The language of love: Artists Ursula Johnson and Angella Parsons on Mik'maw in their marriage

When Ursula Johnson teaches Mi'kmaw to her wife, Angella Parsons, it's about a connection to Johnson's first language, and a connection to each other.
Angella Parsons (left) and her wife Ursula Johnson (right). (Angella Parsons)

She started by asking a simple question: "Will you teach me your language?"

But the answer, like the question itself, is complicated.

Artist Angella Parsons is married to Mik'maw artist Ursula Johnson — winner of the 2017 Sobey Award, Canada's largest prize for contemporary art.

Each artist has an independent practice but when they make work together it's under the name Kinuk which translates roughly to mean "us, exclusive," explained Johnson who grew up speaking Mik'maw. "So, it's all about us and our relationship."

As Kinuk, Johnson and Parsons endeavour to bring the intimacy of their private relationship into public spaces. This fall, Kinuk performed L'nuwesimk: El-noo-wee-simk: Speaking Indian at Nocturne, an art festival in Halifax. And the piece opened with Parsons asking Johnson the only scripted line of their 45 minute exchange, "Will you teach me your language?"

"It's a big ask," said Parsons who began learning Mik'maw from Johnson when they started dating about 15 years ago. "There's a weight to that question."

It's a weight that Parsons and Johnson didn't feel when they first performed L'nuwesimk in 2013.

Events over the past five years — from the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Final Report in 2015, to increased discussions globally about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) — "have brought the weight of that question to the forefront," explained Johnson.

Parsons said she hopes the audience of L'nuwesimk gets to see a glimpse of what some of the dinner table conversations between herself and Johnson sound like. "I hope that they would experience a small window into our exchange that we've been doing for so many years in our home," said Parsons.

"We've taken that exchange that has been happening intimately and built upon that from our training as artists."

Parsons is continuing to learn Mik'maw from Johnson.

"It's an honour from my perspective to have my wife, who is settler descent, ask me if she can learn my language.... It's not just, 'oh I want to learn how to say all the jokes'.... She wants to learn the philosophies and the values behind it. And I think it's really important to look at both sides of that conversation," said Johnson.

"I think that's the beauty of the performance duo of Kinuk."