Art exhibit honours elders at Edmonton national gathering

An art exhibit featuring work from Indigenous artists was set up as a special gesture for the more than 4,000 elders who were in Edmonton for the first-ever National Gathering of Elders.

Traditional and contemporary artwork displayed as special welcome

Dawn Marie Marchand curated the exhibit Land and Spirit for the National Gathering of Elders in Edmonton. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

Outside the conference rooms in Edmonton where Indigenous elders gathered this week was a quiet place for them to rest and recharge.

An art exhibit featuring work from Indigenous artists was set up as a special gesture for the more than 4,000 elders who were part of the first-ever National Gathering of Elders.

"We wanted to welcome the elders. We wanted to give them a place where they could just be honoured visually," said Dawn Marie Marchand, curator of the exhibit.

Marchand, who last year was named as the first Indigenous artist in residence for the City of Edmonton, chose about 40 pieces of art created by 16 artists.

Artists, mostly from the Edmonton area, created the works for the exhibit. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

She began with an open call to her studio where people brought their work. She then broadened her search to find the art she wanted to showcase.

"I went out into the community literally recruiting artists that I knew were doing really interesting and unusual things and I wanted to promote them," Marchand said.

The result is the exhibit Land and Spirit, which Marchand believes has now been seen by several thousand people who attended the gathering of elders.

She said it felt special for her to learn how the art had moved many of the elders who could see the stories being told in the works.

"Art opens up the spirit and allows you to feel maybe things you aren't cognitively aware of, and that's what the power of art is," Marchand said.

Marchand shows a deer-hide piece by MJ Belcourt Moses. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

The exhibit was a deliberate mix of traditional and contemporary art featuring work from men and women of different generations.

People at the gathering looked up to view a huge installation hanging from the ceiling, assembled from reflective material and fishing line by artist Tiffany Shaw-Collinge.

Other artists represented included MJ Belcourt Moses, whose work involves traditional methods such as hide-stretching, and emerging artists, among them Chris Carlson and Mike Holden. 

Tiffany Shaw-Collinge's work Sunrise/Sunset was suspended from the Expo Centre's ceiling. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

Marchand said a number of organizations in the Edmonton arts community helped bring the exhibit to life as a gift to the elders.

She said being a part of such an exhibit seen by so many people was a big moment for the artists involved.

"They are very honoured to have been able to do this for the elders and to be a part of an exhibit that is bringing so much joy to the elders."

Contemporary art like this work by Mike Holden was also part of the exhibit. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

Lois Papin-Gauthier, an elder representing Enoch Cree Nation, said the exhibit was a thoughtful tribute to those taking part in the gathering.

"I really appreciate the art," she said. "I can understand the different pictures and stories behind them. It's beautiful."

Papin-Gauthier said the display provided a welcome break after being in a session where a number of residential school survivors talked about their horrific experiences.

The gathering of elders, which closes Thursday, brought together First Nations, Métis and Inuit elders from across Canada for the first time.


Gareth Hampshire is an award-winning journalist who began his career with CBC News in 1998. He has worked as a reporter in Edmonton and is now based in Halifax.