Water is land, Land is also water
by Lisa Myers
Olivia Whetung’s art practice asserts a visual vocabulary of place and presence by deriving bead designs from sounds, words, phrases, the built environment and infrastructure. Her earlier work involved weaving intricate designs and large beaded pieces on looms, referencing her community at Curve Lake First Nation as well as her efforts to become ftuent in anishinaabemowin. Performance is also part of Whetung’s practice, and her collaborations with Jeneen Frei Njootli this past year used beads as resonant beings making and responding to sound. Her most recent work uses bead embroidery, where beads are sewn onto a surface material that provides a background and support for the design.
Navigation is something I think of when I talk to Olivia Whetung about her most recent beaded series, tibewh. Each bead-embroidered design represents one or two locks from the Trent–Severn Waterway as portrayed in bird’s-eye-view images from Google Maps. Whetung collected the images by entering Parks Canada coordinates for each of the 45 locks.1 Therein a strange sense of navigation took place between the coordinates and the experience of a place. More than the abstraction of a site, these maps and coordinates implicate the authority of Parks Canada and the water-way’s designation as a National Historic Site expressed through latitudinal and longitudinal points so alienated from the history of Anishinaabeg people in this area and the emotional geography of the place. Whetung depicts the water using beads with distinct, bottleneck-tapered forms dictated by constructed shorelines where the locks control the level of water. Shorelines tell a story and this story has many different dimensions.
The surface for these beaded pieces is canvas – both a painting surface and the fabric used in making wall tent shelters. On 42 six-inch canvas squares Whetung has carefully tacked and sewn ftowing lines of metallic beads to represent water. tibewh is an anishinaabemowin word used to refer to the shoreline if you are in the water. tibewh as an artwork represents water interrupted, yet also ftowing through each lock of the waterway. The beads are textured and raised from the canvas surface, resulting in a rippling pattern. Much like conning, which means navigating on water by reading the rise of landforms and shorelines, I read the rippled beaded design as land rather than its intended connotation as the water at each lock site. This visual play between land and water resonates for Whetung as she explains to me, and I agree, that land is not separate from water, water is also part of land. To think through this idea, she uses the anishinaabemowin term wenji-bimaadiziyaang, which means something close to this idea: from where we get our living or life. Using this term, the artist relates how the land and water is where our life comes from, and that the “struggle for this place is the struggle for our living/our life.”2 The transformation of the Kawartha Lakes, the Trent River and the Otonabee Rivers eroded and shifted the use of these waters, changing the viability of cultivating wild rice and other foods. Language also plays an integral part in this work, as place names are not incidental but descriptive. For example, I recall my grandfather explaining to me that the word Penetanguishene (the name of a town in central Ontario) actually describes the shoreline and surrounding land. In English terms, perhaps I can explain this as being a toponym, a term that describes topography. This would infer that as land and shorelines change, so do their names and the relationship people have with those particular places.
As a Mississauga-Anishinaabekwe, and from Curve Lake First Nation, Whetung’s family, community and ancestors faced changing land and water, which also represented violence and challenges for First Nations communities in the face of encroachment and colonial expansion. “From 1886 to 1964, before being named Curve Lake First Nation, Whetung’s home community was named Mud Lake Band #35 and is/was part of Treaty 20. Embodying the history of Treaty 20 includes dispossession from land and waterways.”3
In the early 19th century, with no restrictions on government officials engaging in land speculation, those in power chose prime sections of property along the waterway.4 Clearly, in the oral and written history of the Peterborough area, the Trent Canal (later known as the Trent–Severn Waterway) meant that eventual navigation from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay served colonial settlements and increased the process whereby land became parcelled into alienable private property. As a verb, lock means restricting, concealing, securing; as a noun, a lock’s function is also its name. Locks in waterways control and regulate the ftow of water to move boat traffic from one water level to another. Highly engineered structures of concrete with huge timber door mechanisms that hold back and control large volumes of water, each lock shifted shorelines and rerouted water ftows, sometimes ftooding areas of land. The once narrow, shallow falls or rapids of the Trent and Otonabee rivers were transformed to accommodate leisure crafts and some commercials shipping. Prior to 1833, when the first lock was established, these waters were already navigable and provided sustenance for Anishinaabe people, but in ways that were not legible through colonial vocabulary and values. In tibewh, Whetung continues to assert the presence of Mississauga territory and home. By mapping the water, she reassigns the physical and emotional geography of place.