'It's sharing my family story': How this Kitchener, Ont., exhibit goes beyond showcasing Indigenous art

Indigenous artists from across the province are taking part in a unique art show happening at Bingemans this month. For the artists, the Neebing Indigenous Art Fair goes beyond just showcasing their work.

Augmented reality, also a component of the exhibit, allows artists to share their work online

A woman stands with her arms around a man in front of a painting.
Autumn Smith and Tom Sinclair collaborated on a piece that tells the story of the two first grandmothers of Ojibway people. They're part of the Neebing Indigenous Art Fair happening at Bingemans this month. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Indigenous artists from across Ontario are taking part in a unique art show in Waterloo region this month.

The Neebing Art Fair is a first for the region and opened to the public on Saturday. In some Indigenous languages, the word "neebing" translates to "by the river."

Indigenous peoples share a deep connection with water, said Autumn Smith, an Ojibway-Odawa artist from Magnetawan First Nation near Sudbury.

"Water is life in our culture," she told CBC News. Smith's work is part of the exhibition at Bingemans in Kitchener that runs until August 21. 

Smith said she's wanted to be an artist since she was six years old, and though she was met with resistance, she said this art show is a testament that you can succeed. 

"It's really important for me to do this show because we're showing people that we are working artists, that this is what we do and that you can be a successful Indigenous artist," she said.

Canvases of Indigenous art sit on a carpeted floor waiting to be mounted and put on display.
These canvases of art created by Indigenous artists from Ontario are part of the Neebing Indigenous Art Fair at Bingemans. The art fair will be on until August 21. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

The exhibition also features work from artists Tom Sinclair, Blake Angeconeb, Chief Ladybird and Kitchener's Luke Swinson and Alanah Jewell Morningstar.

'It's sharing my family story'

A painting created by an Indigenous artist shows a woman with tribal tattoos surrounded by snakes.
Autumn Smith says this is one of her favourite paintings she created for the Neebing Indigenous Art Fair. It's called Medicine Woman, and was inspired by traditional woodland paintings. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Smith and Sinclair, who is Ojibway from Couchiching First Nation originally from Thunder Bay, collaborated on a piece for the art show. They created a painting that tells the story of the first two grandmothers of Ojibway, Anishnaabe people.

"They were the first two people to arrive in Turtle Island," Sinclair explained.

"They were looking for people, but they couldn't find anyone. One woman took a bear for a husband and the other stayed alone and this is the story of that."

Sinclair and Smith say the exhibit goes far beyond showcasing Indigenous artwork. It's also about sharing Indigenous culture and teachings.

"I grew up my whole life thinking everyone knew what this stuff meant and knew how to make pictograph paint and knew how to interpret the symbols and that everyone knew those stories and as I started painting, I realized nobody did," he said.

"Being able to share those things, it means so much more than anything that could come from this. It's sharing my culture. It's sharing my family story."

Incorporating augmented reality

Several canvases of Indigenous art stand on display in a room.
The Neebing Indigenous Art Fair is the first Indigenous art show of its kind in Waterloo region. These are some of the work done by Ojibway artists Tom Sinclair. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

A big part of the exhibit involves connecting art with augmented reality to help people understand the meaning behind the paintings. 

"It's a new thing. We've never done this before and it's going to be a new way for people to experience our art work and the way that it moves," Smith said.

Using video, photos and audio, artists are able to tell the stories of images they depict in their work, she said.

"We're all on social media and we post pictures of our paintings online all the time, but we don't always get to explain what these things mean, the cultural significance of things," Smith said.

The augmented reality component means they can work with anyone online, Sinclair adds.

"People who won't be able to come to experience it in person, will be able to experience it online digitally," he said.