Lorne Julien, a Mi’kmaw artist living in Annapolis Royal, makes uplifting, hopeful and healing work in vivid, joyful colours. But not today. Today, he joins seven East Coast Indigenous artists in a powerful, visual presentation of the world view of the Mi’kmaq at the Chase Gallery, Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax, to June 30.
His work for the show reflects pain – specifically the deep hurt he felt at the treatment of First Nations children at residential schools. The result is Genocide, a startling painting that grabs you by the throat. It depicts tiny children dressed in white hanging from three white crosses on a green hill beneath a slice of orange sun.
Tali Ktantutes Mimajuaqan/How do I live here? is co-curated by Brandt Eisner, curator of the Ice House Gallery, and Marshall Feit, director of the Grace Arts Centre, both in Tatamagouche.
The work ranges from the colourful graphic images of Alan Syliboy and Julien to the soft, mysterious cloud paintings of Jacqueline Potvin-Boucher; from Newfoundland Mi’kmaw painter Nelson White’s excellent portraits of contemporary Mi’kmaq to Acadia First Nation Ed Benham’s exquisite carving of a fierce eagle, a polished wooden egg in his craggy talons.
The images, while varied, share a connection to the spirit world, a strong use of pattern, a reference to nature and animals, and, often, striking colour.
Inspired by watching a documentary on Norval Morrisseau as a teen, Julien considers his art “colour therapy” and has a recurring amoeba-like pattern he calls the “blob” that he’s drawn since childhood. “I like to think it represents the spirit of the creature or person.”
Potvin-Boucher’s mysterious, potent cloud paintings are of spirits, she says: “Often of ancestors. I really have no choice of who comes through.”
Her misty landscape painting, Holding a Spiritual Relationship With the Land, depicts teepees, which represent her Cree roots, and the cliffs of the Bay of Fundy, connected to her Acadian ancestry. She mixes Fundy mud in with her paint. “I bring the mud home and meditate on it – mud they would have handled. It’s a nice way to honour the Mi’kmaq since I am not Mi’kmaw.”
Multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker Tara Audibert, of Wolastoqey/French heritage, exhibits joyful black and white prints of animals patterned in flowers and plants while Eisipogtog quill artist Tara Francis exhibits her first quill portrait, an image of her beloved grandmother.
Teresa Young often paints in swirling golds and purples in myriad organic patterns. Her moving painting Truth and Reconciliation: A Slippery Slope is a three-part condemnation of residential schools with floating figures in a giant wave, Mi’kmaw dancers and a shaman-like woman, her wild black hair flowing upwards into the purple and orange sky.
Alan Syliboy spatters his images inspired by Mi’kmaw petroglyphs and a deep honouring of family with stars, spiral patterns and dots. He creates a cosmos that connects the animal and human world to one other, to their ancestors and to the creator.
When Syliboy started developing his unique, Mi’kmaw visual language in 1970 he was mostly alone. Today he is amazed by the number of Indigenous artists at work in Atlantic Canada. They – like him – have found new markets, each other, and recognition via social media and in mainstream galleries.
Eisner and Potvin-Boucher both wish East Coast Indigenous art had the same high profile as that of the West Coast. However, Syliboy sees huge growth in the number of artists at work, the quality of work and the use of petroglyph images, a rare pre-contact, cultural record, by other artists. “It’s fantastic.”
There is much more fantastic Indigenous work on view in Atlantic Canada this summer. While Tali Ktantutes Mimajuaqan // How do I live here? presents a visual language, the TRUCK Contemporary Art exhibit on view to Oct. 2 at the MSVU Art Gallery, Halifax, is a declaration of Indigenous language and identity by seven artists from each of the major geographic regions in Canada. Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew/ Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it, includes a wooden door inscribed in her L’nuk poetry by the 2022 Sobey Art Award longlisted artist Michelle Sylliboy, from We’koqmaq First Nation, Cape Breton.
The Chester Arts Centre celebrates Mi’kmaw artists in Mu’ualujik amal-lukutite’wk L’nuk featuring Ed Benham, Sarah Brooks, Lorne Julien, Crystal Gloade, Gerald Gloade, Loretta Gould, Teresa Marshall, Elder Rose Morris, Nancy Oakley and Sheila Porter, July 21 to Aug. 10, with Mi’kmaw artist Leonard Paul up next in Daydreaming: Landscapes & Legends, Aug. 18 to Sept. 18.
Haligonians can see one of Julien’s murals at the corner of Agricola and Willow streets. Alan Syliboy’s 10-foot whale painting, his largest ever, is at the new Prow Gallery; he also has an exhibit of 25 paintings at the Macdonald Museum, Middleton, to July 30.
Working with curator Lisa Myers and the Finding Flowers project, MSVU Art Gallery for the month of June is replanting the late Mi’kmaw artist Mike MacDonald’s (1941-2006) original butterfly garden from 1997. Inspired by his encounters with butterflies and their connection to medicine plants and healing, MacDonald created butterfly gardens as spaces of care and coexistence. MacDonald planted these gardens of Indigenous flora across Turtle Island from 1995-2003. One of the first gardens was located on the Mount Saint Vincent University campus as part of the 1997 exhibition Digital Garden.
Finally, the quillwork of Melissa Peter-Paul, Kay Sark, and Cheryl Simon, the “Quill Sisters,” is featured all summer at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Matues Revisited, touring from the Mary E. Black Gallery.