Duct tape, plastic cord and snuff tins might not be the first materials you think of when the subject of traditional aboriginal crafts comes up but a new local exhibit will get you rethinking the definition of aboriginal art in a contemporary setting.
Transforming Traditions has just opened at the Musée Héritage Museum. It offers up its gallery space to some of the most unique and colourful ways that contemporary aboriginal artists are expressing themselves while staying true to their heritage. The works of duct tape and plastic cord sit with as much prominence as those of deer hide, feathers and fish scales. The modern parfleche bag grabs as much attention as the purple coat or the exquisite feather fans.
The exhibit is the offspring of a previous one held in late 2010. Patterns in Glass: Métis Design in Beads did as much to showcase local Métis history as it did to demonstrate the artists’ dedication and the intricacies of their crafts. Curator Joanne White called this a case of “traditional work propagating new work.”
“During that exhibit, we had quite a few artists come in looking at the old work to inspire their work. We knew there were younger, newer artists who were out there. We started putting out the word that we were interested in finding out who was doing what.”
That call went out to a fairly sizable district from Hinton to Wetaskiwin to Bon Accord. The response was overwhelmingly positive and represented a good variety of aboriginal communities. Their works were also decidedly modern. Duct tape was involved but so was the spirit of bridging the gap of respecting history while acknowledging the importance of an artist’s freedom to make statements through his work.
This show does both.
The culture of evolution
Patricia Piché is one of the artists, one who has made her art not just her life’s work to study and pass on the traditions of her Cree and Dené heritage. The Bon Accord fashion designer has made a career of producing contemporary western and aboriginal outerwear through her own design house. She clearly knows the value of keeping true to her elders while making objects that are more individual, more expressive and more appealing to a broader, modern audience.
She contributed a warrior shirt to the exhibit made out of traditional deer hide but with a contemporary fashion design, hence the name of her company, Contemporary Fashion Designs.
“All of my work is pretty well more contemporary with a lot of native influence,” she explained, ensuring that she tries to represent as many aboriginal tribes as possible.
Her designs have been very well received by people of all ethnicities. She was one of the finalists in Canada’s first aboriginal fashion shows, Winds of Change, back in 1993.
So, does becoming popular leave this artist struggling to stay authentic as she veers away from tradition toward the more contemporary? Do her customers complain that her warrior shirt isn’t what a warrior shirt should look like?
“Not really, no,” she responds. “They know my work. They know who I am and what I do. I still have a lot of respect for my culture and heritage … I’m just trying to introduce it into the non-native world.”
The evolution of culture
“There are traditional things like beadwork or quillwork but often they’ve changed up the colour or used contemporary patterns or designs,” continued White. “Even though the technique might be original, the application of it is different.”
There are artists in the show who have grown up with these teachings and are now passing the knowledge on to their own children and students. Holly Rae Yuzicapi comes from the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan. She said that her large family has always kept their history and culture alive through art. She believes that that art connects not only the past and the present, but the future too.
“I work with youth as a liaison at three schools,” she said. “I spend time teaching rather than making stuff for sale. When I’m in my schools, I teach the kids a lot of the old traditional art techniques, so a lot of the kids here have had a chance to work with fish scales, with porcupine quills … once they’ve tried the real stuff then they move on to using other things.”
Like duct tape. For the exhibit, for instance, Yuzicapi has offered a parfleche bag out of the sturdy material. A parfleche is a traditional bag used to carry dried meats or other foods. It’s traditionally made out of hide. There is a bracelet that would otherwise be made with quills. Here, colourful plastic cord makes a fine and fun substitute.
“That’s what I’ve got the kids to use because – being in the city – where are you going to get porcupine quills, right?” she laughed. “Access to traditional materials is really limited so I’ve improvised with modern stuff.”
She does prefer to work with traditional materials like fish scales or caribou and deer hide, even when she’s making non-traditional items like heels.
“I’ve either done traditional stuff out of modern material or done traditional techniques with modern materials.”
Materials are definitely important to her but she emphasizes teaching techniques because that is a vital part of the tradition that mustn’t be overlooked.
“When I first learned these art techniques, I was told it was a fading art, that nobody does it any more because people don’t know how. The teachings haven’t been passed on. When I teach it, I talk about the history. The kids understand the connection to the land better. The materials that I use, it helps connect them to the land in the area where those materials grow from or live.”
Yuzicapi said that this show is very important to her culture.
“The whole thing is getting people to realize the evolution of tradition. Access to material is really limited. It’s about realizing you can still do stuff with old techniques but on new things.”
Runs until Sunday, August 25
Opening reception Thursday, July 4 at 7 p.m., coinciding with ArtWalk between 6 and 9 p.m.
Musée Héritage Museum
5 St. Anne Street (in St. Albert Place)
Call 780-459-1528 or visit www.museeheritage.ca for more information.