'It's kind of my first language': How 2 women are using art and film to heal

Lana Whiskeyjack and Beth Wishart MacKenzie’s art and film installation pikiskwe-speak is at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife until early November. It explores the legacy of residential schools, and reconciliation.

Pikiskwe-speak installation in Yellowknife explores residential schools, reconciliation

Lana Whiskeyjack, left, and Beth Wishart MacKenzie at the pikiskwe-speak installation at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. (Kirsten Fenn/CBC)

Filmmaker Beth Wishart MacKenzie first met Lana Whiskeyjack at a former residential school in Alberta.

She was interviewing survivors and children of survivors for research on healing circles at Blue Quills First Nations College when she ran into the Cree artist.

"She showed me at that time this terracotta sculpture, because she uses art as her way to healing and wellness," Wishart MacKenzie said.

"I thought this sculpture was so arresting that I asked if we could follow her continuing process, and she agreed."

Whiskeyjack's mixed-media sculpture Losing My Talk depicts a tortured face that represents her late uncle and the legacy of residential schools. It's at the heart of Wishart MacKenzie's latest film Lana Gets Her Talk, which is screening at Yellowknife's Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre as part of an installation — pikiskwe-speak — that's centred on Whiskeyjack's artwork.

Whiskeyjack's triptych, Lost My Talk, is at the heart of the installation. The centre panel of the artwork represents the life of her late uncle, George. The left panel depicts George's maternal grandfather, while the right shows a younger version of George. (Kirsten Fenn/CBC)

"I use my art often to speak about the things I can't put words to," said Whiskeyjack, who is from the Saddle Lake reserve in Alberta. "It's kind of my first language."

Whiskeyjack said her mentor used to tell her that if she wanted to paint something ugly, she should make it beautiful.

"It's kind of my way of expressing the ugliness I sometimes feel enraged at what we have to experience as Indigenous people," she said. "Expressing it through art is one of my ways of not carrying that."

Travelling show

Thanks to a grant from Canada Council for the Arts, the two women have been taking their multimedia installation across the country — to Edmonton, Montreal and Ottawa.

During each stop, visitors got a chance to see the artist's sculpture up close and watch Wishart MacKenzie's film showing Whiskeyjack's process creating the piece.

The sculpture is part of a triptych that includes two other panels. It incorporates sand from the Blue Quill school where Whiskeyjack worked, and soil from inner-city Edmonton, where her uncle spent time living on the streets.

Several of Whiskeyjack's artworks are on display as part of the art and film installation in Yellowknife. (Kirsten Fenn/CBC)

"He was my favourite uncle. He was a really funny guy when he came back home to visit us on the reserve," Whiskeyjack said. "When he left home, he lived on the streets of Edmonton and Vancouver."

Talking reconciliation

The installation is also a chance for people to talk about reconciliation. The women hold a community talk on the subject at each place they visit.

Wishart MacKenzie said they want to make those conversations happen, even if they include tough topics — but do it in a "gentle" way so people can express themselves.

"We're hoping to create a space that people feel safe in," she said. "And to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians together."

The public can view the installation and film during upcoming screenings in Yellowknife on Oct. 27, Nov. 1 and Nov. 10.

With files from Loren McGinnis and Rachel Zelniker