Weaving a Path Through Indigenous Histories

Transits and Returns at the Vancouver Art Gallery highlights Indigenous artists from across the world

Jayde Atchison // Staff Writer 

Warm, rustic shades of yellow, green, brown and pink decorate a cloak made of possum skin. These colours depict Australian Indigenous plant and food sources from around the Maiwar (Brisbane) River. Surrounding the flowers, leaves and fruit are stitched sections that represent a map of the Maiwar area. Cutting diagonally down the map is a jet black charcoal rendition of the river that begins at the top right corner. The piece, titled Skin Country, was created by Wathaurung and Scottish artist Carol Mcgregor in 2018. Each zone on the map visually narrates an aspect of the land and those who are connected to it.

Skin Country opens Transits and Returns, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest exhibition that  features 21 Indigenous artists from around the world. 

Carol McGregor 
Skin Country, 2018 
possum skins, charcoal, ochre, binder medium, waxed thread 
Courtesy of the Artist Photo: Carl Warner

“Carol’s work is a real celebration of country, honouring the practices that come from country,” said co-curator Freja Carmichael. “Carol collaborated with Brisbane community members, traditional owners and Aboriginal people to celebrate the plant wisdoms.” 

Transits and Returns takes up the entirety of the third floor. The works displayed bring life to cultural practices that have been dormant for years due to colonization and marginalization. Indigenous culture is demonstrated by the artists through the intricate details of woven blankets and beaded moccasins, along with the use of traditional languages.

Hannah Brontë 
lightboxes, hand dyed textiles, shell necklaces, black sand 
Courtesy of the Artist Photo: Carl Warner

The two local Indigenous artists featured in Transits and Returns are Debra Sparrow (Musqueam) and T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss (Squamish). 

Sparrow’s four woven blankets in the exhibition were commissioned for various celebrations. Historically, weaving was a part of everyday life when Musqueam people wove mats for beds, baskets for carrying water and clothes that were worn daily. Woven blankets are also created to honour the people receiving them. One of Sparrow’s blankets honours Aaron Wilson, a Musqueam member that graduated from UBC Law. The blanket is intertwined with white, blue and yellow wool to display UBC’s colours. 

Wyss’s work mixes basket weaving, digital media and storytelling. There’s a touch station In the central room where her work is shown where visitors can run their fingers over the traditional materials used in weaving. 

Their works are displayed in what co-curator Tarah Hogue described as “the heart of the physical center of the exhibition.” Hogue explained that the curators “wanted to ground the exhibition in local knowledge and local practices.” 

The majority of the art shown on the third floor is made by Indigenous women. One of these women, Marianne Nicholson, who is Dzawada’enuxw and Scottish, was moved to represent her culture when she began making art. “I couldn’t understand what I was doing at the time, but I understand now that I was trying to acknowledge something near and dear to me,” Nicholson reflected. “It seemed very simple and yet it seemed invisible in the public, so I wanted to acknowledge it.” Nicholson’s reflection alludes to how Indigenous art is not frequently displayed in western institutions, and because of this, the greater public often remains ignorant of the existence and value of those cultures. 

Thirty-six t-shirts scream for attention from the back wall of the exhibit. These shirts are part of the collaborative work between Kanaka Maoli artists Drew Kahu’āina Broderick and Nāpali Aluli Souza, titled 36 views of Lē’ahi (2017) and We need to talk about Diamond Head (2019). In 36 views of Lē’ahi, there are 36 variations of tourist shirts from Hawai’i that hang on a blank white wall. Directly facing the piece is a bench that hosts two sets of headphones where visitors are encouraged to sit and listen. Neon pinks, greens and yellows are scattered across Diamond Head tourist shirts (a volcanic cone located on the island Oʻahu that is a tourist landmark). Upon putting the headphones on, soothing Hawai’ian music plays, which quickly shifts to a deep voice describing how Hawai’i is not just a place for tourists: it’s the origin and home of Indigenous Hawai’ian people. Staring at the disheveled shirts and listening to the stories of Diamond Head prompts a reflection on how Indigenous lands have been mistreated and overthrown for decades for the sake of Western people and a profit.  

Chantal Fraser
The Way, 2018 
wind, turbine, generator, rhinestones, steel 
Courtesy of the Artist Photo: Louis Lim

The artworks of Transits and Returns are strong in message and beautiful in creation. Each artist gives the audience a glance into their Indigenous knowledge, experience and cultural practice. 

Transits and Returns will be on display until February 23, 2020 at the Vancouver Art Gallery

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