Standing in this Place
The First Nations Art Show — 2017
As we pulled up to this space there was a squirrel that sat in the middle of the long road and looked at us. It was moving back and forth but not running at first — almost playing a game of chicken with our car. Jeff slowed down to allow it to pass and as we moved further along the curved road we are met with a large building with dormers and scaffolding. The building seems out of place in this space with all the trees and grass and I turn to Jeff and I say, that building was a Residential School.
In the moment that I utter the words, I feel a pang in my chest having heard some of the stories of this place and what was done to the children and their families in a systematic attempt at the destruction of culture, family and people by the Church, the government and the colonizers of this land. I anticipate the evening and marvel at the strength of the Indigenous sisters and brothers to stand in this space, and not only bear witness but rebuild with hope and beauty and spirit.
As we listen to the opening of the show, I am struck at the humility with which each person speaks. Three women open with a song. The organizers thank everyone and recognize the efforts of each person to achieve this event. Other members of the community speak and one man speaks of the power of the art. He reminds us that the artist creates in a moment and holds life still but through interacting with the art, we eternalize this moment as it comes alive in each of us. The featured artist speaks to where he is in his life but asks that each of us connect with his art rather than have him explain it. We are invited to enter into the exhibit as the doors open.
As we enter into the room, the first piece is entitled, “Blue Eye Skull” by Tim Doctor and the image is haunting and piercing on the stark white wall calling us to pay attention to the messages in these works — the pain but also the images and beauty and story that each piece tells. The room is hot and there is a woman singing. There is an order to the way we move through the room taking in each work and following the person in front of us. There is no explanation beside each piece other than the medium, the date, the artist and the title, where there is one. I want to know more but I am reminded of the message from the featured artist, Quinn Smallboy, that the art speaks for itself and we are invited to connect. I let go of my need to know more about what the artist’s intent was and I just witness — connect — embrace each piece. I stand close to them and look into the eyes of the images.
As we turn the corner, I recognize the work of one of the artists we have learned from in my board, Ahsén:nase, Deron Douglas and his work, “I Dreamt of Elk”. When I first met Deron, it was at a planning session for an Arts Inquiry that was student led with two of the high schools in my district and coordinated by Pamala Agawa, our First Nations, Métis and Inuit Coordinator and my friend. Deron was one of several Indigenous Artists who was involved in the project to work alongside our students as they came to understand their own connection to identity and story through the visual art. He talked to me about his work and the messages in his work off to the side while the others chatted and planned. I knew from this moment that he was a storyteller.
I turn the corner again and I see this painting, a collection of three and I am immediately struck by the images. I do not realize that is is one of his pieces as the style is so different than what I have seen before in his work.
The first panel is a girl in an orange shirt, eyes cast down clasping her hands together. Beside the little girl is the image of a nun though the skeletal hand creeps out of her tunic invoking what this symbol truly means — death, destruction, pain. The nun’s face is grey and white and her eyes appear as souless smudges on the face. I cannot take my eyes from her hand, feeling it move towards the girl and knowing this story. The middle panel shows an Indigenous child in Christian prayer, kneeling with hands together as a threatening figure stands in the doorway. The child’s face has an intense expression and I am not sure if it is one of resolve, pain, fear, or reflection but this is the only face, in each of the panels, that I can see clearly and yet I find it harder to read. The third image is of six small children who are now shadows themselves. There is a priest who, like the nun, is another symbol of death with his skeletal hand behind his back though you can see that there is nothing hidden. The children cluster together in this stark landscape devoid of trees and looming in the background is this place…the Woodland Residential School and I can’t help but wonder why this priest has taken these children so far from the building to stand together in the cold.
As my eyes move back and forth between panels my friend, Pamala Agawa, whispers to me, “this is Deron’s piece too…” and I am so struck by this as I have not even looked to see who the artist is or the name of the painting or if there is a description because the painting speaks for itself. It does not require words but it simply begs for the viewer to engage — to pause — and to hear this story. There are tears streaming down my face and I hear Deron’s voice behind me now…
When I painted this I cried too. I had not been able to paint for three weeks and then Pam told me the story of the Orange Shirt Day and I painted these three panels one after the other.
I turn to him as I grab a tissue from my purse and I thank him for telling me this and sharing this and I can’t imagine what he has lived through and his family and the pain and yet, here he stands, in this place, recreating what the meaning of it is as we bear witness to this history and the strength of a people to rise above.
I am so grateful to Deron and Pam for sharing their stories and their hearts with me so that I can learn and share with others.
I urge you to take the time to see this exhibit — The First Nations Art 2017 from May 27-July 28 at the Woodland Cultural Centre. If you want to learn more about Deron Douglas please check out his website at http://www.derondouglas.ca.
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