How artists are using aboriginal beadwork to tell contemporary stories

A beadwork exhibit at Montreal's new Ashukan aboriginal culture centre gives artists a chance to use the centuries-old Wampum story-telling method to voice concerns about contemporary aboriginal issues.

More than 50 beadwork pieces from around the globe will be on display at Montreal's Ashukan centre

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      A new beadwork exhibit at the Ashukan cultural centre in Montreal's Old Port is lending a contemporary voice to the aboriginal story-telling method known as Wampum.

      Beadwork: Visions of Peace/Teiotiokwenhahton brings together more than 50 pieces of beaded artwork from artists all around the world.

      CBC spoke with the exhibit's organizer and Native Immigrant collective founder, Carolina Echeverria, and an Ojibwe artist who is participating in the exhibit, Nico Williams, to find out more.

      CBC: Carolina Echeverria, you asked artists participating in the Beadwork exhibit to draw inspiration from the aboriginal story-telling method called Wampum. What is Wampum?

      Carolina Echeverria: Wampum is a method that Native people have used to record things like peace treaties, which took white people thousands of pages to write. First Nations people condensed it all into one beaded image. The flip side is that Canadians often did not respect the treaties, because they said they were not written. But a wampum is in fact a written record.

      CBC: You are not aboriginal. What made you interested in Wampum and want to organize this exhibit?

      CE: I'm an immigrant to Montreal from Chile. At first I thought I was coming to Canada, but then I discovered, no, I'm actually in Quebec. Then I discovered that I wasn't in Quebec — I was on Mohawk territory. I wanted to learn more about how to live in this land, and I support Idle No More. I believe that people need to learn about the culture from aboriginal people, not from the colonizers.

      Detail from beadwork by Ojibwe artist Nico Williams. (Nico Williams)

      CBC: Nico Williams, you are Ojibwe and have contributed several beaded artworks to the exhibit. When did you first learn to bead?

      Nico Williams: I had started learning basic beadloom work when I was younger, but recently fell into Peyote beadwork. The Ojibwe people are known for beading, so it's coming naturally to me right now — it's exploding. I think viewers will find the work really exciting. It's coming from me, but I don't really understand where it's all coming from.

      CBC: One of your pieces is called "Silenced No More." It's a beaded ball-gag with flower patterns on the strap. What were you trying to express with that piece?

      NW: It focuses on how the government wants to keep aboriginal artwork, and they like to preserve it, but don't want to hear what people have to say. They usually want to silence us or keep who we are separate from our art. They want our art but don't want to care about the people.

      CBC: You've also contributed a 3D beaded pyramid to the exhibit. It's a little bit more light-hearted, but still uses beadwork to tell people a little bit about you. What's that one like?

      NW: I love using colour and patterns, so on one side of the triangle there's doughnuts, because in St-Henri where I live there's one shop that makes beautiful gourmet doughnuts. On one side there's aliens, from watching Netflix, and on the other side there are little cacti because I want to travel to New Mexico one day — so it's very contemporary.

      CBC: Carolina Echeverria, tell us about some of the talks and events organized over the course of the exhibit. 

      CE: There's the Native Immigrant dressmaking activity, where members of the public can bring an object that represents their family's immigration story, and sew it onto a dress. We will display the robes from Oka Crisis lawyer Richard Corriveau, which have beadwork on them as well. There will also be conversations circles where we'll cover topics like education, Mohawk language, what the future looks like, and the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis.

      Beadwork: Visions of Peace/Teiotiokwenhahton runs August 5th-15th at the Ashukan Cultural Centre in the Old Port, 431, Place Jacques-Cartier; admission is free. For more: visit the exhibit's Facebook page.