Nfld. & Labrador·Review

New St. John's exhibit has sincere and gentle warning about environmental damage

Mi'kmaq artist Meagan Musseau uses plastic instead of sweetgrass to make a comment about the health of the planet, writes critic Jason Wells.

Keeping traditions alive in a modern age, from sweetgrass to plastic

Meagan Musseau, seen in a still from a video, braids threads of plastic for part of her new exhibition. (Meagan Musseau)

"When they poison the bogs we will still braid sweetgrass."

The places we call home have other names that have mostly been forgotten, and that is no accident.

Meagan Musseau is a visual artist from Elmastukwek, in the Ktaqmkuk territory of Mi'kma'ki. Few readers will recognize her hometown until I tell you that you may know it as the community of Curling in the Bay of Islands, in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Pejipuk — "the winter is coming" — is not a call-out to HBO's Game of Thrones, but the name of Musseau's show currently on display at Eastern Edge Gallery in downtown St. John's.

It's a sincere and gentle warning that we have done some serious damage to our home. Our icecaps are melting, many animals are going extinct, the coral reef is dying.

What will we have when the earth is gone? We will always have our stories.

Artist Meagan Musseau swapped sweetgrass for plastic for this basket. (Jason Wells)

Musseau reminds all of us that we live on through the passing down of skills and that although the organic elements of our traditions may go away, we will always adapt.

Her work shows us traditional Mi'kmaq basket weaving, but instead of ash wood and sweetgrass, the baskets are made from flagging tape and synthetic vinyl strips.

From fear to resilience

When I look at Musseau's work, I find myself going back and forth between a sense of fear acknowledging that plastics are filling the ocean, and then to a place of resilience with how traditions are stronger and live longer than plastic.

I am sure this feeling is no stranger to any Indigenous person who has lived since colonialist settlers came to this continent; persevering when it looks like all hope is lost, but still planning for a future.

This speaks beyond just what it means to be Indigenous; it is a message for all of humanity.

When we look at global warming, we can almost see the end of the earth but I imagine Musseau  looking at it as, how does one adapt and keep their sense of self when the materials of tradition are gone.

Elamstukwek is the Mi'kmaq word for area now called the Bay of Islands. (Jason Wells)

One of the walls in Pejipuk gives us a series of dyed rabbit pelts, ranging from natural-coloured hide to a less natural purple, and even a neon pink fur.

All in the stitch

Each skin is hand-beaded with the original names of the places that have had a significant impact on the artist while developing her relationship to the land.

When talking with Musseau I learned that beadwork isn't as old of a tradition as I thought, with beads being originally brought in via trade with the early settlers. They were often made of glass, and as time went on it became cheaper to make them out of plastic.

Musseau says that it is the stitch that is the tradition and the language, not simply the materials that they are made of.

I feel that this show is telling a story, showing us what it can mean to live in 2018 as a Mi'kmaq person working to keep traditions alive in a modern age, from sweetgrass to plastic.

Pejipuk is open until March 17 at Eastern Edge Gallery on 72 Harbour Drive.


Jason Wells


Jason Wells is a visual artist and drag performer based in St. John's.