Nfld. & Labrador

Nelson White's new exhibit pushes back against Indigenous stereotypes

Nelson White was chosen by The Rooms to be the gallery's first Indigenous Artist in Residence. He hopes the works he's painted over his two months there will challenge people's ideas about identity.

During a residency at The Rooms, White painted four works about identity

Nelson White is The Rooms' first Indigenous Artist in Residence. Behind him, one of the four paintings he completed during his two-month stint at the gallery. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Nelson White doesn't like to be pigeonholed. He doesn't like to be stereotyped.

That's why he'd prefer you didn't call him an "Indigenous artist."

"I am an artist who's Indigenous," he told CBC Radio's Weekend AM.

White was chosen by The Rooms to be the gallery's first Indigenous Artist in Residence — but White hopes the works he's painted over his two months there will challenge people's ideas about identity.

'There’s some elements of his native heritage there: his watch, his choker, but he’s just comfortable in who he is and that’s what the piece is trying to reflect,' said Nelson White of this painting's subject, Marcus Gosse. (Courtesy of The Rooms)

White believes most people have an idea in their head of what Indigenous art is, and what Indigenous people look like. His exhibit pushes back against misconceptions he, as a member of the Flat Bay Band, runs up against.

It's called Eymu'tiek, Mi'kmaq for "we are here."

"I kind of want to portray people as we exist in the world today. We are a large, vibrant community with many interests and many sides to us," White said.

"Because we're here. Everywhere. In every walk of life."

'He's just comfortable in who he is'

White's work depicts people he knows in situations and scenarios that are ordinary but not chiché.

His friends preparing for a powwow, for example, crossing the line from modern world to traditional life.

"Once they're fully dressed they'll be really traditional," he said, "They're making that transition."

Nelson White's latest work focuses on Indigenous identity in the modern world. His painting, Modern Dance, depicts powwow dancers getting ready for a dance, before changing into their traditional regalia. (Courtesy of The Rooms)

Or the painting of fellow artist Marcus Gosse, sitting backwards on a chair, straddling both worlds.

"There's some elements of his native heritage there: his watch, his choker. But he's just comfortable in who he is and that's what the piece is trying to reflect."

White's latest works grapple with the same questions of identity that have been woven into his entire life.

Growing up in Flat Bay, White's father worked with the band when it was still trying to get recognition, which made White and his siblings targets for bigoted schoolyard bullies.

The taunts, White said, only cemented his understanding of what it meant to be Indigenous.

Matisse on the hockey bus

Even is his professional life, White has bucked trends and undermined stereotypes.

Before becoming a full-time artist, White had another life in sports administration, working with Canada's national junior hockey team and the Calgary Flames.

Nelson White's painting, She Sings Her Songs, depicts Jenelle Duval, one of the members of Eastern Owl, a St. John's group that blends folk music and traditional Mi'kmaq drumming. (Courtesy of The Rooms)

About five years ago, White — who had gone to art school three decades ago — decided to pursue a full-time career as an artists.

As a student, he was also playing hockey, something he describes as a "weird dichotomy."

"It was very strange for both sides. I'd be reading big books about Matisse on the hockey bus," he explained.

"Neither side knew where I fit with them. But I was a goaltender, so everybody thought I was weird. So it was acceptable."

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Corrections

  • A prior version of this story said Nelson White went to art school five years ago. In fact, he studied art much earlier, and decided to become a full-time artist five years ago.
    Jan 21, 2019 9:30 AM NT

With files from Weekend AM

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