Student Reflections #5: First Nations Art

Beaverbrook Art GalleryDecember 20, 20160 Comments

Student reflections: Randi

These student reflections have been written by Randi, a high school student undertaking a co-op program at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Her writing offers an insider’s view of the Gallery from a high school student’s perspective, and examines the exhibitions and programs being presented at the Gallery during her term.


Art is an act of preservation. We preserve memories, keeping them with us through physical representation. We keep people, places and ideas close to us to have and to understand. We preserve moments in time, which in the grand scheme of things, is quite important. If it wasn't for collections of preserved art and artifacts, we wouldn't know or understand nearly as much about the past as we do now. Museums all over the world keep history alive, and the inclusion of art is a big part of that.

Art provokes thought and ideas. We look to art to spread messages and to tell stories. Art is the platform where we communicate messages that could not be represented by words both written and spoken.

For these core reasons, I believe Aboriginal art to be of utmost importance to the preservation of our (Native) culture. Through art we keep our history in the big picture, lest anyone forget our story. Native history is that of perseverance, strength and determination through adversity. It's an ongoing fight that we keep up, a constant battle both present and of past battles fought. We fight today for the safety of our women, our language and our rights. We have fought for the right to our land, and for our right to life. Now, in more recent events, our people in Standing Rock fight for the protection of their water. Together, we are a rich and beautiful culture. Our stories and history depends on our art to ensure we are visible.

As long as our art is shared, the doors are left open for vital conversation. Through discussion we can encourage support and understanding of our culture. Culture is to be appreciated and respected amongst ourselves. Through representation of culture we can encourage more and more individuals of all ages to pursue their dreams by letting them know that their goals are possible, that there are more like them out there in the world.

It must have been near 2010 or so when I had my first experience at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. I had decided to come for my birthday, a quick decision which had a great impact. I remember being intrigued by the variety of art and trying to understand it. I was only a kid, but still putting my best effort in to be critical of what I was seeing. What really impacted me was an exhibition of native art and artifacts. It was just like being back at home in Tabusintac surrounded by my own culture and family. It was the most encouraging thing I could have seen at the time. It was an important message for me; that my story could be seen and be appreciated by someone other than my mom.  Now, because of that experience, I'm working here today as my co-op placement. Being at the gallery has taught me so much about myself and the working world of art. I couldn't have picked a better place to spend my mornings.

My placement here wouldn't be possible without those first Aboriginal exhibitions to encourage my presence here. Though it was some time ago, I vividly remember two artists' work in particular. With the help of two catalogues kept on hand (Ekpahak: Where the tide ends and Nekt wikuhpon ehpit: Once there lived a woman), I was able to have visual reference for the exhibitions in order to bring back my first impressions of them. Thanks to those two exhibition catalogues, I was able to revive those memories.

Ekpahak: Where the tide ends.

The preface in the catalogue tells stories rich in homeland comfort and natural staples, all through the power of photography. There is a common color scheme amongst the images; a million shades of earthy greys and greens. Splashes of vibrant beadwork and lively wood interiors interrupt the quiet colors yet fit in perfectly. The pictures represent snapshots of life in reserves scattered around New Brunswick, a varied handful of Maliseet and Mi'kmaq communities. The sense of community depicted in the photo essay is undeniable.

The exhibition itself was incredible; traditional elements and contemporary art were tied together as a collective piece. All of the individual pieces of art came together to present something that is ethereal by nature. Low light gave a warm, earthy aura to the whole exhibition that I believe to be essential. The clothing, canoe, antlers and birch all touch on parts of our lives and culture that create an at-home sort of sentiment. Instead of the elements of the exhibition being presented as artifacts, pieces of lives now dead and forgotten, it pushes us to see it as something that is very much alive and present.

Shirley Bear: Nekt Wikuhpon Ehpit (Once there lived a woman).

Displayed at the same time as the Ekpahak exhibition were a series of works by known indigenous artist, poet and activist of Shirley Bear. From what I remember, there was a selection of paintings grouped together boldly on the white walls of the room. My eye was first caught by their striking colors, all lively and energetic. I remember it being my first experience of looking analytically at a piece of art work, trying to decode symbolism and meanings from my (limited) knowledge of the world. Shirley's work is powerfully uncensored, and unapologetic. It speaks the truth, and doesn't shy away from judgement. I think this raw nature is important, as sometimes we can be a little afraid to be seen in an open or vulnerable state. Just from viewing her art, however, it's evident that Shirley Bear is a fearless woman.

The inspiration I felt from seeing these artists represented in the gallery is incomparable to anything else. Through the inclusion of native artists in our gallery, we can continue to preserve such an incredibly important part of history. I hope to see lots more in future exhibitions, especially in years to come.

Photo Gallery

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