British Columbia

Victoria exhibit shares the beauty and legacy of intricately beaded Indigenous designs

On Beaded Ground at Victoria's Legacy Art Gallery gives visitors a chance to view beaded creations that have been stored in vaults for decades as well as vibrant work by contemporary Indigenous artists.

A thread runs through On Beaded Ground from historic creations to contemporary works

A piece portraying Yoda carrying Grogu of Star Wars sits beneath a beaded birthing canopy at the entrance to the On Beaded Ground exhibit in downtown Victoria's Legacy Art Galleries. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

An exhibit at the University of Victoria's Legacy Art Gallery is showcasing Indigenous beading from both the past and present. 

On Beaded Ground includes creations that have been kept in art vaults for decades, but also the works of 10 contemporary Indigenous artists. 

The collection was put together by Lorilee Wastasecoot, the curator of Indigenous art and engagement at the University of Victoria's Legacy Art Galleries. 

Meaningful and Beautiful

Wastasecoot says the beadwork in this collection reflect the "interconnection and interdependence of all things". 

"They [the beads] come together to create something that is whole and meaningful and beautiful, and the process of beading is is medicine," says Wastasecoot. "And through the beading, the artists heal and become whole again."

One of the acutely contemporary creations in the exhibit is titled Connection and Disconnection: Talk to Me. Listen to Me.

Estrella Whetung created this futuristic art piece after being diagnosed with COVID-19. It's called Connection and Disconnection: Talk to Me. Listen to Me. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Artist Estrella Whetung orginally planned to create a beaded mask to be part of a COVID-themed exhibition.

However, after contracting the coronavirus, she expanded her idea to create a "futuristic gas mask, but also decorated a pair of Steampunk goggles with sealskin and bead weaving to accompany them."

Whetung describes the interconnecting chain as a way to "represent communication throughout the pandemic." 

One of the most vibrant pieces in the exhibition is a collaboration between two-spirit artists Margaret August and Nicole Mandryk. 

You are Sacred 25 Tunic is made of deer skin leather, acrylic paints, rabbit fur and beads. 

Two-spirit artists Margaret August and Nicole Mandryk worked together to create the You are Sacred 25 Tunic. (Lindsay Delaronde)

Recognizing the impacts of colonialism on gender and sexuality, the artists say that when a two-spirit person wears the tunic it is meant to remind them "of the sacredness they carry within themselves as well as the importance they have within their communities and cultures." 

As well as including new works like the tunic, Wastasecoot also unearthed pieces from the art gallery vaults that have not been viewed in decades. 

An overwhelming experience

Wastasecoot says she felt an immense responsibility in sharing these historic creations and that they need to be respected like ancestors. When she was unwrapping the items for the first time, she was overwhelmed by the experience.

"I approached an elder in the community and asked her if she could help me unwrap the items by starting off with her brushing them with cedar and me smudging them with sage."

The names and origins of many of the artists who created the historic pieces are unknown. 

Curator Lorilee Wastasecoot hopes that visitors to the gallery might help identify the artists who created these historic items. (CBC/Jean Paetkau )

"The people who are making these things are Indigenous women," says Wastasecoot. "That information gets lost or it's not considered important to be recorded and passed along. So that's how the erasure of Indigenous women and Indigenous artists happens with historical pieces and collections."

Wastasecoot hopes visitors to the exhibit might recognize the style of the beadwork and help identify the artists. 

A warm hug

One of the most striking displays in the collection is a birthing tent created by Métis artist Daphne Boyer which is canopied over the entrance to the exhibit. 

Wastasecoot says she hopes the tent will be like a 'warm hug' that will embrace visitors. 

Artist Daphne Boyer uses digital skills and a knowledge of plants to create a unique beading technique. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Boyer is an artist who combined her knowledge of plant science to create her own digital beading style called Berries to Beads.

The birthing tent is adorned with the image of the oxytocin molecule that is connected to childbirth and breast feeding. Boyer created the tent to honour her grandmother who was a midwife on the prairies. 

Star People

And underneath the birthing tent is another creation by Whetung that gives a nod to pop culture. 

Nindanikoobijiganag: We are Star People features Yoda carrying Grogu on his back in a traditional moss bag. 

Estrella Whetung create a piece with Yoda carrying Grogu to represent Star People stories from her Nishnaabe culture. (CBC/Jean Paetkau )

"These pieces are about finding a way to truly represent my Nishnaabe understanding of the cosmos through our Star People" describes Whetung. 

Whetung chose Yoda and Grogu for this project because of how these Star Wars characters have been embraced and celebrated as part of Indigeneity. 

Wastasecoot says the exhibit marks the resurgence of beading in Indigenous communities. 

"They [the beads] share stories about their cultures, their identities and family histories."

On Beaded Ground runs until Sept. 18 at the Legacy Art Gallery in downtown Victoria. The exhibition includes online event to share stories and beading techniques.