Indigenous art show explores role of kinship in culture while works convey pain, hope, beauty
'Wisdom in Kinship' exhibition runs until Aug. 22 at Leslie Grove Gallery in Toronto
In Unmarked, a painting now showing at a Toronto art gallery, a young Indigenous girl holds a human skull in her hands and stares at the viewer, her eyes full of sadness.
D. Ahsén:nase Douglas, a Kanien'kehá:ka painter with roots in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, created the artwork in January 2020, more than a year before the discovery of unmarked graves of children at Indian residential schools in Canada.
For Douglas, who considers himself a figurative painter, Unmarked depicts the loss of culture, language and children that occurred because of the Canadian residential school system. He said residential schools took away and "destroyed" the next generation of Indigenous people.
The painting is especially relevant now, he added.
"Most of my relatives have gone to residential school. I carry a lot of their stories, especially my auntie. It's part of what I know as an Indigenous person," Douglas said.
"I wanted to express essentially a feeling of loss, but also a feeling of sadness that I felt for the loss of the children as well as our culture and our language," he added.
"The thing that a lot of people in Canada don't realize is we've always known that children were missing. We've always understood. Even during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a lot of our elders weren't believed. It wasn't something that they felt was important enough to investigate. It's something that we already knew."
Unmarked is one of 29 artworks by 12 Indigenous artists that make up the Wisdom of Kinship exhibition at Toronto's Leslie Grove Gallery, which is run by the Artists' Network, a group of independent Canadian artists. The exhibition, which opened last Thursday, runs until Aug. 22. Douglas has seven paintings in the show. The works explore the role of kinship and community within Indigenous culture.
"All of these paintings in one way or another relate to relationships," Douglas said.
"Relationships are very important for Indigenous people. It's probably the most important thing. Wisdom of Kinship is an expression of those relationships."
Lisa MacIntosh, a photographer based in Brant County and whose family is Abenaki First Nation, has the only photograph in the exhibition. It's called Water First and it features Lucy Paibomsai from Whitefish River First Nation.
"There is power here; community, connectedness, truth, injustice. There is a story here, it's message is raw and shameful. The lack of clean, safe drinking water in First Nations is one of the greatest violations of human rights to water and sanitation," MacIntosh said in an email.
"When you look at this image, I hope you ask questions. I hope you recognize the power of our youth. I hope you see injustice. I hope it makes you feel uncomfortable. I hope you are inspired to demand change."
'We have to make allies,' curator of show says
Diane Montreuil, a Métis artist and educator, curated the show. Montreuil and Nathalie Bertin, a Métis multidisciplinary artist, juried the show together. It is the first Indigenous art show to be organized and financially supported by the Artists' Network.
"We have to make allies, and plant a seed of relationships, nourish it, and this will lead to reconciliation," Montreuil said in a news release.
The show comes as other Indigenous artists are unveiling new works in Toronto and across Ontario. Last weekend, for example, some Indigenous artists unveiled a series of murals in a laneway in downtown Toronto.
The artists said the discovery of burial sites at Indian residential schools has put a new spotlight on their history and culture. Douglas agreed.
"We're in the process of making history. It's almost as though all paths are coming to a single point," he said.
Douglas also teaches part-time on a freelance basis.
"I tell my students, artwork is an expression of who we are, our personal histories, our experiences and our culture. All of my paintings will express these elements to a certain degree."
Another painting by Douglas in the show is Resilience. The painting is of a young boy, with his fist in the air. A crowd of people behind him represent those who have passed. The boy, despite the loss behind him, still has the strength to stand and resist.
Douglas said Indigenous children are always described as being "resilient," but he finds that adjective strange because it's a trait used to survive.
"If it was a non-Indigenous child, you wouldn't use the word 'resilient' to describe them. You could call them smart, or beautiful, or intelligent, or athletic. You would use these other terms," he said.
"In a lot of cases, people will describe Indigenous children as resilient. It's a good thing, but it's something that our children have had to learn to be in order to survive. I felt there was something not right there. It was something that was forced upon them because of residential schools, reserves, the poverty that they live in," he said.
A description of the painting reads: "Resilience depicts the continuing and seemingly endless supply of courage, strength and will power that our Indigenous youth are able to muster in the wake of continued social injustice. It is a battle cry of sorts in which the young will be tasked with continuing the fight for equity and sovereignty of culture within colonial Turtle Island."
Douglas has a solo show at the Orillia Museum of Art and History in November that runs until April. He says his work, although it explores Indigenous themes, does not follow the characteristics of what is typically considered "Indigenous Art" in North America.
The Artists' Network will donate proceeds from the show to the Save the Evidence Campaign at Woodlands Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont. The campaign aims to turn the former Mohawk Institute Residential School into an interpretive historic site and educational resource to ensure what happened there will never be forgotten.