Ending soon, September 4th, at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery is “The Teaching is the Making” featuring the beautiful works of Leanna Marshall and Celeste Pedri-Spade. The show combines two very different approaches to reestablish and enliven First Nations culture by bringing forth the past to the present and highlights how different traditional and contemporary mediums can accomplish such a feat.
As an Anishinabekwe from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, Pedri-Spade is a member of the Bear Clan. She fills the roles of mother, all round creative person, and teaches at the School of Northern and Community Studies at Laurentian University. She teaches “courses on Indigenous art, culture, photography, qualitative research and modern material culture.”
With experience in the visual arts Celeste works with textiles and photography to explore “modern material culture” with an activist’s role in decolonization. This is an interesting and worthwhile process where a person or group researches a subject to fully comprehend the history with the intention to actively resurrect the culture from its colonial past. The extent to how this is made possible depends on what is recorded and remembered and then how much of that is viable in the present day. Cultures shift and blend, degrade and progress, so restoration in whatever manner has to be picked up again and celebrated.
Chance, choice and change, as the Canadian historian George Woodcock noted are the preeminent determiners of history. And a major part of that change, in a very positive way, are artists willing to explore the past to reveal it afresh and possibly find new ways to celebrate a culture once targeted for extinction by an invading culture.
Celeste’s commitment and determination is definitely felt in her photography where the images bounce between past and present. As juxtapositions with heart and soul they create a variety of endearing, somber, and reflective feeling about the passage of time and a changing world. They resonate with humanism. As we peer into someone else’s personal visual history we simultaneously wonder about our own involvement, our own history. What were our ancestor’s up to? How long were they here? From where did they come?
A culture to be viable has to be actively performed and celebrated, seen, heard, smelt and felt by lots of people with all that can enrich an individual in a group to bind them spiritually with their kin and friends. Such is the case with Leanna Marshall’s work where the jingle dresses sitting in a gallery are a treat to have available for close inspection, are typically put to use, but here Leanne intends for them to be something more than dresses.
Leanna Marshall has been making jingle dresses since 2006. As Leanna describes. “My jingle dresses or ‘story dresses’ as I like to call them are from a project called Ziigiidwin, meaning love.” And the dresses show it. Although not ceremonial, they have that aliveness to them, replete with fascinating colour and a sense of mystery about them. The dresses stand as if they are speaking or just ready to make music.
“The inspiration for Ziigiidiwin came from an awareness of the anger that I was feeling. It was around this time that my mother spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I realized that the anger that I have carried with me my entire life was the outcome of colonial, sexist, & racist policies, the Indian Act, residential schools, and Bill C-31 that govern First Nations people in Canada; and how the effects of the policies trickles down into people's lives in very real and very tragic and sad ways.”
“My people carry a lot of pain and suffering that is directly because of policies created and enforced by the Canadian government and by mainstream society that live behind and within a colonial context. That is why I feel angry... because of the suffering and the sadness within my own family; and within myself.”
Leanna began making jingle dresses since 2006. As part of the Anemki Art Collective she worked with Jean Marshall and Christian Chapman who both contributed to the project. The audio component to the exhibition tells the stories of the dresses. In them you will “hear the love, the pride, the joy, the strength, the relationships, the language and the land.”
Describing one particular dress with the title, ‘She Swims with the Fishes,’ Leanna states that the dress honour “the women murdered on the ships and where bodies have been placed in Lake Superior. Importantly, this dress explores how men view Indigenous women and the historical context in which Indigenous women have been and continue to be devalued.”
Leanna isn’t referring only to history, but to what is an ongoing tragedy in Canada. Visit the CNN website and search for a story that came out a few days ago titled: ‘Canadian Teens Sold for Sex.’
Leanna continues. “I don't see the dresses as ‘art objects.’ For me they each have a spirit, they came from somewhere and they will continue to travel forth. The women who dance in these dresses when the show is complete will continue the stories and the healing. In artworld speak all of the dresses are ‘wearable art.’ We chose deliberately not to do a 'performance' because of the intent and spirit of the dresses wasn't to entertain. They were created to heal, share, inspire, and connect."