British Columbia

Ts'msyen artist honours matriarchs and activists with new exhibition

Morgan Asoyuf's Royal Portrait exhibition at Vancouver's Bill Reid Gallery uses jewelry, carvings and portraits to honour Indigenous matriarchs and activists.

Royal Portrait at the Bill Reid Gallery runs until Jan. 19, 2020

Christine E. Martin, wearing a Bentwood Box Crown, is a community leader and land defender of Ts’msyen ancestry who works within the renewable and environmental community. Each silver panel of the crown is in the style of a traditional Ts'msyen bentwood box which represents the three realms of the Ts'msyen world: sea, land and sky. Martin is also wearing the Sky Blanket by Jaad Kuujus – Meghann O’Brien along with Morgan Asoyuf’s jewelry. (Patrick Shannon/Bill Reid Gallery)

Ts'msyen artist Morgan Asoyuf is taking a closer look at what royalty means to Indigenous northwest coast people at a new exhibit for Vancouver's Bill Reid Gallery.

Asoyuf, 35, says royalty for the Ts'msyen people was based off how well you care for your people, your clan members and the land that you have ownership over. 

For this collection, she wanted to honour the people doing similar work in a more modern context. These included the frontline activists working on issues like climate justice, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and protesting the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. 

A lot of these people, she says, are the community's matriarchs. 

Snutetkwe Manuel is a Secwepemc doula and land defender working with the Tiny House Warriors, who plan to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from crossing unceded Secwepemc territory. She is pictured wearing the Bentwood Box Crown. Part of the crown includes bear claws, which were often used on powerful headdresses worn by shamans. Snutetkwe is also wearing a woven necklace by Jaad Kuujus – Meghann O’Brien, and a cedar necklace and dance apron painted with a supernatural Raven and Bear design by Morgan Asoyuf. (Patrick Shannon/Bill Reid Gallery)

"I wanted to really highlight some of the people that are doing that, which is a lot of the women and two-spirit on the frontlines," Asoyuf said. 

"I really wanted to honour these these people that I see out there all the time, sacrificing their time ... and money and everything to be out there protecting the land."

The pieces — carvings, jewelry, and portraits — have a variety of influences. 

Asoyuf, who is from Prince Rupert but currently lives in Squamish, apprenticed under a number of different artists including Haida artist Richard Adkins and Tsym'syen artist Henry Green, and attended Vancouver Metal Art School with German goldsmith Gerold Mueller. 

Left: Kota Gallipeau is a trans Indigiqueer DJ and events producer from Tyendinaga, Mohawk Territory, and a passionate advocate for trans rights and education. In this photograph, they wear an oxidized silver pendant necklace by Morgan Asoyuf, representing the orca. Right: Ta’Kaiya Blaney is Tla’amin Indigenous land and water defender. Since the age of 10 she has been vocal within movements combating the extraction industry, climate change and oil pipelines. She wears the Mousewoman Oracle Crown made of silver, green amethyst, phrenite and diamonds, itself a modern representation of the frontlet (a decorative band worn on the forehead). Mousewoman is known as the oracle and protector of youth. (Patrick Shannon/Bill Reid Gallery )

One of the pieces is a crown inspired by traditional, historic shaman crowns that featured protruding bear claws and fur. 

The art is intensely personal, Asoyuf says.

"I would say that every single piece has blood, sweat and tears in it," she said. " I've always said about my work that it's like having a child.

"It goes off and lives its own life after, outside of me, but it comes from me and my family and my history."

Morgan Asoyuf is a Ts'msyen artist from Prince Rupert, B.C., now based in Squamish, B.C. (Submitted by Morgan Asoyuf)

Royal Portrait at the Bill Reid Gallery runs until Jan. 19, 2020. 

With files from On The Coast