The animacy of the world is something we already know, but the language of animacy teeters on extinction—not just for Native peoples, but for everyone. – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
The University of Winnipeg’s Gallery 1C03 is a small gallery, and exhibitions within this space work best when they play to its intimacy. Métis/ German/Syrian artist Julie Nagam’s “locating the little heartbeats” does well not to overwhelm the space, something not every show is able to accomplish. With its dimmed lighting it intriguingly invites visitors into the gallery to take a careful and closer look at the artwork. What viewers find is a series of wooden light boxes jutting out from the walls like taut, squarish tree branches. On the light boxes are screens presenting various animated drawings of plants seemingly springing up from the ground. Audio of nature recordings wafts through the gallery as if trailed in by the breeze or possibly through an air vent. There is a feeling of something serene here, like being alone in a garden or walking quietly through the bush.
Line drawings of botanicals are not new in the world of art. Yet, Nagam’s decision to animate her drawings captures the very nature of a plant growing. Nagam drew and painted each plant and then digitally transferred this work to create the animation. The resulting effect is one of seeing the plants moving through their life cycle. The work seems to ask the question: At which state can a plant’s true identity be captured by an illustration? As a seed, a seedling, a mature plant?
“locating the little heartbeats” is enjoyable at its surface value as an installation of charming, unpretentious animated drawings. And for the uninitiated, this exhibition may end there, which is fine. But what Nagam has brought forward is a subtle message requiring not only the eye of the art observer but one that is keen to the language of nature as well. As an urban dweller unaccustomed to reading the signs of nature, you may see only beautiful plants here. But more specifically, what Nagam is introducing us to is an assortment of powerful Indigenous plants revered for their medicinal qualities: bearberry, blueberry, tobacco root/valerian, fireweed and Labrador tea.
A key component to a deeper understanding of the exhibition is the accompanying essay by Anishinaabe scholar Niigaan Sinclair. Sinclair’s essay “Seeing Our Medicines” posits that this is more than simply a collection of animated plant drawings. These plants represent medicinal traditions that have been held by Indigenous knowledge keepers for generations and which extend beyond the flora to include plants as allies, food and medicine—the sacred and everyday uses for these plants. Sinclair explains that the uses of these five plants—bearberry for digestion, blueberries as an antioxidant, valerian as a calmative, fireweed for skin health, Labrador tea for fevers and flu—offer a teaching. “Nagam calls for us to collect an understanding of the medicines around us, this knowledge, like our relations, is and are still here,” writes Sinclair. “Gaining a competency and fluency of medicines necessarily involves spending time in the earth, studying, experimenting, and offering your time and relationship to it.”
Fluency is key here, then. In selecting these five plants and animating them, Nagam is underlining the importance of plants as living beings with much to offer as respected teachers. What could be one possible drawback to the exhibition is the lack of fluency many audience members, such as myself, likely have in identifying these plants and their teachings without the assistance of Sinclair’s essay. If these words were not there to guide us, the experience of viewing “locating the little heartbeats” might have been limited.
But perhaps this is part of the teaching and is what Nagam is pointing to with her work. We are no longer fluent in the language of plants, and as we need to learn or relearn this language, we also need to learn to rely not only on the plants to teach us but on the knowledge of others— artists, scholars, Elders, community members, friends. As Potawatomi ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us.”
The exhibition ultimately calls on its viewers to escape the gallery and get out into nature where the language of these plants can be experienced in person, and “locating the little heartbeats” is a needed starting point. By creating a space that is small and intimate, dark yet inviting, Nagam creates the quiet setting needed for contemplating this call.
“Julie Nagam: locating the little heartbeats” was exhibited at Gallery 1C03, Winnipeg, from January 10 to February 16, 2019.
Jenny Western is a curator, writer and educator who lives in Winnipeg, MB.