N.L. Mi'kmaq artist's work on display in New York City

Old photos led to a cultural exposition featuring a Mi'kmaq artist originally from Stephenville Crossing.

Discovery of photos of ancestor of artist's friend prompts collaboration honouring family and culture

Joe Amite Jeddore, seen here in archival photos in the community of Conne River, in central Newfoundland. (Courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian)

A Newfoundland artist has landed on the world stage, thanks to some photographs in the archives of the Smithsonian Institute in New York City.

Jordan Bennett is Mi'kmaq, originally from Stephenville Crossing on Newfoundland's west coast, and is multi-disciplinary visual artist.

When I finally got down to New York and was able to stand there with the sound bringing these photos back to life, it added a totally new dimension.- John Nick Jeddore

Bennett was asked to be part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian and the National Museum of the American Indian, and for part of his research delved into the archives.

"By chance, when I looked at their archives online I searched in Mi'kmaq, and I also searched the word Newfoundland, and up came these photographs."

Those photographs, taken in 1930 by anthropologist Frederick Johnson, were of a man from Conne River in central Newfoundland.

Art honours the family and a way of life

Bennett researched the man in the photo and found his last name was Jeddore, and he turned out to be the great-great-uncle of his friend, John Nick Jeddore.

Mi'kmaq artist Jordan Bennett and collaborator John Nick Jeddore at the Smithsonian Institute in New York. (Jordan Bennett)

"I seen these photographs and I got really excited because I was like, I know this last name," said Bennett.

"I asked John Nick if it was OK if we worked with these photographs and revisit them in a different kind of way, from an anthropological perspective and turning it into a way of honouring the family and honouring the way of life."

Together, Bennett and Jeddore consulted Jeddore's family and revisited places shown in the old photographs.

They recorded the natural sounds of those areas, sounds like traffic in the community of Conne River and hiking through the woods to get the sound of the flowing salmon river.

Jeddore, a member of the Miawpukek First Nation, said working on the project gave him a new connection to the photos.

Old photos combine with natural sounds to create a cultural experience at the Smithsonian Institiute. (Jordan Bennett)

"I treated the photos as just static images in time, like things that have come and gone," said Jeddore.

"Then when I finally got down to New York and was able to stand there with the sound bringing these photos back to life, it added a totally new dimension to what these photos were and what they meant to me."

The most important part, for me, was to bring "home" to New York.- Jordan Bennett

The end result of the collaboration was an exhibition employing both audio and visual elements.

Bennett constructed a series of speakers to project the sounds in the exhibit.

"I created these speakers from scratch," he said. "Instead of using a speaker grille, a fabric one, what I did was actually weave split ash baskets using black ash."

He said he spent two weeks in Cape Breton learning the process.

Bennett said he feels the sounds of home are now coming through the trees of home.

Jordan Bennett constructed special speakers for his exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute. (Jordan Bennett)

Bennett acknowledged that it's big deal to have his name attached to this project.

"There are 10 artists in the show and it's definitely a huge honour and great to, you know, bring a piece of home there. That was the most important part for me, was to bring 'home' to New York and to do this piece for John and his family."

Jeddore said the project is quite a turnaround for indigenous people in this province.

"When you think about the Indigenous population of Newfoundland and Labrador being forgotten in a lot of history books and, you know, being written out of the terms of union when we joined Confederation," he said.

"For a lot of people outside of my community, feeling ostracized and guilty of being Indigenous … now the script has turned to those same people having their stories and the sounds from those communities being broadcast in the financial district of New York City. It's incredible."

The exhibit, entitled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound, continues at the American Indian Museum's George Gustav Heye Center in New York City until January 2019.

With files from Weekend AM