While a passion for Indigenous arts has been driving Melissa Granley’s studies in the Department of Art History & Visual Studies, it was her connection with the natural world that initially attracted her to UVic.

“It’s kind of silly, but rabbits have always been really important in my life; if I see a rabbit, I know I’m on the right path.” So when she first visited UVic back in grade 9—at the height of the campus bunny infestation—Granley took it as a good sign. “When I got accepted at UVic, however, the rabbits were gone,” she says with a chuckle. “But it was a really good decision to come here; I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Initially studying linguistics, the Alberta-raised Granley soon realized her talents lay elsewhere (“I was terrible at it,” she admits)—but, as is often the case, a simple elective led to greater things. “I took an introduction to art history course and thought, ‘This is it—this is the thing for me!’”

AHVS student Melissa Granley inside the Legacy Gallery

Indigenous arts & activism

Her major in art history, plus courses in both Indigenous and gender studies, led Granley to develop a focus on Indigenous arts and activism; this, combined with a summer 2018 internship with UVic’s LE,NOṈET Indigenous support program, resulted in her current seven-month position at downtown’s Legacy Art Gallery.

As Legacy’s curatorial intern and visitor engagement assistant, she greets visitors, talks about art, offers elementary school tours and assists with exhibits. “The amount of physical, manual effort that goes into installation week was totally surprising to me,” she laughs. “You don’t realize how much work goes into an exhibit when you’re just studying.”

Graduating in November with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History & Visual Studies, she’s now seeing a concrete activation of her academic studies: in addition to preparing to curate two exhibits for First Peoples House in 2020, she recently assisted with the installation of the Legacy exhibit We Carry Our Ancestors: Cedar, Baskets and Our Relationships with the Land, curated by Lorilee Wastasecoot.

“I did my honour’s thesis on decolonizing museum and gallery spaces and the repatriation of what I consider stolen objects, so it’s been very interesting to actually work in a gallery space,” says Granley, who is Métis on her mother’s side.

“Trying to decolonize a collection is difficult, because people often don’t want to relinquish items, as their collection then gets smaller. But from working here, I’ve seen real efforts are being made towards decolonization; the staff even asked for my input—as an intern, I felt really lucky to be part of that.”

Granley points to We Carry Our Ancestors as a good example of gallery decolonization practices.

“It’s not only displaying Indigenous baskets, it was put together by an Indigenous person using Indigenous methodologies,” she explains. “It’s very different from other basketry exhibits, and I feel very lucky that I got to help put it together and work with Lorilee. It’s been important for me to have another Indigenous person guide and help me with my own curating.”

Practical experience

Looking to the future, Granley anticipates doing graduate work (“I’m not sure what I’ll do as a career path, but I really like UVic and my heart wants me to apply here”) and realizes she has accumulated invaluable concrete skills as an art history student (recording and transcribing live interviews, researching and writing for websites, object handling and curatorial practices).

“I feel like I learned so much,” she says. “It was a very rounded education . . . the art history professors are so supportive of their students, and really take a lot of interest in them. I’m really grateful for the support of the department and First Peoples House, as well as my friends and family. I wouldn’t have been able to get my degree without them.”

Whatever her career path, Granley is certain her passion for Indigenous arts and activism will remain strong. “Items that have been taken out of Indigenous communities are direct ancestors from those nations and those peoples,” she insists. “The idea of keeping items locked up in storage away from their people and other objects is just wrong.”