Indigenous

Woodland meets pop art as a young First Nations artist seeks to educate

Tsista Kennedy, a 19-year old Oneida and Anishinaabe artist, is blending traditional woodland style art with pop art to bring attention to issues facing Indigenous people.

Tsista Kennedy, 19, combines traditionalism, commentary on colonialism, and some modern twists

Tsista Kennedy blends woodland-style art, made famous by Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau in the 1960s, with elements of popular culture. (Tsista Kennedy)

Tsista Kennedy, a 19-year old Oneida and Anishinaabe artist, is blending traditional woodland style art with pop art to bring attention to issues facing Indigenous people.

"It's not solely traditionalism and it's not solely commentary on colonialism," he said recently. "It's kind of a merging of the two."

The woodland style of art is recognizable for its bright vivid colours and thick black lines presented in two dimensions. It was created by the Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, who used the genre to pass along teachings that his father had taught him about their culture and history. 

Kennedy uses that platform and adds to it modern topics, from serious issues like pipelines, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and residential schools, to cultural phenomena like The Mandalorian and Godzilla.

'We like to see the world around us Indigenized'

"This is how I see the world around me as an Indigenous man, father, an artist," said Kennedy, who is from Oneida of the Thames and Beausoleil First Nation and is currently living in London, Ont. 

"As Indigenous people, we like to see the world around us Indigenized because it reminds us that we're still here and we always will be."

Kennedy is a visual artist from Beausoleil First Nation and Oneida of the Thames. (Tsista Kennedy)

Kennedy said he is self-taught and had been using elements of the woodland-style art since he was 14. He primarily creates digital art now but has been drawing since he was a young child, eventually progressing to ink and paper, as well as some acrylic paint on canvas.

He said he created his first woodland-style piece during a track meet in high school. 

After that he began incorporating more stylistic elements into his work. 

He calls himself a daydreamer and says he gets inspiration from what he sees, what's happening politically, or, sometimes, just what pops into his head.

"It's a process of sitting down with that idea and nurturing it into something that can actually communicate what it is," said Kennedy.

It takes him ten to twenty hours to complete a piece.

Symbolism and lessons

Kennedy uses a lot of symbolism within his work. For example, in a piece about residential schools, he uses a buffalo to represent the children who went to residential school and had their childhood and Indigenous identity stripped away. 

A line between the buffalo and a buffalo calf is being snapped by a creature Kennedy said is a representation of a priest.

'I'm trying to show that residential schools took a lot of things from our grandparents, our great grandparents, our aunties and uncles, our ancestors,' said Kennedy. (Tsista Kennedy )

"In this picture, I'm trying to show that residential schools took a lot of things from our grandparents, our great grandparents, our aunties and uncles, our ancestors," he said.

Kennedy wants people to understand what Indigenous people have lived through and how the trauma continues to reverberate through generations.

"A big part of what I want to do in the end with my work is teach people through it," he said. 

"Especially youth, because as a youth myself, I know how difficult it is to navigate this world and systems that don't cater to ourselves and our well-being."

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.

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