Ojibway artist's beadwork sculptures tell stories of traditions and contemporary life

Mnidnoominehnsuk includes beaded geometric sculptures woven from more than 54,000 woven glass Delica beads.

Mnidnoominehnsuk exhibition one of many events taking place for Montreal's First Peoples Festival

Ojibway artist Nico Williams opens his first solo exhibition, Mnidnoominehnsuk, in Montreal at Espace Culturel Ashukan. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Nico Williams explores patterns of power, traditions and healing through beads.

"Looking at the past, you have to think about your ancestors and how they were creating these magnificent works of art," said Williams, who is originally from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in southwestern Ontario.

"All First Nations, we had this attraction to glass beads and thread. We'd trade acres of land for pounds of thread, beads and blankets. so they are very important materials to us."

The 29-year-old Ojibway artist and Concordia University graduate has 13 of his beaded sculptures on display as part of the Mnidnoominehnsuk (Spirit Berries) exhibition at Espace Culturel Ashukan in Montreal.

Like a quilt, each panel depicts different traditions including walleye fishing, blueberry picking, maple syrup harvest, and even playing bingo. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

The exhibition features his largest geometric beadwork sculpture to date that includes more than 54,000 woven glass Delica beads.

Like a quilt, each panel depicts a different story such as his experience at his grandmother's wake ceremony, walleye fishing, blueberry picking and even playing bingo. He left another blank, surrounded by the Hudson Bay Company's iconic striped pattern, to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Some of the sculptures are abstract patterns based on microscopic images of the smallpox virus. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"This pattern is missing here for missing women," said Williams.

The sculptures are inspired by Ojibway bandolier bags, and developed into 3D structures after he peyote-stitched Delica beads together in lieu of using birch bark while trying to make a quill box.

Williams said beading is something First Nations will continue to carry on for future generations and as one of the few men taking on the skill, he encourages more to do so as a way of breaking stereotypes.

Indian’s Frozen Computer was inspired by Williams's experience of accidentally getting locked into a bid on a beaded bag after his computer froze. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"I don't think beadwork has a gender," said Williams.

"It's also carrying on traditions, seeing what you can do with it to keep pushing it further."

Many of his sculptures depict images of sturgeon or rez dogs, while others are more abstract patterns of wine and the smallpox virus.

The exhibition runs until Oct. 7. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"He's encoding Indigenous history in his beaded architectural pieces," said Nadine St-Louis, executive director at Ashukan.

"Beads have always been used to bring things together. I think he's extraordinary — the volume of knowledge that he's acquired and the skill that he has to present these very unique sculptures."

More than 54,000 woven glass Delica beads were used to make his largest geometric sculpture to date. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

The exhibition, which runs until Oct. 7, opens Wednesday night as part of Montreal's First Peoples Festival.

It's the third year that Ashukan has partnered with the festival, offering a number of master classes and events at its venue in the heart of Old Montreal.


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.