Erik Mandawe brings a background of archeology, medicine, music and filmmaking to his role as the city’s first artist-in-residence

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London’s inaugural artist-in-residence Erik Mandawe recalls how he achieved his dream of becoming a karate movie star at the age of seven.

Playing a slick-haired kid wailing on another youngster in the background of the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Maximum Risk, “I thought, where do I go from here?” Mandawe says with a laugh.

Two decades removed from landing what he jokingly calls his dream gig, Mandawe is pursuing a balance between dual aspirations — one through a life of artistic expression and another as a hopeful physician.

In both paths he’s reached milestones. The 28-year-old is settling into his first days of medical school while defining a never before appointed role by the London Arts Council.

As for where he’s been since playing the part of a hardened seven-year-old, that’s a little more complicated.

Mandawe — or Piysewik, his Cree name, meaning thunder — grew up in Toronto. Before studying at the University of Toronto he lived in Texas, California and Beaver Lake Cree Nation, his family’s home in northeastern Alberta.

Another of Mandawe’s interests, travelling, was sparked while studying at University of Toronto on an exchange as a volunteer archeologist in Siberia, Russia, near the world’s deepest lake, Lake Baikal.

“I was loving life. I was 19 years old, travelling the world for the first time and really opening my horizons. I was this city guy who never really thought that he would leave the city,” Mandawe said.

As an archeologist he spent time with Indigenous Russian groups in Siberia, which he says made him realize he preferred studying the living.

“I learned a lot about the cultures and I really fell in love with … how they tell their stories and how they relate to health and purpose and life,” he said.

So his infatuation with medicine was born. In 2010, he graduated from U of T with a degree in medical anthropology.

“I had aspirations to get into medical school, but I didn’t have the grades at the time,” Mandawe said.

Meanwhile, Mandawe’s enthusiasm for the arts had flourished.

His passion expanded to music, photography, and Indigenous art, while he took up filmmaking, transitioning behind the camera after 14 years of acting in mostly made-for-television movies, shows and commercials.

In 2013, he joined Western as an Indigenous liaison admission coordinator before enrolling at the school to study music. He exceeded a passing grade in the self-test of handling full-time work and full-time studies, earning Western’s Gold Medal, awarded to the student at the top of their program’s graduating class, at his convocation this spring.

“The idea of me going back to school was to get a higher GPA to be a competitive applicant for medical school. How do I get a good GPA? Follow my passion, follow my music, follow my art, follow my films. And that’s what I did,” Mandawe said.

Recently returned from a three-week excursion to Europe, Mandawe is in his first month as the London Arts Council’s artist in residence.

Andrea Halwa, the organization’s executive director, says the council wanted an Indigenous artist as the first in the role. Mandawe’s Cree heritage and diverse artistic skill set made him a perfect fit for the jury-appointed position.

“(Mandawe) will work with various community groups who are looking at doing more outreach through the arts working with Indigenous artists,” Halwa says.

He will serve at least a year. Like the city’s poet laureate, the position is adaptive to who holds it.

“Each artist really occupies the role in a way that is in keeping with their particular art form,” Halwa says.

“They’ve given me a lot of opportunity to build what it is that I would like to see,” Mandawe says.

Mandawe’s first task as artist in residence will be working with London poet laureate Tom Cull to prepare London’s celebration of Canadian culture, its three-day Culture Days, which starts Sept. 29.

He’s designing a projection art piece for the festival. He’s also tasked with bringing London-area artists together.

“I really want to connect Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the city in order to share our stories in the way that we know how.”

The council has commissioned him to design a legacy piece for London, and he wants to provide mentorship opportunities for young Indigenous artists.

Mandawe is also beginning his training to become a doctor as a member of Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry Class of 2021.

“It’s a huge opportunity. I’m working on both of my passions; helping people using intellect and science but also with art and how we use art to tell our stories, which is all a part of our wellness. For me that’s balance.”

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