Meet Indigenous artists blending traditional art forms with pop culture and modern medical imagery
Ruth Cuthand’s recent art incorporates beadwork, a traditional medium well known to Aboriginal artists. But the topic is more taken from the headlines: a picture of the COVID-19 virus, spike proteins and all.
The work, produced in 2020 and titled Survive: COVID-19was exhibited at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina.
Another beaded piece, this one depicting the smallpox virus, was featured in an exhibition by Rembrandt last year at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Cuthand is a Plains Cree multimedia artist from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. Many of his other works depict medical or biological material, including other diseases like syphilis or bubonic plague; a cross-section of a brain resembling a scanner; and even illustrations of viruses physically placed on a KN95 respirator mask.
Some of his pieces are particularly evocative when viewed through the prism of the pandemic. Much of his pandemic-era work is rendered with glass beads that give a shimmering rainbow to typically clinical images — like the monochrome CT scans that inspired his brain images.
Cuthand, 68, is one of many Indigenous artists who mix traditional art forms with non-traditional elements or themes, from current affairs to pop culture, to create new interpretations of the Indigenous experience.
“I wanted to make it look like you’re looking through a microscope. And I just have this fascination with how…these are really alluring and beautiful images. You get sucked into them until you realise: Ohh , ahh, it’s smallpox!” she said Without reservation Rosanna Deerchild.
“So yeah, you have that tension.”
Sometimes avant-garde Aboriginal artists are rebuffed for the way they blend the old and the new.
Blake Angeconeb, an Anishinaabe artist and member of the Lac Seul First Nation in northern Ontario, paints in the Woodlands style popularized by renowned Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.
While Morrisseau’s work often depicts traditional Indigenous myths and spirituality, 32-year-old Angeconeb incorporates references to contemporary pop culture, including The simpsonsthe late actor Betty White and Lego minifigures.
This style of cultural mashup earned him an unfavorable review from a peer in 2016.
“One artist in particular, one I really admired and who inspired me to start painting, wasn’t very happy,” Angeconeb said, recalling the reaction to his painting which featured a Lego minifigure.
“[The artist] sent me a long email about incorporating cheap plastic with Woodland art. That’s what he called the Lego man.”
This criticism was difficult to hear, recalls Angeconeb. But before long, his friends and fellow artists encouraged him to continue painting whatever he wanted. This motivated him to continue.
He says he was able to find an audience of younger fans who connect with the same cultural touchstones as him, while also introducing them to the Woodlands painting style.
“Culture is not static”
According to Cree knowledge keeper Albert McLeod, insisting on hard and fast rules for traditional Aboriginal art is not the best way forward, as its history is ever-changing and sensitive to the lives and experiences of its creators.
“Culture isn’t static, you know. And we can’t go back 300 years. We have to recognize that people who have lived [back then], it was their world. It’s not our world, is it? said McLeod, who has family ties to the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and the Métis community of Norway House in northern Manitoba.
When artists like Angeconeb and Cuthand create new versions of older art forms or themes, he explained, they engage with symbols from the past and transform them into something for the modern age.
This innovation is particularly significant in the way it reflects the survival of Indigenous peoples, in light of the damage the residential school system has wreaked throughout Canadian history.
“The Indian Residential School [system] does great harm to the practice of Indigenous art [and] ideas for artistic expression,” he said. “It was intentional to invalidate this as a cultural or historical expression of Indigenous peoples.
Today, he says, Indigenous artists are coming to terms with the past and forging new paths with everything from beadwork and ribbon skirts to movies, music and even memes.
Cuthand’s work has long tackled this dual mission. His beadwork depictions of viruses, for example, evoke the colonial past using modern scientific images such as medical scans or viruses under a microscope.
Pearls were often used for trade, she explained, and although settlers brought new tools and technology from across the Atlantic Ocean, they also brought virulent non-native diseases that took their toll. ravaged the native population.
Survive and thrive during the pandemic
With all of its medicine-tinged imagery, Cuthand’s work may have resonated particularly well with audiences during the pandemic.
She says she has continued to earn a living for the past two years — far from a guarantee for a line of work that often relies on in-person exhibitions.
For her next project, she hopes to improve her beadwork and sculpt three-dimensional models of objects like a brain or the COVID-19 virus.
Meanwhile, Angeconeb has done well enough that he recently quit his day job to make art his full-time career.
“It’s just surreal,” he said. “Like, the fact that I can support myself and my partner by painting and creating? That’s really the dream for me, and I’m so grateful to be here.”
WATCH | Paddling On Both Sides animated short by Blake Angeconeb and Buffy Sainte-Marie:
His recent pandemic-era output includes a dream project: collaborating with Buffy Sainte-Marie, who did the 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 which 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 all that stuff,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, I’m driving with her to go research for her next project. It was an amazing day.”
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kim Kaschor.