amiskwacîwâskahikan: Jane Ash Poitras, MJ Belcourt Moses, Lauren Crazybull, Tanya Harnett, George Littlechild, Dwayne Martineau, Conor McNally, Lana Whiskeyjack
by Missy LeBlanc
amiskwacîwâskahikan/Beaver Hills House/Edmonton is centrally located in the Treaty 6 region and is the tra- ditional home of the Papaschase. From the rolling hills, aspen forests, verdant grasslands, and the flowing life way of kisiskâciwanisîpiy/North Saskatchewan River, the region has been a site of gathering for many Indigenous peoples sharing the land and resources since time immem- orial. It is on this land, overlooking kisiskâciwanisîpiy, that the Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre stands. Ociciwan, translated from nêhiyawêwin to mean “the current comes from there,” references the kisiskâciwanisîpiy, the people it has brought to this region, and the link between the past, present, and future.
Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective started in 2015 and over the years has undertaken a series of projects—including visual art exhibitions, a large-scale experimental music performance, and producing a double vinyl record—presented in partnership with local and national partners while building capacity to open their own, mostly Indigenous-run, arts centre and community space. After years of hard work and dedi- cation to growing and supporting the Indigenous arts scene in amiskwacîwâskahikan, and six months of de- lays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ociciwan finally welcomed people into the centre on September 30, 2020, with the amiskwacîwâskahikan exhibition. Paying homage to the land that Ociciwan is situated on and its history of gathering and connecting, the exhibition features the works of eight Indigenous artists that have strong ties to or call amiskwacîwâskahikan home.
When I first walked into the new space, my eyes were drawn to Tanya Harnett’s Genocide (2020), a large-scale hand-drawn map that depicts the route of a smallpox epidemic along the Missouri River (in what is now known as the American Midwest) to where Harnett’s ancestors once lived. The Great Plains small- pox epidemic (1836–1840) reached its height in 1837 when the American Fur Company’s St. Peters steam- boat travelled up the river along the route depicted in this work, carrying with it infected people and supplies. Reminiscent of the hand-drawn maps created by colo- nial cartographers and explorers, Genocide, although illustrative of Harnett’s familial history and ancestral kin, is also reflective of the violent histories of loss that many Indigenous people can relate to.
To the left of Genocide are two larger-than-life portraits by Lauren Crazybull of their siblings, Jordan (2019) and Autumn (2019), painted on unstretched canvas. Wearing a jean jacket, head tilted back and eyes closed, Jordan appears to be lying peacefully in a bed of yellow and pink flowers. Autumn, with shadows of tree branches marking their body, stands with arms crossed over their torso in front of bare branches and the sky as a budding tree branch rests on their temple. The way that Crazybull has captured these details—the tattoo on Autumn’s wrist, how the light reflects off of their sibling’s glasses, the light shining on Jordan’s facial hair—brings the paintings to life. They are ever- present in the gallery, watching over the works with care and love—the same care and love that Crazybull imbued into the paintings of their kin.
Reminiscent of a dreamcatcher, MJ Belcourt Moses’s From the Beginning (2018) is a cast of a pregnant person’s torso made using deer parfleche suspended in a red willow–branch frame depicting a nêhiyawêwin syllabic chart painted onto the stomach. The installation alludes to the ancestral knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation. Although living in a colonial society which continues to dismiss this knowledge, it is inside all of us as Indigenous people. Lana Whiskeyjack’s painting, Painting my anger, praying for stolen medicine(s) (2020), depicts a person wearing dentalium earrings and a beaded necklace in the shape of a vulvar strawberry. Painted over the image is the text “I WILL BE CAREFUL WHO I SHARE MY MEDICINE WITH”—a reference to Whiskeyjack’s beaded strawberry necklace titled Three Generations of nitêh (my heart) (2019), which was stolen from the centre prior to its opening to the public. The statement is bold, succinct, and relatable for many Indigenous people— we must protect ourselves and communities from the harm that colonialism continues to do to us.
In the downstairs Media Gallery, Dwayne Martineau’s backlit film prints hang heavy in the dim lighting. ONE DEAD TREE #2 (2012) and Propagation (2020) are illusory mirrored photographs of a dead tree found in an Edmonton ravine. Martineau’s use of photo manipulation creates an uncanny symmetry which gives the installation a haunting quality. Ghostly pareidolic faces appear among the details of the trees, peering out from between the branches and watching my every move in the gallery. In a corner of the gallery is Conor McNally’s spectral 16mm Ektachrome film nisîmis, or my brother’s dream of a bicycle (2020). McNally’s experimental film, silently looping, provides an ephemeral and fleeting quality to the space. Like a dream floating away, when one grasps on to what little detail is memorable, flowing images of his brother manipulating a bicycle pump move back and forth in a rhythmic pattern overlaid onto an abstract background of ink. Martineau’s and McNally’s ephemeral and ethereal works are in stark contrast to Jane Ash Poitras’s Fort Chip Future (2000) in the same space. Using pop-culture images and her children’s artwork, Poitras’s collage alludes to Indigenous Futurisms—connecting the past, present, and future in non-linearity with hope for what is to come.
The undercurrent of this exhibition is connection: connections to kin, connections to the past, and connections to the future. amiskwacîwâskahikan is rooted in family and in land. The shared and collective experience of Indigeneity flowing through each of the works is reflective of the history of amiskwacîwâskahikan. As a gathering place, this exhibition nourishes and enriches the lives of those that come together, like the Beaver Hills and kisiskâciwanisîpiy have since time immemorial.