Strength in spirit
Living with COVID-19
This last year has been a particularly challenging one for the art world. COVID-19 spread across the world like a wildfire, forcing us into a public lock-down. Confined physically, Indigenous artists have had to suddenly learn to adapt to a “new normal” as art fairs, exhibitions and workshops are put on hold.
In the North, we are no stranger to isolation. But while some of us may enjoy or accustomed to working alone, but others are creatively nourished by the intimate interaction of engaging with their audiences beyond the studio walls. In the absence of physical connection, many Indigenous artists had to look inwards for inspiration ― to find their strength in spirit to create. COVID-19 has induced a distinct period of self-reflection, a moment to try and understand what kind of world we are living in, reassessing our priorities and identifying the valuable and meaningful connections we have with our friends, family, and community.
In her role as the Williams Legacy Chair in Modern and Contemporary Arts of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Carolyn Butler-Palmer with the University of Victoria has invited Northern Indigenous artists to share their original artwork that reflecting the contemporary moment and their experiences while under quarantine. With the curatorial assistance of Jennifer Bowen, their submission and reflections have been collected and arranged here in a digital exhibition.
Hjalmer Wenstob: Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, British Columbia
Title: A Survivor
Materials: Red Cedar, Acrylic Paint, Horsehair
Dimensions: 35″ x 8″ x 4.5″
“The original inspiration for the mask comes from historical images of children wearing gas masks during World War II. The photos are hauntingly striking which led me to think about the ways in which Indigenous peoples have had to transform and evolve our traditions and cultures to survive historical events including past pandemics. The work is to reflect on the strength of the human spirit, as well as the strength of culture and traditions to continue through times of great change.”
Ddhalh kit Nelnah: White River First Nation, Yukon
Title: The Spread (2020)
Materials: Porcupine quills, seed beads, tissue paper, nylon thread
“Reflecting upon the pandemic we are currently experiencing, The Spread uses nuun ch’oh (porcupine quills) to represent harm and protection. The nuun uses its quills to ward off predators by releasing the quills when provoked. The quills can often become lodged into the predator and much like a virus spreads. But for the nuun, their quills are there to protect. Humankind is needing to adapt quickly and we are learning to combat and protect ourselves against our predator, COVID-19.”
Dennis Shorty: Ross River Dena, Yukon
Title: Button Blanket Dancer
Materials: Moose antler, polar bear, black bear and bison hair, abalone shell, musk-ox horn, porcupine quill, trade beads, elk hide
“Long time ago people gathered for potlatches once a year to visit friends and family, trade goods like fur, hides, beads, meat, tools and looked for a partner. The way people were dressed indicated how wealthy and what status they had in their tribe. The more buttons and the more beads the better standing this person has. Button Blanket Dancer represents a wealthy, knowledgeable and wise person. Traditionally, the blankets were worn at potlatch for ceremonies and dances. The dancer wore the blanket around their back, slightly off the shoulders and fastened with toggles. For generations, these robes have served as insignia of family and clan histories, duties, rights, and privileges. They are powerful statements of identity Button blankets are worn to a variety of ceremonies including potlatches, pole raising’s, naming, memorials, feasts, weddings, graduations, public performances and dances.
Now due to COVID-19, we are limited to all those very important social events and we have to adapt. We are resilient people. When there were sickness and pandemics like this a long time ago people were still helping and supporting each other. Right now, today our family is coping with this situation by going out and spending time on the land and gather traditional medicines and teas and remedies and harvesting food for the winter and the coming year. We do smudges and pray for our world and health and this time we use to reconnect with Mother Earth and the Universe.
For me personally what keeps me mentally healthy is my strong relationship with my partner, creating artwork and music in my native language Kaska.”
Madison Pascal: Treaty 4, Saskatchewan
Title: As Long as the Sun Shall Raise
Materials: Reclaimed door, oil paint, copper leaf
Dimensions: 36″ x 80″
“The pandemic made everyone slow down. I found myself with more time and it leads to introspection, why do I create? What do I want to say? While I didn’t create a huge body of work during shut down, my pieces carried more emotional weight. I was inspired by two things that I love dearly, the rolling prairie and my family. I chose to personify our province as a woman, a symbol of fertility and comfort. The maiden proudly dons a wheat crown to pay homage to our farmers and is dressed in traditional Saulteaux regalia to honour my kokum. The figure is holding a bison skull to represent Wascana Creek’s early name oskana kâ-asastêki” (lit. “Bones, which are piled.”) When I think of our province, I see my most favourite wildflower, a prairie icon, the Western Red Lily. At first glance our province is hardy and unforgiving but, if you look close, it’s beautiful and fragile.”
Arlene Ness: Gitanmaax, British Columbia
Title: Essential Salmon
“During the beginning of the pandemic, questions arose on what is essential. Preparing for holing up and being safe was tantamount in everyone’s minds, shopping lists made, who still goes to work, who gets to stay home and safe. Not working was a blessing and a curse.
Life still demands needs met.
As everybody seemed to decide who is an essential worker, what is an essential grocery item, who’s businesses got to stay open…my thoughts turned to my culture. We were in the midst of protecting our rights. We are preparing to get all our food fish for the year. One thing that is unquestionable is just how essential the salmon are, to our people, our survival, our prosperity, and our environment. COVID-19 highlights just how essential the basics are. Just how very essential the Salmon is to our culture.
Many nights in March was spent listening to world news and working on my iPad using the ProCreate app. My shop was closed, I stayed home, shows and trips cancelled. I learned a new outlet for my artistic vision. This design was a big part of that learning experience during self-isolation.
I created this digitally as a contemporary Gitxsan design, designated for sale as a mask and statement shirt.”
Rhoda Merkel: Tahltan Nation, British Columbia
Title: We Came From the Centre
Materials: Acrylic on canvas, melton
“At the Center – at the heart of life and living is a perfect world that is in balance. It is the heart of the Creator. – Love.
In the next circle you see represented all the people of the world trying to be balanced. No one is ever there, we are all a little more emotional one day – the next day we are struggling with our mind, every day trying to feel normal.
The final circle represents the human race. All races. The hope is that LOVE can lead us all to the Center, to our Creator, to pure love. The beaded heart is the beginning, it is LOVE.
The medicine wheel is a very powerful symbol to explain balance – in all aspects of life and living. Every second the entire universe is working to maintain it.”
Christiana Latham: Gwich’in Nation, Alberta
Title: Vernal Affinity
Materials: Pen and Ink on paper
“My Dene ancestors have deep knowledge and intimate understanding of the land, its creatures and of the seasons. My work speaks about Spirituality and interconnectedness that permeates every aspect of life.
My work speaks about spirituality and interconnectedness that permeates every aspect of life. Though the outbreak of COVID-19 initially physically separated us, it also simultaneously forced us to work together to attain solutions.”
Sheila Shaw: Metis Nation, Alberta
Materials: Acrylic on Canvas
Dimensions: 20″ x 16″
“In our current COVID-19 era, the changing states of my mental health have had an impact on my artwork. Insomnia and anxiety have disrupted my circadian rhythm, so things often seem chaotic. My abstract acrylic paintings are now almost entirely driven by emotion and intuition. Working in these meditative states helps me to sort out thoughts. In this sense, the act of painting can be therapeutic.
My colour palette has been slowly incorporating darker tones and shades rather than the bright tints that I am accustomed to painting with. The colourful boxes swimming in the dark background echoes the feelings of uncertainty, isolation and listlessness. The white lines and accents softens the composition. In my paintings, they are sometimes reminiscent of water or tendrils of smoke.”
Mary Caesar: Kaska Dena, Yukon
Title: Kaska Dena Women Tanning Moose Skin
Materials: Acrylic on Canvas
“Frances Lake Culture Camp in 2007. The elders are teaching young Kaska Dena women the process of making moosehide. The elders are scraping the moosehide on a frame made by wooden poles. The elders then work on the hide to soften and tan the hide. It’s a lengthy process and hard work to tan a moosehide.
The Kaska elders predicted Co-vid 19 pandemic years ago. They said there will be a new disease that will affect the world and our people. They encourage the Kaska Dena to go back to the land and live on the land. We have to learn our traditional ways. They encourage us to learn the skills of our elders and ancestors like moose-hide tanning, snowshoe making, drum making, sewing garments, gardening, traditional medicine gathering. etc. Living on the land and relearning our traditional ways and skills will help us to survive the pandemic. Listen and respect the elders.”
JENNIFER BOWEN – CURATOR
Jennifer Bowen is a Master’s graduate student at the University of Victoria in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies. Jennifer is an Independent Indigenous Curator originally from Akaitcho Territory in the Northwest Territories. Her research interests examine Northern Athapaskan exhibition history, traditional arts, and the production of art historical knowledge. She currently lives in Victoria BC and studies at the University of Victoria.
Link to curatorial work: https://www.drygeese.com/exhibitions
MICHAEL WILLIAMS LEGACY CHAIR
The Williams Legacy Chair is endowed in recognition of the University of Victoria’s Legacy Gallery, with a specialization in the area of modern and contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest. The position is focused on three major areas: research with First Nations people and engagement in practices of curating. Michael Williams was a Victoria businessman, who donated his estate valued at $17 million dollars and all of his belongings to the University of Victoria. He was quoted, “I earned it in Canada, I will leave it in Canada.”
Dr. Carolyn Butler Palmer is the Williams Legacy Chair at the University of Victoria is endowed in recognition of Uvic’s Legacy Gallery, with a specialization in the area of modern and contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest. The position is focused on three major areas: research with First Nations people and communities, research on and about the Williams collection, and community engagement in practices of curating. Dr. Butler Palmer is the principal investigator on the “Strength in Spirit” exhibition. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Link to: Williams Legacy Chair