Artist draws inspiration from Haudenosaunee beadwork for McCord Museum residency

Multidisciplinary visual artist Hannah Claus is exhibiting her latest work in there’s a reason for our connection as a part of the sixth edition of the McCord Museum's artist-in-residence program.

'These beaded objects are the ancestors,' says Hannah Claus

Hannah Claus is a multidisciplinary artist of Mohawk and English descent. (Elias Touil, the McCord Museum)

The latest works of multidisciplinary visual artist Hannah Claus draw inspiration from a Montreal museum's collection of Haudenosaunee beadwork.

The Indigenous cultures collection at the McCord Museum consists of more than 16,500 archeological and historic artifacts, including around 100 Haudenosaunee beaded objects from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

"These beaded objects are our ancestors," said Claus.

"I wanted to bring those out into the public a little bit more so that they could exist and have conversations outside of the drawers they're stored in."

The suspended piece, fancy dance shawl for Sky Woman, features more than 2,000 discs with prints of Haudenosaunee beadwork found in McCord's collection. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Claus, a member of the Tyendinaga Mohawk community of the Bay of Quinte in Ontario, is the museum's latest artist-in-residence. She's been living and working in Montreal since 2001. 

Her exhibition, there's a reason for our connection, is on display at the McCord Museum until Aug. 11. The new works includes images of beadwork integrated into prints and a suspended installation featuring more than 2,000 discs forming a ribbon applique pattern of a fancy dance shawl.

Claus spent time looking at registers and notes and letters by the North West Company. It ended up becoming the series called trade is ceremony. (Marilyn Aitken, the McCord Museum)

She uses installations to create sensory environments that speak to memory and transformation, often using processes of repetition and accumulation to express an Indigenous method and perspective.

When she started the residency last summer, she went into the museum's archives with the idea of looking into the fur trade industry, Montreal, and connections to the west. 

"There's lots in their collection and when you first start the residency, they really do tour you around everything which is fantastic and at the same time, overwhelming because there's so much," said Claus.

She ended up spending time looking at registers, notes and letters that were written by the owner of the North West Company, a major player in the fur trade. The illegible writing in some of the registers inspired trade is ceremony, a series of blankets and copper pins.

"It made me think of the Indigenous side of this equation that wasn't really present. These systems of writing and recording didn't necessary belong to their system," said Claus.

McCord's artist-in-residence program

McCord's artist-in-residence program is currently in its sixth year. The residency invites artists from around the world to explore and interact with the museum's collections with a critical and conceptual eye and relate them to their own artistic practices.

Hannah Claus's digital print reflections on time and space through material production was inspired by McCord's collection of Haudenosaunee beadwork such as this circa 1830-1850 Tonawanda Seneca bag. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Algonquin contemporary visual artist Nadia Myre was the museum's artist-in-residence for 2017 and and Cree artist Kent Monkman, whose Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience is on exhibition at McCord, was artist-in-residence two years prior.

Guislaine Lemay, interim curator for Indigenous cultures at McCord, said the residency is a way for artists to re-address the collections.

"It really brings out a new perspective on the objects in the collections and creates a dialogue between the past and the present," said Lemay.

"The artist gives life to the objects, which are in storage otherwise. It's a program that I love because of what it does to our collections."

Hannah Claus's exhibition there’s a reason for our connection will be at the McCord Museum until Aug. 11. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

For Claus, she said she felt privileged to have access to the beadwork that isn't often shown in public and "immense respect for the making of these objects, and the relationship that we have with them."

"It definitely was a privilege to see them and feel like I could help continue a conversation with them."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.