Erik Mandawe, like the music he creates, is an ever-shifting landscape. He studied anthropology in Siberia and Toronto, graduated with a music degree from Western and is currently enrolled in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry en route to a career in medicine.
And now, Mandawe, BA’17 (Music), has been named by the London Arts Council (LAC) as its first Artist in Residence.
“I identify most as a musician – but I also identify as a filmmaker and storyteller,” Mandawe said. “With my art, I explore time and identity and space.”
Mandawe is a great fit as the city’s first artist in residence, said Rachel Pennington, BA’13 (History), MA’15 (Public History), London Arts Council’s Public Arts Specialist. “With everything that he does, he has such a huge range of interests,” she said.
That “everything” list is a long one.
Mandawe grew up in Toronto, with stops in Texas and California. London is where he works and studies today. But Beaver Lake – in Northern Alberta, between Edmonton and Fort McMurray – is home, no matter where he goes.
Those are the deepest spaces of him, in the rugged Cree Nation community where many in his extended family still live. “For the most part, there are only five or six of us from Beaver Lake who have left that territory.”
He grew up in the city, becoming an avid and accomplished athlete in volleyball, basketball, climbing, marathon running and ceremonial dancing. At the same time, he developed an interest in art with lessons in classical piano that morphed into classical and flamenco guitar, as well as photography and film-making.
He worked as a professional actor in films, television shows, music videos and commercials. His black-and-white short film, Connected, explores the act of braiding – both of hair and sacred sweetgrass – and its capacity for spiritual connection. In another film he shot on Western’s campus, he talks of watering roots that stretch beyond academic halls and grow in deep within nature.
“I will always put my heart before my mind,” he said.
His mind has always been filled with trying to discover the world around him. He studied archaeology at the University of Toronto where images of Indiana Jones-like escapades danced in his imagination.
“I really enjoyed it. But I then realized I enjoyed studying living relationships with peoples, rather than studying their dead ancestors.”
He switched his specialty to medical anthropology and graduated in 2010, going from there to work in addictions and mental health among urban and rural Indigenous communities.
But his art called him and he enrolled at Western as a part-time student while he also took on a staff role as Indigenous Liaison Admission Coordinator with Western Indigenous Services. He graduated this spring as a Gold Medalist – the highest grade-point-average among students in the program – with a four-year Bachelor of Arts in Music (completed in two years).
Mandawe – who also goes by his Cree name Piyesiwak – excelled in the sciences during his undergraduate years. But his passion for art and music were the “conduit” that led to his acceptance into medical school.
He hopes to become a surgeon, although he is aware of both the pull and push that may lead him into becoming a community physicians in Indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, he will have a busy year as Artist in Residence, a role that calls for him to be an ambassador of the arts as well as a creator.
Pennington said the Arts Council had been discussing the artist-in-residence position, as a complementary role with the city’s Poet Laureate. After listening sessions with Indigenous artists, “we felt very strongly that the right thing to do was to offer this first position to an Indigenous artist,” she said.
An independent artist’s jury evaluated submissions and recommended Mandawe for the one-year funded position.
Pennington said the role also includes making connections and community-building. “He has a very interesting perspective on what community is,” she explained.
Mandawe is still getting to know a larger network of artists within London and Indigenous communities. He is collaborating with London Poet Laureate Tom Cull on the city’s Culture Days at the end of September.
Mandawe will also have started medical school by then, learning anatomy and physiology even as he learns more about his artistic DNA.
He plans to document every phase of his learning – anticipating what he calls, only half in jest, “a four-year- performance piece.” He isn’t sure where it will all lead, except he is convinced it will bring him nearer to home and to who he is.
“It’s like soul-searching, reclamation of my personal identity within and beyond the path that I’m on.”