“Contested Territories,” an exhibition of works by Cree/Scottish/Irish artist Ruth Cuthand and Anishinabeg artist Nadia Myre, contained dynamic and pointed social messages executed with grace and craftsmanship in the medium of beadwork. In this, the inaugural exhibition of Calgary’s Indigeneity Artist Collective Society, these women staked their claim of knowledge.
Ruth Cuthand’s Dis-ease series consists of large, seductive beaded circles with complex patterns supported on rich, black, velvety surfaces and framed under glass. These circles depict microscopic views of agents that have caused the devastation and loss of many of North America’s indigenous peoples—diseases and viruses such as Spanish flu, hepatitis C and tuberculosis. At the same time, these circles echo some of the forms seen in First Nations beaded medallions.
These Dis-ease pieces were no mere scientific “curiosities” hung on Truck’s wall; there was no mistaking Cuthand’s understanding of history, nor her scientific grasp of the subject matter. This knowledge is depicted in the forms themselves. The clearly defined labels on the glass prompt us to distance ourselves from the work, but the details in the beadwork draw us in, making us understand that what we see is from a First Nations way of knowing. Although Cuthand provides no indication of how many victims were afflicted by these agents, we can feel the gravity and significance of that loss.
Nadia Myre exhibited four enormous, heavily beaded, graphic identities devoid of text—her Journey of the Seventh Fire series. This series represents logos of Quebec mining and hydro companies, and by omitting the text elements of these corporate graphics, Myre keeps them nameless icons of industry. These works were hung on the far end of Truck’s gallery, so that initially their computer-graphic origins had us reading the images as large, flat fields of pure colour. But in a manner similar to Cuthand’s work, the view seen from a distance is quite different from the one seen under closer inspection. In each piece, there are several hundreds of hours of work executed by people participating in a collective beading.
This sea of beadwork has patches with thousands and thousands of beads, a quantity that prompts us to recognize the time, dedication and contemplation that must have occurred during the act of making these artworks. Here, acting from her own artistic and cultural territory, Myre identifies a corporate collective with an “invisible hand,” and she encourages us to note what that collective is doing to the land. Myre also ensures that these actions are being noted (and made visible) using a widely understood Aboriginal visual language.
There is a strong movement afoot in First Nations, Métis and Inuit art. It is a movement of what I would call an Aboriginal De-Enlightment. What I am claiming is that indigenous artists are now in a position to confront, challenge and dismantle the Western thoughts and paradigms that corroded and destroyed so much of Aboriginal culture. Nadia Myre and Ruth Cuthand are some of the First Nations artists ensuring that people look at social issues from a different perspective. That perspective is indigenous, and it’s shifting the idea of the “other.”