British Columbia

Okanagan art exhibit doesn't shy away from uncomfortable day school history

Drawings and paintings created by Indigenous children that attended the Nk'Mip day school in B.C.’s Interior during the 1930s and 40s are now featured in a Kelowna exhibit.

Drawings by children at Nk'Mip day school celebrate what Indigenous kids were capable of, curator says

Fishing Frieze by an unknown artist will be featured in the Kelowna exhibit Our Lives Through Our Eyes: Nk’Mip Children’s Art. (Jaimie Kehler/CBC)

Drawings and paintings created by Indigenous children that attended the Nk'Mip day school in B.C.'s Interior during the 1930s and 40s are now the featured work in an exhibit in Kelowna, B.C.

The exhibition, Our Lives Through Our Eyes: Nk'Mip Children's Art, is being held both at the Kelowna Art Gallery and the Okanagan Heritage Museum. It was put together with the help of the Osooyos Indian Band, which the children of the day school belonged to. 

Curator Andrea Walsh said the exhibition is part of a 19-year project of working to recover the heritage of the Osooyos Indian Band in the Okanagan Valley through the artwork featured in the exhibit.

One of the messages the exhibit aims to highlight is the dichotomy between what children in residential and day schools were told they couldn't do, and what they could accomplish.

"It celebrates what Indigenous kids were capable of when given the opportunity," Walsh said.

This piece drawn by Johnny Stelkia is on display at the Kelowna Art Gallery as part of Our Lives Through Our Eyes: Nk’Mip Children’s Art until April 14. (Jaimie Kehler/CBC)

According to Walsh, this is the first exhibition of day school art in Canada to be on display since the federal courts approved a class-action lawsuit proposed by former day school students, also known as "day scholars," suing the federal government for mistreatment during their time at day schools.

Walsh said the collection also reflects the Okanagan during the second world war era, when children were joining the Junior Red Cross and creating art inspired by their heritage to raise funds for Canada's war-time effort.

The works displayed at both the gallery and the museum are important pieces in Okanagan history, Walsh said, adding that there is a perception children don't create history.

"The art that's on display here is an official record of childhood in Canada that we don't see in the archives," she said.

Part of the exhibit includes art by Francis Baptiste, a prolific Osoyoos Indian Band artist.

"His work, you see, he has a beautiful hand, a steady hand, a very interesting style of drawing people and animals," Walsh said. 

A map drawn by one of the students of the Nk’Mip day school in the Okanagan Valley. (Jaimie Kehler/CBC)

His granddaughter, Taylor Baptiste, also took up art, and her contemporary work is hung as a tribute to artistic tradition within Indigenous families. 

Our Lives Through Our Eyes: Nk'Mip Children's Art runs until April 14. 

With files from Jaimie Kehler

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