Indigenous students unveil digital art inspired by cultural objects at the Royal Ontario Museum

Since September, students in OCAD's Indigenous Visual Culture Program have been spending time with Indigenous artifacts to inspire and inform their own digital projects.

OCAD University project aims to 'requicken' artifacts and 'bring them back into their role in the community'

Shawn Johnston from Elliot Lake, Ont., is working on a digital art project informed and inspired by a deer claw rattle. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

Indigenous students from OCAD University in Toronto got the chance this year to breathe life into cultural artifacts stored away at the Royal Ontario Museum by creating new digital artwork inspired by them. 

Nine students in OCAD University's Indigenous Visual Culture program were able to each select an Indigenous cultural artifact from the museum's collections to study. The artifacts informed their creative process in developing digital art projects, which will live in a digital space on the ROM's website once complete.

When Megan Feheley started working on her project in early September, her mother was curious about what kinds of Indigenous objects the ROM had in its collection. Feheley told her about three Cree-made hoods.

Her mother was adamant that she study the hoods or another object from their traditional territory of Moose Factory, said Feheley.

"Growing up, she never had access to these things, and I was in a position where I was very lucky to choose and spend time with and share space with these beautiful beings that are here in the ROM."

Feheley's digital project is a 3D rendering of the Woodlands Cree hood she's been spending time with. The final project will have interactive storytelling and sound elements.

She said she wants it to tell a story of futurity and resurgence.

Megan Feheley from Caledon, Ont., presents her digital interpretation of a Woodlands Cree hood from the mid-1800s as part of OCAD University's Indigenous Visual Culture program. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

"My hood might be digital but it's still a hood, it's still wrapped up in all that tradition and understanding," she said.

The overall project was conceived last summer with the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, which was looking for Indigenous participation in Canada 150 in the form of a web project. 

Bonnie Devine, an associate professor at OCAD University and the founding chair of the Indigenous visual culture program, said the idea was that Indigenous students would benefit by gaining access to the materials that are located in the ROM archive, and their experience could be translated into something that would reach across the province to other Indigenous populations.

Students have been working all year on their individual projects and will soon begin finalizing conceptualizations. 

"We see this as an opportunity to 'requicken' these objects, to bring them back into their role in the community," she said.

"They have work to do, the objects do. They have a story to tell and our communities have been hungry for those stories."

A close up of the bead work on a mid-1800s Woodlands Cree hood from Moose Factory, Ont. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Shawn Johnston, who is Anishinaabe from Elliot Lake, Ont., is enrolled in the part-time degree completion program at OCAD University with a focus on integrated media.

The artifact he studied was a deer claw rattle. 

"I've had an opportunity to go in and spend a lot of time with my object in particular, and to have access to these objects I think is really important," he said.

"Not just for a student doing research, but to go in and see things ... that might have been dormant for a while. It definitely gives me a chance to explore my heritage and expand my knowledge about tradition and explore community."