In the middle of the darkened exhibition space is a large horizontal video screen two feet above the ground. Standing over it, you watch two pairs of hands – one on either side of the screen – diligently working away on handicrafts.
These hands are busy measuring material, outlining shapes, sketching images, folding cloth, cutting leather and stringing beads. It is only when you walk around the room that you realize the hands belong to Algonquin artist Nadia Myre, the driving force behind this multidisciplinary show.
It is then that you see the creations of Myre’s adept handiwork placed behind the glass of the display cases alongside traditional artifacts made in the 19th century by various members of other First Nations communities – including Haudenosaunee, Mi’kmaq and Coast Salish.
Myre’s latest artistic endeavour is titled Decolonial Gestures or Doing it Wrong? Refaire le chemin. It opened February 18 at the McCord Museum, where she is the artist-in-residence. The exhibit is her final project that summarizes the research and work she’s been doing for the past year at the museum.
Sifting through the museum’s large collection of First Nations artifacts, Myre uses a mix of objects, photographs, books and paintings to shed light on traditional Aboriginal crafts.
A member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation – located next to Maniwaki – Myre uses her show to illustrate how she is engaged in recovering a Native identity.
Set up in front of the display cases are headphone boxes that allow you to hear the instructions Myre followed in making her four original pieces – a pair of moccasins, a bag, a hair-receiver and a basket. What you quickly realize is that her contemporary pieces are not out of place positioned next to artifacts made 100 or 150 years ago. The attention to detail and purpose is evident. The new pieces serve as a reminder that the traditional process continues.
Myre’s black-and-red shoulder bag with dangling yellow-and-white braids and nine white feathers delicately stitched on the flap is a something a young Native woman in the 18th or 19th century could easily have made.
Myre’s objective is to underline the idea that with colonization came a devaluing of traditional artifacts. This is stated in one of the explanatory texts: “Museums function as active agents in the process of decontextualization; many artifacts from the First Nations collection have lost their cultural function as a result of ‘being collected’ and removed from their communities, and, in turn, many communities have lost the cultural knowledge of these objects.
“The production of these re-imagined pieces epitomizes personal learning, re-skilling, as well as a system of knowledge transmission. Their creation allows me to restore the cognitive processes that have been the backbone of Native cultures; in revitalizing a material practice, I am performing a decolonial gesture and forging a cultural identity.”
Myre discovered that women in Victorian society had a fascination for Indigenous artwork. Many women’s periodicals of the time featured articles instructing their readers how to produce bead- and needlework items.
These periodicals provided a window to the world and faraway places and peoples. Exoticism was in vogue and the readers wanting to enjoy fascination could follow the detailed instructions the publication provided and create colourful and exotic pieces.