The Mirage of Who is Keeping the Dream Alive: A Conversation with Julianna A.S.

Julianna and I agreed to meet at a local Toronto cafe called Neo Coffee and Bar, where we recorded this interview on a lovely, bright Wednesday afternoon.

Julianna and I agreed to meet at a local Toronto cafe called Neo Coffee and Bar, where we recorded this interview on a lovely, bright Wednesday afternoon. We settled in: a matcha tea and strawberry sponge cake for me, an iced coffee and matcha cookie for her. We began by introducing ourselves, then proceeded straight into a conversation with an instant connection of comfortability.

What brought us together was a shared interest in ancestral wisdom returning to Westernized spaces like academia. An artist utilizing woodwork, photography, and research, Julianna’s work particularly emphasizes our interactions with nature through migrant labour, along with the foundational knowledge and intuition that have been stripped from Western ways of living. Her most recent exhibition, “When Did You Wake Up and Realize It’s All a Game?” is on view as part of the 2024 Mayworks Festival; the show investigates the impact of exploitation and colonization in the Caribbean and its diaspora, challenging a culture of labour injustices against people of Caribbean descent.

We spoke of what it means to dream and live in a world that caters to the vision of colonizers yet uses the livelihoods of immigrants and migrant workers, along with their knowledge and lack of protection, to fuel a cycle of exploitation. Julianna and I explored how we can both question these systems and exist as cogs in their machines, yet in order to question these systems in place, we must bring forward demonstrations of real life experiences as intuitive, inquisitive art—something Julianna has done effortlessly in her art.

In our conversation, we aimed to reshape how academia is viewed—what is taught and learnt, and how a sense of curiosity and innate knowledge can instead bring forward change in these spaces. Beginning by questioning the origins of Western beliefs, we can redraw and retrace the stories we’ve been told, bringing wholly new values to academia and scientific spaces.

Anu Oluwa: In terms of your personal introduction to the audience, I noticed you also go by JRUM, kind of like DRUM. I find it to be a unique artist name. I wanted to know where it stems from, besides the obvious take from the “drum.”

Julianna A.S.: My adage has always been this concept of banging the drum. Actually, the company website for the exhibition is going to be called “Banging the Drum,” and how it is a play on the symbol of the drum in Jamaica, and on the continent as well. It is a form of resistance in continuing to bang the drum.

Anu Oluwa: How did you start out as an artist?

Julianna A.S.: How did I start out as an artist? I think a lot of it was experimental photography, self-portraits. I got into a really bad accident and I used to teach yoga, so at the time I started to film my body—me doing movements when I was in rehab. Capturing the growing process mentally, emotionally and physically.

AO: What were your beginnings like as an artist?

JA: Around 2010 I began to feel a bit comfortable with artistry, with documenting myself and my journey, as I was going through so much at that time. I just wanted a way to keep my memories.

AO: Yes, documentation. Where did your involvement in scientific research and incorporation of art in your work come from?

JA: It has a lot to do with imagining what science is in the West. Western science is a whole other thing, and they—meaning Westerners—are acting as if science began here. And we fall into that trap of trying to convince the science, when there are many more teachings from Indigenous cultures from around the world. And now, at the brink of collapse, scientists are thinking, “Maybe we should have listened.”

AO: Oh, yes.

JA: A lot of that has to do with not valuing nature and viewing yourself as being bigger than nature, rather than a part of it. I’ve wanted to challenge that, especially as I have my BA in Design and Minors in the Sciences. I wanted to do a Masters of Science, but I changed course along the way. I still wanted to do research, and realizing how all of these research processes worked allowed me to see this missing piece—things like intuition and ritual, which are viewed by scientists as esoteric. If scientists can’t see this specific thing, they don’t believe it. So I am wanting to take a different approach, not by dismissing research or the scientific approach, but adding that missing piece into it. Seeing the origin of that missing piece is not the same in the West or in research, so I am challenging that.

A lot of that has to do with not valuing nature and viewing yourself as being bigger than nature, rather than a part of it. I’ve wanted to challenge that

AO: I have my psychology degree in applied psychology, and I remember the day we had our first class for abnormal psychology. The first thing introduced in class was basically speaking of Indigenous African people with our practices being folklore, in the context of magic, intuition, reduced to just “believing” in things. I had a whole debate with my professor about it—telling them that it is an incorporation of science and spirituality, which is what everyone is inherently doing, whether conscious of it or not. I absolutely understand the need to incorporate that spirituality, as it is truly the missing piece in science, to where scientists deny what is real until they can test it.

I’m also interested to know in what ways does your work integrate intuitive cognition in terms of the physics, and the overall cultural impact of it all?

JA: A lot of this has to do with my exploration of sound, and looking at the physics of sound, which is just all vibrations. And again, looking at that missing piece of how physics is all math, right? But math is not complete in its numbers. There's always something missing. There is such a close tie between physics and spirituality.

It is completely left out of the conversation that there are many physicists who explore spirituality. You're not supposed to believe in any type of higher power, esoteric knowledge, spirituality, and intuition. It's all about the fact that numbers can prove this tangible thing, things you can see. And it's just not true. I just saw the links between the two, especially when it comes to sound.

AO: I love that. What was your childhood life like?

JA: My childhood, my home, was always really busy. Both my parents met in Toronto, but they both came here from Jamaica and found each other. We had our own little community, so it was like I was still there [in Jamaica]. We had a very communal approach: sharing a garden, harvesting and sharing, stuff like that. A lot of working with my hands. Not that much time alone; when I did have time alone I spent a lot of it in trees, creating my own little quiet space.

AO: Was how you were raised any different than the ideals and roles of Canadian culture?

JA: Hmmm. Aside from the communal approach, I think the biggest one that I saw was the difference between the idea of ease in the Caribbean versus here, in Canada. In the Caribbean, you’re up at sunrise, and it isn’t even about being lazy—I hate using that word—but in Canada, it’s more of a “rush” to get up.

AO: Yes, it is unnatural.

JA: Exactly, and I still struggle with that a bit—I barely understand it, and that’s why I am glad I am an artist. [laughs] I just can’t wrap my mind around it.

AO: I also want to ask if you have ever returned home and what your experience was like.

JA: I have visited Jamaica, but I do also feel at home in other parts of the Caribbean. A lot of things factor in like safety and politics. I do feel when I am there that it is so hard to come back.

AO: It is like a whole different world. One thing I love to talk about when it comes to different cities and countries is these different energies and the way that people’s minds operate. For example, in Toronto, it’s very much like a hive mind. When we are outside, we have to act like an individual and approach others as such. Making sure we are always protecting ourselves, like on the subway, making sure we get home on time. As a Nigerian person, for me that approach of safety is being with your community and having your people but here in the West, it is very much like "you have yourself." It is a different energy and vibration.

In regards to the exhibition, what has called you to focus on the issue of colonization with the undertone of a “dream” to wake up from?

As a Nigerian person, for me that approach of safety is being with your community and having your people but here in the West, it is very much like ‘you have yourself.’ It is a different energy and vibration.

JA: I work in Parks and Recreations Forestry in Toronto, teaching woodworking and studying deforestation in the Caribbean, where I also look at the connections to labour and labour rights. In forestry, the way the West has approached it is so unnatural—for the longest time Westerners were viewing trees as being in competition to each other, because they couldn’t see these underground networks, and they were attacking certain forest species. They’ve been bringing the environment to the brink of collapse, and now, this is when Westerners are realizing the effects on our water, or other issues, that they could have listened to Indigenous people and their teachings.

I’m seeing that exact same structure when it comes to labour—viewing people or forests as a way to take as much as we can just to survive, instead of wanting people, or forests, to flourish. I think it’s important to see the connection between the two, and where colonization is left out of this conversation. As a woodworker, I can connect where this concept of deforestation comes from.

AO: Can you also expand on the daily implications of deforestation? As a person who is about to get my certification in ethnobotany, I am also aware of the internal networks in trees and the lack of daily awareness or connection to our land … in what ways can people understand how impactful this knowledge is, beyond feeling disconnected from the realities of deforestation? When people talk about colonization, they talk about history rather than present day reality.

JA: In terms of forestry, most cities have open databases where you can interact with these things, identifying plant life, to familiarize yourself. Those data reports can be quite complex and I think there's a reason for that, to make people overwhelmed. I don’t really understand that. It is more of a matter of seeking this information out, or even contacting someone who works in parks or forestry—most people have all this information and would love to share it, and it is out there.

AO: In regards to your personal memories or a historical context, can you express this idea of the “game” many Caribbean descendants have faced, tolerated, or felt silenced by in their experiences with migrant labour?

JA: So many of the Caribbean farmers here in Canada have spoken out against labour injustices and been fired. Thankfully, there are organizations that support these workers, and many have won cases against companies, because they speak up. But labour laws for migrant workers are still terrible—these people are not protected at all, and they are the ones putting food on everyone’s table. People do not know who was picking their food and doing the harvest, living in these inhumane housing spaces without overtime pay, vacation pay, holiday pay.

AO: When I was in university, I did an elective class called Trends in Gender Issues, where we spoke about labour laws in regards to how women farmers are treated, specifically in regards to sexual violence and other violations happening that no one knows about. People are so disconnected from their food, to the simple act of questioning if a grocery item itself is produced ethically. What does it mean when we say “ethical”? What is the actual process when it comes to the arrival of fruits and vegetables? People find it difficult to conceptualize.

JA: The West has really created an environment where there is ignorance to that, to our own food. Most people here do not grow their own food. You don’t even think about it in the store, you aren’t thinking about where it came from.

JA: At Mayworks’s most recent gala, there was an ex-migrant worker who spoke of the injustices he faced and now speaks out against them. He talked about how Canada has a problem with “polite” injustices—they’re so hidden in a way you wouldn’t even think or know about them.

AO: Very covert.

When you think of the future, what are your imaginations and the spirit of the Caribbean people?

JA: More communal; when I dream of the future it is always outside of capitalism, for one. [laughs] It’s true, I don’t dream within that idea. Dreaming, recovery, mourning, these are all pillars of decolonization.

When I dream of the future it is always outside of capitalism, for one.

AO: As viewers, how can we create change and conversation today from our exposure to the exhibition?

JA: Create your own archives. Find your stories, because everyone has their own—even the countries I’m discussing, like Haiti or Grenada, other people may have an entirely different perspective. Find your own story and think of yours in relation to others, to piece all of these stories together.

AO: What are small yet grand ways we can hold solidarity with our fellow Caribbean neighbours?

JA: I think studying the histories and visiting these countries for yourself, I think those two are necessary.

About the authors

Anu Oluwa is a writer, neuroscience-based life coach, and podcaster who creates content with the purpose of deepening a person’s self-awareness and confidence through embarking on a journey of self-exploration using psychology, spirituality, and astrology.

Julianna A.S. is an Afro-Caribbean woman working at the intersection of art and scientific research. Her work reimagines the practice of art making and uses woodwork, photography and curriculum-based interventions to explore intuitive cognition, physics, and cultural imprint. Through her work, she invites viewers to question and engage with the intricate connections between art, science, and the human experience.