The Wabanaki, also called “the people of the dawn,” live on the easternmost edge of Turtle Island, the traditional name of North America. They comprise the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqewik, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Abenaki people.

In October a beautiful and thoughtfully curated exhibition of contemporary Wabanaki art was presented in the light-filled space of “the Oval,” the rotunda of a boutique shopping mall in Toronto’s fashionable Yorkville district. 

Curated by Nadia Khoury with the assistance of Brian Francis, Jessica Philips, and a dedicated team, the collection of paintings, masks, book works, jewelry and fine art objects was first exhibited earlier this year at Fredericton’s Gallery on Queen. The opportunity of exhibiting the show in Toronto presented itself only late last summer, requiring that the production team move quickly to take care of all the arrangements in order to transport the art to its Toronto venue.

The result was that a newer, much larger audience saw this exceptional, inspired exhibit, and the voices of its artists were heard far beyond New Brunswick and eastern Canada.

Wabanaki 2021, was assembled as a “testament to the resiliency of the people of the dawn.” It exhibited the work of some seventeen living artists, as well as selections of masks and paintings from Ned Bear and Roger Simon, both of whom have passed away.

The range of styles, media and voices provided viewers with a perspective on the many trends being explored by contemporary Wabanaki artists. 

In the wide, spacious rotunda gallery at the centre of the mall and in a storefront space above it, viewers were shown many interpretations of the show’s main theme—resiliency—through a series of paintings in different styles. Marcus Gosse’s mythological subject showing spirit animals travelling above and below the water on a turtle’s back spoke metaphorically of endurance of the many peoples and nations of Turtle Island.  

Brian Francis’ transcendent abstract paintings asked us to reflect on the limitless sources of strength that are available from the spirit world, which he expressed as a vivid spectrum of pure colours arranged in a composition referencing the land. Francis reminds us that colour is energy; contemplating it on a canvas has the potential of lifting the eye and mind to a less frantic realm of calm intelligence.

Art as a source of understanding and strength—each of the artists followed different avenues and approaches interpreting this statement. Marie Fox’s imposing portraits emerging from colour fields personify the idea that personal growth can be the outcome of being attentive to the radiant energies, expressed as colourfields, that animate all life. 

Pauline Young gives a different perspective on the meaning of resilience and growth in simple yet profound compositions presenting the narrative of a voyage of self-discovery, told in compositions of a young man resolutely paddling a canoe—symbols of a life’s journey guided by faith and endurance. Francine Francis explores the same idea through brilliant paintings of butterflies and other animals, reminding us that all things and beings have the capacity to transform into new incarnations in a single lifetime.

Tradition and innovation—this aspect of the exhibition was represented in the pairing of Shane Dutcher-Perley’s astonishingly beautiful sterling silver woven baskets with artifacts drawn from historical collections of woven basketry, porcupine quillwork and beadwork. The point is to show the abiding influence that the past and the ancestors exert in the present. This is also one of the messages of Tim Hogan’s sculptural pieces involving stones and silver. Chantal Polchies’ teapot is an elegant re-interpretation of a well-known form with a modern design sensibility.

Wabanaki installation view, Photo: Joshua Best / Photographer based in Tkaronto /Toronto, Courtesy Gallery on Queen.

The second part of Wabanaki, installed in the second floor storefront, looked at resiliency from the viewpoint of survival in the face of tremendous adversity. Ned Bear’s masks, all faces of his unsmiling father, are traces of the trauma his father suffered as a soldier in the Second World War, and how this difficult legacy was passed on to and affected the second generation.

Defiant voices of survival were heard in the paintings of Garry Sanipass. 

Emma Hassencahl-Perley‘s jingle dress, with torn fragments of the “Indian Act” sown into it, is a forceful statement of survival despite the Canadian government’s historical policies of cultural eradication. 

There was much to contemplate and appreciate in the rich depths of this exhibition and in the individual artists’ work. For me, Pauline Young’s austere paintings spoke loudest about the incomparable tragedy that the Wabanaki and all First Nations endured in the Residential Schools. Her simply painted statements, particularly a compelling scene of a mother and child about to be separated in front of a residential school, resonated with a voice that pierced the galleries and shopping mall. 

Although heartbreaking, its message of resiliency rang out clearly.  Despite unimaginable sorrow, Young’s paintings and the work of all the artists in this important exhibition state that, although forces might try to make her and all Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island lose their “talk”, their art and Wabanaki resound strongly today.

(This article was originally published in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal on November 6, 2021)