Meet the Indigenous artists blending traditional art forms with pop culture, modern medical images

What do you get when you blend Betty White with Woodlands painting or beadwork with a brain scan? Work by Indigenous artists like Blake Angeconeb and Ruth Cuthand, who take traditional art forms and combine them with modern elements and themes to create new takes on the Indigenous experience.

These artists combine Woodlands painting or beadwork with Lego men, COVID-19 and more

Ruth Cuthand is a mixed media artist who is Plains Cree and a member of Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. Her work blends the traditional art form of beading with non-traditional elements or themes. (Sweetmoon Photography)

Originally published on February 12, 2022. 

Ruth Cuthand's recent art incorporates beadwork, a traditional and well-known medium to Indigenous artists. But the subject matter is more ripped from the headlines: an image of the COVID-19 virus, spike proteins and all.

The artwork, made in 2020 and titled Surviving: COVID-19, was shown at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina.

Another beadwork piece, this one depicting the smallpox virus, was shown as part of a Rembrandt exhibit last year at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. 

Cuthand is a mixed media artist who is Plains Cree and a member of Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. Many of her other works depict medical or biological material, including other diseases like syphilis or the bubonic plague; a cross section of a brain resembling a CT scan; and even artwork of viruses physically placed on a KN95 respirator mask.

Beadwork art representing the COVID-19 virus on a KN95 respirator mask by Ruth Cuthand. (Ruth Cuthand)

Some of her pieces are particularly evocative when viewed through the lens of the pandemic. Much of her pandemic-era work is rendered with glass beads that lend a shimmering rainbow to typically clinical imagery — such as the monochrome CT scans that inspired her brain-like images.

Cuthand, 68, is one of several Indigenous artists blending traditional art forms with non-traditional elements or themes, from current events to pop culture, to create new takes on the Indigenous experience.

"I wanted to make it look like you were peering through a microscope. And I just have this fascination with the push and pull of how … these are really seductive, gorgeous images. You get sucked into them until you realize: Ohh, ahh, it's smallpox!" she told Unreserved's Rosanna Deerchild.

"So yeah, you have that tension."

Sometimes, avant-garde Indigenous artists face pushback for the ways they mix the old and the new.

Blake Angeconeb incorporates pop culture imagery into his paintings done in the traditional Woodlands style. He says it's drawn younger audiences to the painting style originally popularized by Norval Morrisseau. (Blake Angeconeb)

Blake Angeconeb, an Anishinaabe artist and member of Lac Seul First Nation in northern Ontario, paints in the Woodlands style popularized by renowned Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.

While Morrisseau's work often depicted traditional Indigenous myths and spirituality, Angeconeb, 32, incorporates contemporary pop culture references, including The Simpsons, the late actor Betty White and Lego figurines.

That cultural mashup style earned him an unfavourable review from a peer in 2016.

"One artist in particular, one that I really admired and inspired me to start painting, was not very happy," Angeconeb said, recalling the reaction to his painting that featured a Lego figurine.

"[The artist] sent me a long email about incorporating cheap plastic with Woodland art. That's what he referred to the Lego man as."

A painting by Blake Angeconeb in the traditional Woodlands style featuring the late actor and pop-culture icon Betty White. (Blake Angeconeb)

That criticism was hard to hear, Angeconeb recalled. But before long, his friends and fellow artists encouraged him to continue to paint whatever he wanted. It energized him to continue.

He says he's been able to find an audience of younger fans who connect with the same cultural touchstones that he did, while also introducing them to the Woodlands painting style.

'Culture is not static'

According to Cree knowledge keeper Albert McLeod, insisting on immutable rules for traditional Indigenous art isn't the best path forward, because its history is ever-evolving, and responsive to the lives and experiences of its creators.

Cree knowledge keeper Albert McLeod says the history of Indigenous art is ever-evolving, and responsive to the lives and experiences of its creators. (University of Winnipeg)

"Culture is not static, you know. And we can't go back 300 years. We have to recognize that the people who lived [back then], that was their world. It's not our world, right?" said McLeod, who has family connections to Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and the Métis community of Norway House in northern Manitoba.

When artists like Angeconeb and Cuthand create new spins on older art forms or themes, he explained, they are engaging with symbols of the past and reshaping them into something for the modern era.

That innovation is especially important in how it reflects Indigenous people's survival, in light of the damage that the residential school system wrought throughout Canada's history.

"The Indian residential school [system] did a lot of damage to Indigenous art practice [and] ideas of art expression," he said. "It was intentional to invalidate that as a cultural or historic expression of Indigenous peoples."

Today, he says, Indigenous artists are both reconciling with the past and charting new paths with everything from beadwork and ribbon skirts to films, music and even memes.

Beadwork art by Ruth Cuthand, made to resemble a medical brain scan. (Carey Shaw)

Cuthand's work has long grappled with that dual mission. Her beadwork depictions of viruses, for example, invoke the colonial past using modern, scientific imagery such as medical scans or viruses under a microscope.

Beads were often used to trade, she explained, and while settlers brought new tools and technology from across the Atlantic ocean, they also brought virulent, non-native disease that ripped through the Indigenous population.

Surviving and thriving through the pandemic

With all its medical-tinged imagery, Cuthand's work may have resonated especially well with audiences during the pandemic.

She says she's continued to make a living throughout the last two years — far from a guarantee for a line of work that often relies on in-person exhibits.

For her next project, she's hoping to level up her beadwork and sculpt three-dimensional models of items like a brain or the COVID-19 virus.

Meanwhile, Angeconeb has done well enough that he's recently been able to quit his day job to make art his full-time career.

"It's just surreal," he said. "Like, the fact that I can comfortably support myself and my partner by painting and creating? It really is the dream for me, and I'm very grateful to be here."

WATCH | Animated short Paddling On Both Sides by Blake Angeconeb and Buffy Sainte-Marie:

His recent pandemic-era output includes a dream project: collaborating with Buffy Sainte-Marie, who did voiceover for a short animation he made as part of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund in 2021.

They have since collaborated on a second project that he says will be released soon.

"It's crazy because I painted a picture of her probably … three years ago, just because I look up to her and everything like that," he said. "And then all the sudden I'm driving around with her to go do research for her next project. It was an amazing day." 

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kim Kaschor.

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