Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s work, Why the Caged bird Sings, was shown at the Mann Art Gallery last year and involved music written with inmates from Pine Grove
A Saskatoon interdisciplinary artist whose recent work has taken her to Prince Albert has been named a recipient of a 2021 Governor General Visual and Media Arts Award.
Cheryl L’Hirondelle was one of just eight artists to win the award this year, which recognizes recipients for their “incredible professional achievements, impact and influence on the global art community,” a press release said.
L’Hirondelle is an interdisciplinary, community-engaged artist and singer-songwriter. She’s currently based in Saskatoon but is of Cree/Halfbreed and German/Polish ancestry, with family roots from Papaschase First Nation, amiskwaciy wâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta) and Kikino Metis Settlement, Alberta.
“Her work critically investigates and articulates … upheaval the world is in in contemporary time-place with a practice that incorporates Indigenous language(s), audio, video, virtual reality, the olfactory, sewn objects, music and audience/user participation to create immersive environments towards ‘radical inclusion,’” a press release said.
“In current times of political, cultural and environmental upheaval, the world is in desperate need of artists like Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who can help us to create new social formations and to bridge knowledges, communities and histories.”
The press release also highlighted L’Hirondelle’s recent work, which pivoted due to COVID-19 and was held at the Mann Art Gallery as an interactive indoor and outdoor exhibit.
The exhibition, Why the Caged Bird Sings, came out of a 1999 visit to Pine Grove, the provincial women’s prison located in Prince Albert by Little Red River Park.
“There was something that stuck with me about the importance of songs and having one’s own song,” L;HIrondelle told the Herald in 2019.
In 2008, L’Hirondelle worked with Common Weal Northern Artistic Director Judy McNaughton to go into Pine Grove to sing songs and teach drum songs. But L’Hirondelle took the project further, working with literacy or cultural units to meet with inmates, write songs and record vocals within the facility.
Last year that project was expanded to include interactive, immersive work in collaboration with incarcerated and detailed populations in multiple correctional facilities.
The work included makeshift COVID-friendly VR headsets guests could use with their phones, and opened with a presentation and concert projected onto the Mann Art Gallery experienced by patrons from their cars.
While the award is for L’Hirondelle’s entire career, spanning about 40 years, L’Hirondelle said the project is indicative of what she has tried to do as an artist over her decades-long practice.
“I’m a community-engaged artist. Co-writing those songs inside the correctional centres … is indicative of the kind of work I make,” she said.
“The fact that it’s media, the fact that it’s got songs as well, it really does represent a large chunk of my practice.”
L’Hirondelle’s collaborator on that project, McNaughton, said she was thrilled when she heard that L’Hirondelle won a governor general arts award.
“It’s so well-deserved,” she said.
“She has a long running practice that’s been so generative for all of the people around her. She brings everybody into the wealth of her practice. All the people in the communities around her – and I think that she’s so generous that way. I think the Governor General award is one of those ways that not only her astounding art practice and research is acknowledged,b but I think in a lot of ways, her personhood and that kindness and generosity that she brings to the arts.”
McNaughton was also pleased to see L’Hirondelle’s recent work on Why the Caged Bird Sings receiving more attention as part of the award recognition.
“That work in corrections is, in so many ways, kind of invisible,” McNaughton said.
“There are no audiences. It’s working really intensely with a small group of people. The songs and the other products that come out of that are distributed, and then Cheryl’s research around it and what she puts out into the world academically and artistically in reference to that work is also put out into the world. But it’s really nice to … make that more visible to the general population.”
L’Hirondelle said the award is a great acknowledgement and feels “great.
“It’s based on the fact that I’ve been in the art trenches for that long … and just continuing to make new work. (To get noticed at some point from your community of peers, it’s really a thrill, and I’m grateful,” she said.
“I hope that Saskatchewan is proud of me. It’s a real honour to be able to say that I’m an artist practising in Saskatchewan, and really happy to be contributing in some way.”
While L’Hirondelle plans to keep creating works, she has also been slowly moving into academia.
She is almost finished a P.h.d, and hopes to make room for a new generation of artists.
“There’s a glass ceiling in the arts. That’s really difficult. Only every now and again, somebody’s going to pop through that glass ceiling and have a hope in heck to really have a practice,” she said.
“I’ve been r ally lucky that I’ve been able to make a living as an artist – that doesn’t happen very often. But in the native community, the glass ceiling is even lower.”
L’Hirondelle said she made the decision about eight years ago that she would move into academia and leave room for others. With COVID-19 and the associated economic changes, L’Hirondelle said she is hoping to move into more curating, writing critically for artists and finding larger research projects through universities.
“We know what its like when you have a very shallow, little pond and there’s only one big fish flopping around in it,” she said.
“It doesn’t leave much room for growth. “I’m trying to make a shift, being responsible and responsive to my community and still trying to contribute in a meaningful way.”
It’s not just a matter of raising that ceiling, L’Hirondelle said, but also about thinking about what’s happening under it.
“Are there ways that we can change the community dynamics that people feel like they’re more fulfilled?” she asked.
If that ceiling can’t be raised or broken through, she said, “can we also change the whole landscape underneath the glass ceiling so that those aren’t the only indicators of success – that you’re famous or that you’re rich?” she continued.
“Are there other ways that we can say – is our community healthy? Are people expressing themselves? Is everyone being looked after? Does everyone still have a space to work in? . Post pandemic, we’re going to have a hard time for a little while raising that ceiling right away.
“Can we refigure underneath something that might be more viable? I think there are a lot of other things that can be done other than just trying to raise that ceiling.”