Arts·Q&A

For Nuit Blanche, a 100-foot Light Tipi will rise at Toronto City Hall

Artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle is bringing 13 Indigenous poets, dancers and musicians together for this interactive project. It’ll be open to the public through Oct. 10.

Performances from 13 Indigenous acts will light up the installation throughout the night

Night time photo of a group of people gathered under pillars of light. They hold smudge sticks which bloom with smoke.
Cheryl L’Hirondelle. Light Tipi, 2015. (Photo: Aaron Leon/City of Toronto)

When Nuit Blanche returns to Toronto this Saturday, towers of light will rise 10 stories above the street, beckoning visitors toward city hall. There, in the middle of Nathan Phillips Square, Nuit-goers will find Indigenous poets, dancers, musicians and other artists, all performing under a "Light Tipi."

Cheryl L'Hirondelle is the Saskatoon artist who's gathered them all together, and though she's brought smaller versions of the project to various cities over the years, nothing's matched the scale of this Nuit iteration. 

In Cree, L'Hirondelle's ancestral language, the project's called iskocēs: okihcitāw-iskwēw-kamik ohci, which she translates in English to sparks/embers for the leading-woman-lodge. The piece is meant to honour great women "who lead the way, care for us … and keep the home fire burning." And as one of Nuit's extended projects, it'll remain open in Nathan Phillips Square through Oct. 10.

But just for Nuit, the site will host live performances between 7-11 p.m., with more beginning as dawn approaches. Among the 13 featured acts: Louise B. Halfe (the Parliamentary Poet Laureate), dancer Brian Solomon, singer-songwriter Lacey Hill and Nikamok (L'Hirondelle's own musical project with Joseph Naytowhow, who'll also appear as a storyteller/MC).

CBC Arts reached L'Hirondelle by phone this week, hours before she hopped a flight to Toronto. She gave us a quick preview of what's in store for Nuit. 

A crowd gathers in the dark of night. A tipi-shape emerges from the shadows, made of beams of light.
Cheryl L'Hirondelle. Light Tipi, 2014. (Photo: Manolo Lugo/City of Toronto)

What will be happening at Nathan Phillips Square Saturday?

The project is a 100-foot high tipi made of light beams, and there's also an AR element that will be accessible to the public throughout the night. You'll be able to sort of be amidst depictions of the life force, as we would call it in Cree worldview. So it's going to be kind of cool because I'm sure people are going to take photos of themselves within this life force — underneath a 100-foot high tipi in the middle of the night.

In the Native community, we like to bring our community along with us to whatever we do. And so what I proposed was that because there's 13 points to the hour between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. — and there's also 13 main tipi poles — I wanted there to be 13 different performances that would happen.

Each of our tipi poles has a value associated with it, and it's a holistic structure, you know, it's a holistic, life-affirming structure. Some of the performers are really taking that to heart and are choosing songs that they're going to perform in the spirit of being a spark underneath that big tipi.

What are those values?

Ah, the values! I could sing them to you. (laughs) That's going to be my performance, I'm singing them.

So the tipi pole values are: obedience, respect, humility, happiness, love, faith, kinship, cleanliness. Then gratitude, compassion, strength, good childrearing and hope.

What can you tell me about what the Light Tipi will look like? How is it made?

They're the kind of stadium lights that you'd see at a big event, you know, crisscrossing the sky.

It's a project that I've done before. In smaller versions I've done what's called a participatory action performance art piece where we used hand-held high-lumen spot beams. I'd get a group of people to actually become the tipi, and then we'd use sage smudge to kind of make the smoke particles that are needed to intercept the light and make the beam look like a beam.

In this case, because the big spotlights have high enough lumen, and there's enough moisture in the air and pollution, it really looks like a pole.

Was there any significance to the location? Why is the tipi going up on this site?

The curator, Dr. Julie Nagam, selected it, but I think there's obviously a commentary there. What's really interesting is the city has very graciously agreed that the tipi will stay up for an additional nine nights after Nuit Blanche. It's quite lovely that the city is making that gesture.

The word in my language for "welcome" actually means "there's room." So if you came to a tipi, someone would say, "There's room, come in." I think that's quite a symbolic gesture that the city is saying there's room. There's room — and we'll leave this tipi up and be open. 

Night time photo of a crowd gathered in front of the Toronto skyline. Beams of light forming the shape of a tipi emerge from the centre of the composition.
Cheryl L'Hirondelle. Light Tipi, 2016. (Cheryl L'Hirondelle)

You mentioned a moment ago that this isn't the first time you've done a version of this. How long have you been doing this project?

The very first time I was able to actually figure out how to manifest it was in 2014, I think. I was actually in London, England, on the side of the Thames. It was a much smaller version.

You've even brought it to Toronto before, is that right? 

I did one here in 2016 and it was at Fort York

John Tory showed up, and because, you know, I don't live in Toronto anymore, I remember saying to him, "Who are you?" (laughs) He showed up wearing very business-like clothes and we were all out there in winter jackets and winter boots and toques and mitts. I said, "Who are you?" And he said, "I'm the mayor of Toronto." So I completely and immediately enlisted him in helping to manifest the tipi, and he was lovely.

Beyond the sheer size of the Light Tipi, are there other ways this Nuit Blanche project is unique from other versions you've done in the past?

Well, when it's a smaller sort of performance event, it's sometimes done in unauthorized spaces. And sometimes there's no kind of clearance that has been granted and it really is just a small group of people going somewhere and doing it together. You know, "DIT," as it's called. 

So this is very different in that the city's agreed and they're supporting it. 

I've never had big performances underneath the tipi. Usually, I'll ask one person — you know, does anyone want to come and sing one song? And that'll be it. So this is going to be very, very different in scale. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Nuit Blanche. Various locations, Toronto. Oct. 1. 7 p.m. to sunrise. www.toronto.ca/nbto

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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