Interview with Tom Wilson Tehohahake

Tom Wilson Tehohahake. Photo: George Pimentel

Interview with Tom Wilson Tehohahake (TWT) on the occasion of his exhibition: Mohawk Warriors, Hunters & Chiefs by Phil Anderson (PA)

Tom Wilson Tehohahake is a musician, artist and writer with an exhibition of some wonderful paintings, sculptures and installations currently on display at the Cultural Goods Gallery, curated by David Liss. The opening reception was also the launch of Tom Wilson’s book Mohawk Warriors, Hunters & Chiefs. The book includes colour reproductions of Tom’s paintings plus essays by Tom and a statement by David Liss, the curator of the show. Tom Wilson Tehohahake is known by many as a musician in bands and winner of a Juno Award. This exhibit and book will give you more insight into this Warrior’s journey.

PA: First, congratulations on the new book and the exhibition.

Installation view

TWT: My daughter came to me twenty years ago and told me I had to stop painting the way I was because it was culturally inappropriate. That was seven years after I started painting and ten years before I discovered I was Mohawk. She told me that I was taking Indigenous images and using them to my ow benefit. I told her that I was simply painting what came to me. Simple shapes, coloured and detailed.

Tom Wilson Tehohahake, Mohawk Handsome, 2018, oil on board, 60 in x 60 in

I know that the images I put on the canvas then and now is ‘blood memory’. The colours of my ancestors, the joy, the love, the trauma of people who had been forced to lose their language, their culture and their land at the hands of a colonial system that wanted them dead.

I paint to show that we are still here, alive and thriving. I paint with the full acceptance of my identity. Now, everyday I paint to decolonize this world and to inspire my people to grow strong, and live with honour. That’s my job. The art I create, the books I write and the music I make are all examples of one survivor’s determination.

Tom Wilson Tehohahake, Will not be destroyed, 2023, oil on board, 60 in x 120 in

TWT: My early work are triumphs over adversity. I started painting to help me to stop drinking. I wanted to do something productive rather than destructive. I painted obsessively in those days back in 1997 and I believe that it led me down the right path. I’ll be 25 years clean and sober on December 12th.

None of those paintings appear in this publication and I don’t even know where they are today. I gave them away to charities that came to my door looking for donations for women’s shelters and cancer clinics. Some of those early paintings appeared in an exhibit at the Spin Gallery in 2000. A show I shared with Michael Stipe from the band REM, Daniel Lanois and the late Long John Baldry. 

I love those early paintings. My innocence allowed me the ability to create work that I could never replicate now. Why would I even try? Back then I was a warrior without a cause. Now I am a fully formed Mohawk Man and my art reflects that.

Tom Wilson Tehohahake’s book Mohawk Warriors, Hunters & Chiefs

The book covers my work from 2015 to 2024. Its colours, shapes and details are as fresh and alive as my Mohawk identity. These paintings and sculptures are statements coming from a man who has been reborn. They are bold and unapologetic. There’s a freedom in the older work that I have no hope of getting back. My hands back then were held by the ancestors who were guiding me. Now I am finally and fully in control with my blood still guiding me.

Tom Wilson Tehohahake, Ghosts by the pool, 2018, oil on board, 52 in x 72 in

TWT: Something was always missing. My identity was a secret kept from me by the people I loved and trusted the most. I am severely damaged as a result. Call me what you like, a Sixty’s Scoop kid is what I am. Now I work hard everyday to honour my Mohawk family. I am putting on an Indian costume. I’m taking off the colonial costume that was forced upon me when I was too young and unaware to know that I was wearing it.

TWT: Not at all. The same creative energy goes into the books I write, the music I make and the art I create. Everything is the same in my world.

Tom Wilson Tehohahake, Painted Guitar, 2024, oil on guitar

TWT: I work in the Indigenous world for the Indigenous world. I join my community, my sisters, my brothers, cousins as survivors of this country’s greatest sin. Canada’s attempted to kill the Indigenous people of this land. Turtle Island is one of the ugliest and most inhumane acts in the history of mankind. I reconnect with my people by going to war everyday. 

TWT: I am never too old to fight for my people but mostly I create art. I have joined my fellow Mohawk brothers and sisters to stand on and defend land from developers and politicians. I’ve been accused, arrested and charged by the crown for my actions. It was worth it.

I started the first Indigenous scholarship at MacMaster University for any Indigenous student in Ontario who wants to study there to become a lawyer or doctor, engineer or researcher because every student who wants to further their education is a win against colonialism. I intend to use my appointment to The Order of Canada to continue my work standing up for Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.

Tom Wilson Tehohahake, The Long Road Home, 2023, oil on board, 71 in x 48 in


TWT: My message is for all of us to open our hearts and show everyone who we meet: love, respect, patience and understanding. We will save this world and make it a better place for our children, grandchildren and seven generations to come.

Fading Memories of Home, 2021, Multi-Media Installation including carved desks, plywood cut-out figures, video and soundtrack Edition 2

I hope my art will open the doors of possibilities for the next person to walk through. I want to bring the Mohawk culture into the light. I want people to say “I can do that”, because that’s what art should be and it is what artists should set out to do.

If I don’t tell my story nobody else will.

Images are courtesy of Cultural Goods Gallery. Photo: George Pimentel

*Exhibition information: Tom Wilson Tehohahake, Mohawk Warriors, Hunters & Chiefs, February 2 – 16, 2024, Cultural Goods Gallery, 1444 Dupont Street Unit 15, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 5 pm.

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