whole world for me.
GW< Is there a continuity from your earlier practice as an artist concerned with the materiality of things, how they are spoken about, their lives, how they are institutionally framed, what they mean, and how they are mediated?
SDL< I was interested in the agency of ancestors, and that was something I didn’t have a lot of clarity about; it was more intuitive in some ways, based on my own beliefs. But now, working for a museum in relation to collections from different nations, it’s actually refining or making very clear some of those early interests that are part of my cultural way of knowing. I guess it’s based on what my values are, why it’s important to do that work, whether it’s in the museum, or in my practice personally, or in my relationships to communities that I’m trying to support in terms of what they want for their communities and their ancestors.
GW< You talked earlier about knowledge, and as a mediator in these situations, you’re making ethical choices, including about what you share or what you don’t share. Is this intuitive or are there rules to guide you?
SDL< I mean, there are rules, yeah, there are protocols. They’re not only intuitive, they are things I’ve learned from my community and my elders or the people that teach me. There are cultural protocols and sometimes when I’m learning new cultural protocols that I don’t yet know much about, some of that is listening internally. Listening to my ancestors or listening to my intuition—that is based on a knowing, you could say. Well, then I go and I check in with my elders and ask them questions and often times I find that the things they teach me do line up with what my feeling is about something; it kind of helps affirm it and teaches me more specifically what to do in different situations. Or if I’m not the one to do it, to figure out who is. What is the thing that needs to be done in that moment? A lot of it is situational.
I’ll be a bit more concrete. I work in a university museum, so people come and they want to have an encounter with one of the ancestors in the collection, and we will get asked these things. It might be a professor teaching in the museum, who wants to supplement their course content and there are parts of the collection that they would like to include in their class for that day, and then they might request a study room where we present some of the ancestors. When I think about ancestors as living beings in the collection, the way I’m taught about that is that we let them know. And so, I ask them, and a lot of it is based on consent.
I don’t bother the ancestors in the collection, but if someone is asking about a specific one, then I will ask. So, it’s kind of case by case. If a person is asking for a specific ancestor’s attention, I will either talk to an elder from a nation that’s not mine, or if it is mine, I will still consult with my elders on that. One of my teachers always says to me that we have to tell the ancestors everything that is going on. Part of our protocol is that I will introduce myself in the language, and I will introduce who I am, where I’m from, and what my role is at this museum. But also, what is a museum? What is this place? What am I doing there? What is my relationship to them? I need to explain things contextually and then I would say that there is this professor so and so who would like your presence, would you come and be a teacher in this classroom environment and teach about your life as a cedar woven basket? And I will ask every single one and I will feed them or gift them whatever they want. Then they explain things to me, and some of them are more open to it and some of them are not. So I go by that and also what the community wants as a whole for their ancestors in the collection.
GW< You mentioned two examples of textiles from the museum’s collection, one is bark cloth, and the other is Intuit weaving from the North of Canada. What points of contact have you had with those practices and histories?
SDL< It’s a bit hard from me to say because I’m not from those nations. Even if I’d learned some of those things, I don’t think it would be good protocol practice for me to share them. But I can say, I know from a Haudenosaunee perspective that we have weaving from corn husks. We have a lot of basketry, like birch bark baskets, and if you look at the weaving, in particular if you look at the corn husk weaving that we have, it’s pretty elaborate. We call it one of the three sisters where the corn, wheat, and squash are grown together. They have a support system in which those three crops support each other and so they are always grown together. Corn is really, really important to our nation, it’s a food source but it’s also a textile that we use too. We even have corn cut pipes!
GW< Which element of the corn gets made into fiber?
SDL< That would be the husk, you know, that grows around the cob. They are leaves of a kind, with really long fibers, and people use those for weaving. We make all kinds of things out of them. Some of the main things that you’ll see are corn husk dolls for young people, and certain medicine societies have corn husk masks. We have moccasins made from corn fibers, and there’s basketry made out of corn husks. There’s a lot of different kinds of belongings that we’ve made out of corn and still do! There are still people who carry on those teachings. In the six different Haudenosaunee nations, people learn within the community, on reservations, and through different community programs, whether that’s in elementary schools or community-led circles, like weaving circles, where people learn those skills or crafts, such as basket making.
GW< You were saying that some of these techniques have a gendered aspect; is that the case with weaving in Haudenosaunee culture?
SDL< Generally speaking, corn or food related items are considered women’s teachings,- primarily. But the way I was taught is that some people might gravitate towards specific teachings regardless of their gender because that’s really part of their bundle, so there are always men who would learn some of those teachings from their family. Your grandmothers would still teach their grandsons to listen and be aware of those things, just the same as young women will learn some things about men’s teachings. From what I was taught about our traditional teachings, responsibilities (our gifts) are not rigidly enforced by gender. We also reciprocally share. When someone is needed to fulfill a certain role or responsibility that supports the greater good of the whole community, whoever carries those teachings or gifts takes up the obligation to cultivate that learning and to pass it on to the next generation.