Odawa Anishinaabe artist swaps glass beads for resistors and capacitors

Visual artist Barry Ace's work is adorned with floral motifs using reclaimed and salvaged electronic components and circuitry. It's currently on exhibition at Concordia University’s FOFA Gallery.

Barry Ace's beaded bandolier bags bridge the past, present, and technological future

The beadwork in Barry Ace's work is made up of dozens of electronic components like resistors and capacitors

At first glance, Barry Ace's artwork look like typical intricately crafted woodland-style beadwork but a closer examination will reveal more than what first meets the eye.

Rather than using glass beads, the Odawa Anishinaabe visual artist's work is adorned with floral motifs using reclaimed and salvaged electronic components and circuitry.

There's resistors, capacitors, inductors, transistors, lights, circuit boards, and wires.

"It's an introduction of a new technology, very much like beads when they were introduced to North America," said Ace.

"It shows that our culture has never been in stasis. We've always been moving forward and are not stuck in an anthropological past, but are always looking for new ways of cultural expression."

One of 14 bandolier bags on exhibition at Concordia University's FOFA gallery this month.

The work is based on bandolier bags — cross-shoulder bags closely connected to the Anishinaabeg. They have wide ornately beaded straps and are a staple in woodland-style regalia. 

A 10-year retrospective of Ace's bandolier work, mazinigwaaso / to bead something Barry Ace: Bandolier Bags as Cultural Conduit, is currently on exhibition at Concordia University's FOFA Gallery.

Barry Ace is a member of the M’Chigeeng First Nation, Manitoulin Island. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

It marks Ace's first solo exhibition in Montreal, and features 14 works based on bandolier bags, as well as two sets of regalia using circuitry materials. 

"It's really important to have this work in Montreal because Indigenous art and Indigenous presence in Quebec can sometimes be challenging," said curator Lori Beavis.

"It's also really important to have work that shows that there's been constant movement from old skills and old traditions coming into the present day as well as showing up in contemporary practice."

Barry Ace's work uses electronic components rather than glass beads. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Ace is a member of the M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, and currently lives and works in Ottawa. He's been a visual artist for 25 years, and first learned to bead as a teenager. Ace started playing with electronic components in college when his father wanted him to become an electrician.

"I would sit with these capacitors and resistors and I'd be making motifs in the '70s while everyone else was doing their electronic programs," he said.

"I dropped out after a year and went into graphic arts."

mazinigwaaso / to bead something Barry Ace: Bandolier Bags as Cultural Conduit is on exhibition until Dec. 13. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

He said the two media do have a relationship to each other. In Anishinaabemowin, a bead is called a spirit berry.

"[It's] a little energy berry that has the ability to give power. So when you're dancing in your full regalia, you're releasing power for your community," said Ace.

"In a circuit, the electronic components actually store energy, and when they recognize a drop in current they release their energy."

A men's and women's set of regalia is in the front window of the gallery on Montreal's St. Catherine Street. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

The exhibition runs until Dec. 13.


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