There are few people in Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural history quite so beloved as Mi’kmaw and settler artist Jerry Evans, and rather than the pinnacle or culmination of his career, Jerry Evans: Weljesi—on view at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s until January 2, 2024—can be seen instead as a glimpse into the artist’s cyclical and open-ended exploration, reclamation, and celebration of Indigenous culture and communities within the province and across Canada. This retrospective—itself a term laden with problematic colonial connotations of linearity—presents a wide swath of Evans’ artistic and political inquiry, with works dated from the early-to-mid 1990s right up to the last couple of years. Spanning his more well-known practice as a printmaker—especially lithography—to more recent forays into video installation, animation, and augmented reality, the exhibition describes an investigation steeped in traditional Indigenous knowledge and philosophy, the brutal legacy of the colonial project, and, as the show’s title Weljesi itself suggests: happiness, peace, and contentment.
I don’t know whether it was the decision of Evans himself, guest curator Jenelle Duval, or the crackerjack team of technicians at the Rooms, but the walls of the entire fourth-floor gallery space have been painted the same bloody red ochre long associated with the Beothuck, known most infamously as the province’s Indigenous victims of genocide. The effect is such—once one comes to the realization of the significance of the colour—that one is made aware of the horrors of our colonial past while yet feeling a certain sense of warm interiority—as though we’d travelled somehow into a kind of womb.
Indeed, depictions of Indigenous women play prominently in the show, to which we shall return. For now, however, the soft warm dim lighting of the gallery only adds to the contradictory feeling mentioned above, and as the visitor moves through the gallery space, encountering images that feel both historical and contemporary, spiritual and corporeal, factual and dream-like, frightening and somehow comforting at once, there is the sense we’ve left the cold and calculating settler capitalist world behind us. “Jerry”—as the Rooms’ Acting Director Kate Wolforth affectionately refers to him in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue, which includes texts from Duval, prominent artist and frequent Evans collaborator Dr. Pam Hall, and an interview conducted by art-star Jordan Bennett—is leading us somewhere else. But where? Or perhaps more appropriately, when? So far as I can tell, it’s into the past, the present, and the future at once.
As any first-year printmaking student can tell you, the term lithography is derived etymologically from a combination of words meaning to draw or write on stone, and it is this notion of permanence and ephemerality—made manifest in Evans’ printmaking—that seems to reside at the centre of his practice more generally.
Case in point: Evans’ Living Spirits, his 1999 lithograph based on Lady Hamilton’s well-known painting of Demasduit—touted to be one of the last of the Beothuck—as well as Edward Curtis’ photos of her. Says Evans about the piece: “I drew the photographs to make them my own, to relate to them through the tactility of drawing, through my hands. For me, these were actual people and not some footnote in colonialist history. It was important to build that relationship with these images, and show these different ways of representing.”
Through the physical act of drawing, Evans seeks, conceptually and emotionally, if not literally, to connect himself and his practice in the contemporary world to representations of Indigenous people of the past, and to interrogate and subvert the ways in which the story of colonialist history has been interpreted and passed down to us. Trauma—intergenerational or otherwise—if I read my Gabor Mate correctly, resides in the body, quite literally in the ways in which our neural networks are composed and solidified. Smarter folks than I can ever hope to be have studied this phenomenon at great length, so how can it be otherwise that the seed of healing lays in the very physicality and tactility to which Evans refers?
Likewise, Evans’ 1998 lithograph We Were Not The Savages presents images derived from historical photographs—framed in a bright, decorative pennant motif evocative of a carnival—of several Indigenous women baring their breasts for the camera. “Were these images for titillation?” Evans asks. The women in question “don’t look too happy to be doing that, and I think they were taken advantage of. We were not the savages. We were treated like savages.”
There is a long and well-documented history of Indigenous people being paraded before the eyes and the cameras of polite white colonial society as objects of curiosity, titillation, and derision, and one wonders, upon seeing this piece, to what degree really things have changed. After centuries in which actual and cultural genocide failed them, after decades in which Indigenous artists were ignored at best and shunned at worst, it’s only been relatively recently that white, liberal institutions such as the Rooms and its provincial cousins in Canada have deigned to give widespread space and recognition to this community. Art reviewers—even those as inconsequential as the writer of this text—are not immune to this criticism.
Yet, at its heart, Evans’ show is about happiness.
After running the gamut through Evans’ prodigious output and mastery of the form of printmaking, we come at last to Migration Cycle, which exists as both a 2002 lithograph, a 2019 projection, and, as the QR code on the wall text informs us, as an animated piece of augmented reality. A kind of bird’s-eye view of concentric circles of migrating caribou, the work depicts, Evans says, how the caribou “…go through cycles, patterns that they move through every season…there are four cycles of caribou rotating in different directions. The circle represents living in harmony with nature. It’s living life fully, living healthy and following those cyclical patterns that are a part of nature.”
No longer able to deny my burgeoning middle-age, not to mention my technical ineptitude, nevertheless, against my better judgement I scanned the QR code and after waiting a moment, the piece, off to my right, shot into sudden and colourful life beside me. From the centre of its flowered heart on the floor, the rings of caribou spiralled and funnelled up into the sky on the screen of my phone, each circle spinning up into the ceiling, expanding and unfurling into its full height before circling and spiralling back down.
I don’t know. I couldn’t help it. I found myself giggling. To the amusement, no doubt, of the Rooms’ ever-watchful security guard—not to mention my nine-year old daughter who was there with me—we took turns reaching out our hands to touch the caribou, their images flitting around on the screen of my phone as the animation looped and the cycle started again. It was a fruitless endeavour, of course. Like trying to catch smoke. But as we left the Rooms and trudged through the cold misery of winter in St. John’s toward home, we both were smiling.