Chief Lady Bird & Aura Last - Sisterhood Through Art

Have you ever wandered through the Underpass Park at Lower River Street in Toronto? Did your jaw drop instantly as the stunning murals caught your eye?  Same here. I wanted to know more about the artists behind these pieces. Those unique works of art have a story to tell. They don't just appear on the wall out of nowhere. They take time, precision and thought.  The Indigenous artists behind the murals are two best friends, Chief Lady Bird and Aura Last. To my luck, Chief Lady Bird and Aura Last were awesome enough to invite me over to their studio and talk about community, art and what brought them together to create.

You guys are partners, best friends, aND HAVE DEVELOPED A SISTERHOOD. Tell me more about your relationship.

Chief Lady Bird: We met in March 2015 at 7th Generation Imagemakers here in Toronto. 7th Gen is a studio that’s set up for Indigenous youth to utilize; it's a space where mentorship is a priority, where youth are free to express themselves and learn valuable skills to further their careers. I began using the space in 2013. It's where I learned the art of mural-making and the importance of street art. I remember when I met Aura there; we were working on our respective projects and then decided to go outside to practice spray painting. By the end of the day, we knew we had found something special, and she actually texted me that night to say that she knew we were going to be good friends. Moving forward from that day, we began to collaborate closely on various projects. From murals, to illustration, to workshops and facilitation. The energy felt right, and our sisterhood began. Although we aren’t biologically related, the idea of kinship is prevalent within our relationship and can be attributed to our worldviews as Indigenous womxn.

I think our relationship is special because the work we do is very labour-intensive and it helps to have a sister to lean on when it all feels too much. To have a collaborator who is also a sister is incredibly beautiful and I don’t know what I would do without her.

Aura, Chief Lady Bird and Cruz

Aura, Chief Lady Bird and Cruz

Aura: Chief Lady Bird and I connected right away and our relationship grew into such a strong sisterhood. Collaboration happened so naturally and smoothly, sometimes we don’t even need to communicate verbally and we know what their next move will be. We’ve created a really cool balance. Chief Lady Bird has said it so well, so I echo what she has expressed. Our sisterhood is what keeps me going most days. It’s funny because I feel like we’ve known each other our whole lives, then I remember we only met in 2015. I am really grateful to have her in my life.

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"As an Indigenous artist, I never just do this for myself. It’s about creating pathways for our youth, creating and maintaining opportunities so they can gain the experience and confidence they need to thrive, and giving back to the community through visual culture."

What was your childhood like? Have you always been involved with art?

Chief Lady Bird: This is a complex question. For Indigenous people, our childhoods differ from those of non-Indigenous people. This may sound like a broad and vague answer, but I think it’s important to be honest about the weight that this question holds for a lot of people because our histories are steeped in trauma and colonial violence. A lot of said violence is often not recognized until adulthood, because it is so embedded in the systems we maneuver through as young people, and often our trauma is intergenerational and is a direct product of colonialism.

That being said, I was able to navigate various types of systemic oppression (mainly educational institutions) because I was raised in a loving home. I started making art at a young age, with the undying support of my mom and dad. They have encouraged me to create since I was just two years old. This fostered a lot of my creativity, which I used as a means of expressing myself. I often felt alienated by my schoolmates so I spent a lot of time in my room, just drawing. As I got older I began to use art to explore colonialism’s impact on me as an individual, as well as the collective repercussions. We also find it important to use art to help youth move forward in a good way and shine despite the systemic racism they’re up against.

Aura: Yes, this is a complex question. There is a lot of trauma that has happened throughout my entire life, especially as a child and teenager - I used art as a way to escape the world I knew. The reason I chose to continue my journey in art is because it has always been such an important part of my life. I grew up with my grandfather and grandmother being creative with gardening, sewing, cooking and woodworking. I enjoyed spending most of my time with them as I learned so much from them. This was my safe place. As a youth, my father encouraged me to follow art, and for that I am so grateful.

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What are your favourite ways of expressing yourself as an artist?

Chief Lady Bird: My favourite way of expressing myself is through mural-making. Particularly, spray painting large walls. The process is instinctive, almost, when you think about it, because our ancestors painted on walls too. So there are many layers of emotional and physical labour involved, but it’s also freeing and visceral too.

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Painting murals means creating ways of connecting. The imagery that we put out there is seen by the general public from all classes, genders, races, and other intersections everyday. We hope that the love we put into our work is palpable. But, mainly, we hope that it helps other Indigenous people feel represented in a culturally accurate way. One way that Aura and I strive to give back or feed/nourish our communities is through positive and culturally accurate representation in public spaces. Something that sounds so simple can make a world of a difference. I also think about it in terms of feeling represented on our own land base- on our own territories. That strengthens community.

Aura: I have many ways I love expressing myself. I don’t have a favourite because they are all so different. I love expressing myself through mural-making, sharing my visions and heart in such a large way. I love sewing, beading, and working with leather, using my hands in such a tactile way is so healing and expressive to me. I love creating portraits of Indigenous womxn to highlight their strengths and support their empowerment journey. Everything I create and share nourishes me and others who experience it. 

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Chief Lady Bird: Personally, my favourite mural that we’ve done is Skywoman and Thunderbird at Underpass Park! To me, it’s the perfect conversation between both our nations (Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee) and it brings a huge pop of colour to the greyness of the underpass. It also encompasses two core aspects of our cultures that exist at the heart of creation, at the beginning of everything.

Aura: The most exciting mural we’ve ever done is the mural Chief Lady Bird mentioned above. It was one of the most unique structures we’ve painted, and probably the most challenging. In addition, I love that we were able to discuss the diversity between our Nations, as my sister expressed.


Where do you find inspiration?

Chief Lady Bird: I find inspiration in my community… mostly through the strength and resilience of Indigenous womxn and youth. I try to create work that revolves around the resilience of our nations through images of empowerment. Empowerment specifically, as a concept, is rooted in reclamation, storytelling, lateral love, supporting each other through continuous cycles of emotional labour, helping each other break the harmful cycles that stem from systemic oppression and colonialism, as well as just celebrating all the goodness that exists in all of us. And when I think about that goodness, I think about strawberries- heartberries. They’re round and red and juicy and symbolize love and (re)conciliation.

Aura: To me, inspiration is everywhere, but specifically with my community. There are so many badass womxn and youth! I love working with empowerment, strength, truths, stories, lateral love, and mothering. I feel the most inspired when I get to collaborate with my community.

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Chief Lady Bird: Yes. Our practice exists at the community level because we don’t want to necessarily appeal to policy makers or people in power. Instead, we strive to build and maintain dynamic relationships with people in our communities so that we can listen to their stories, and translate it into visual culture. Ultimately, we want to shift the dominant narrative that centers Indigeneity as something to be fetishized to something that should be respected. We want people to know that Indigenous identities are not homogenous.

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I also want to say, as a side-note, that BIPOC and LGBTQQIP2SAA representation in creative industries is important because it shifts the narrative from a very eurocentric, hierarchal, colonial structure that is set up to benefit privileged people and transforms the industry into something that is accessible, teachable, and attainable. As an Indigenous artist, I never just do this for myself. It’s about creating pathways for our youth, creating and maintaining opportunities so they can gain the experience and confidence they need to thrive, and giving back to the community through visual culture. One way that our allies can help is by listening. And by “listening” I mean really fucking listening and not waiting for their turn to speak. We know what is best for our communities and we need our allies to support us and really hear us out.

Aura: It is extremely important to give back to community. I believe our practice encompasses this each day we create and share. It’s always about community, we consult with the people we are working with, and collaboration becomes the focus. Highlighting other people, sharing opportunities with youth and other womxn artists. I love what Chief Lady Bird said, “It’s about creating pathways for our youth, creating and maintaining opportunities so they can gain the experience and confidence they need to thrive, and giving back to the community through visual culture.” This is where my heart is at.

In addition to what Chief Lady Bird said about how others can help, show up, hold space with us, stand in solidarity with us, be present and know when it’s our turn to speak and your place to shut up and listen. Much like how we know when we need to shut up and listen as well.

Words: Lori Harito
Photography: Bettina Bogar

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