“Woven Together”

All the knowledge in the world is still here. You just have to access it in parts, at points throughout your life. These lines are a close paraphrase of something Vancouver-based artist Meghann O’Brien said during a fascinating panel discussion at the Kelowna Art Gallery (KAG) this past July. The panel, held in conjunction with “Woven Together,” a four-artist exhibition guest-curated by Winnipeg artist-curator Jaimie Isaac, featured Isaac, O’Brien, and artists Tania Willard and Meagan Musseau. Absent from the panel but rounding out the exhibition roster was Mi’kmaw artist Ursula Johnson.

There appears to have been a resurgence of interest in philosophical consciousness and related knowledge acquisition in recent years. This is a cultural phenomenon that, if the observation is correct, should not come as a surprise, considering the divisive geopolitical and ideological climate prevalent around the world today. But as history has demonstrated, it has been the very conditions under which this climate has operated that have created counteractions of critique, dissent, conflict, and certainly of retreat, withdrawal and even cocooning. All come with attendant risks and rewards, and each is in its own particular way a form of resistance. From a philosophical standpoint, these counteractions are also a form of reflection, a way of examining your place in the world and creating methodologies for thinking about thinking, for thinking about doing.

Tania Willard, Gut Instincts, 2018, installation view, digital mural on adhesive textile, laser cut silk and satin ribbon, copper welding rods, wood stumps. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna, BC.

The cocoon, for example, becomes a metaphor for survival, not surrender. Most importantly, cocooning may be understood as a temporal staging ground, often including metamorphosis, such as in the growth cycle of a butterfly. In 2015, for a group show titled “Custom Made,” curated by Tania Willard at the Kamloops Art Gallery, Ursula Johnson presented a six-hour performance during which she painstakingly wove herself inside an ash-splint basket. The object, titled “Basket,” now presented more as an artifact than a sculpture, was accompanied by 10 large photographs documenting the performance, all of which were included in the 2018 Kelowna Art Gallery exhibition. Johnson has named the photographs Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon). The performance metaphorically represented a radical compression of time in which a cultural body (singular and/or plural) enclosed itself in a protective casing. Once the cocooning cycle had achieved its objective, the performance concluded in a dramatic re-emergence as the artist broke free from the enclosure. The basket in this theatrical production was not a prop, but rather an extension of the artist-actor herself, a protective covering or costume designed to envelop the figure. Now, even witnessed from a vicarious vantage point, the pain and joyful trenchancy of this transformational performance was palpable. But it’s appropriate to acknowledge the role of the imagination in interpretation; if the artwork, or in this case its residual components, stimulates that essential aspect of engaged audience reception, then its quality is assured.

The four artists in “Woven Together” are women of Indigenous and European ancestry, and all have a history of weaving and basketry as part of their interdisciplinary practices. This interconnectedness, in concert with their distinctive individual artistic diversity, appeared to underline the exhibition thesis. Moreover, in the panel presentation it became clear that the artists’ gender, and the role of the matriarch in their Indigenous communities and family units, had a profound influence on their collective artistic and philosophical consciousness. This was referenced in the very open and consistent acknowledgement of the importance of artistic peers, mentors and community-support structures. While this may not be a revelation to some people, it was an important insight into their thought processes for a non-Indigenous audience, which, in addition to myself, constituted most at the panel discussion and would likely account for the majority of the audience of the exhibition. In putting the exhibition in perspective, curator Jaimie Isaac stated that contemporary art is an investigation and reflection on who we are in the contemporary moment within the context of an historical past; “Therefore the lens or manner of viewing one’s practice can be formed by multiple influences found both within and without one’s own informing, and dominant cultural past and its discourses.”

Meghann O’Brien, originally from Alert Bay, BC is, like many artists today, not intimidated by art and craft classifications. In 2010 she moved away from her professional snowboarding career to work full-time as an artist. Drawing from the textile traditions of Yeil Koowu (Raven’s Tail) and Naaxiin (Chilkat), she has developed a hybrid stylistic identity in her weaving practice: amalgamating Indigenous vocabularies and material types with “haute couture” design and conceptual art strategies. Clam Digging Basket, 2007, woven from red cedar bark, was her earliest work in the exhibition. It is an exquisitely crafted sculptural object that, while not incompatible with its utilitarian title, is an unqualified fashion statement in itself, and indeed O’Brien has shown it as an accessory on the runway at fashion shows. A more recent work, titled Moon Ancestor Pendant, 2016, continues her interest in accessories, here blending the materials of yellow cedar bark and cashmere in a virtuoso display of intricate weaving technique and needlework in this object of personal adornment. Work Box and Unfinished Weaving, 2017, is the most enigmatic and conceptually orchestrated piece in O’Brien’s selected works. It consists of two principal objects: a dismantled box containing found and carved objects and yellow cedar bark; and a finely woven, unfinished, cedar bark pendant-like object. The box, which originally contained a pair of Repetto brand ballet shoes, was carefully unhinged at its corner joints and, while still resembling a box, appeared near cubist in its abstraction. Also vaguely reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, O’Brien’s unfolded box contains personal history, found and fabricated objects and raw cedar material. The combined effect of these two principal objects created a complex poetics of expression: of time, of materials, creative practice, and the elusive yet quietly perceptible sensation of gaining an expositional insight into the artist’s very thoughts and feelings.

Meagan Musseau, nukumi, will you sit with me as I learn to weave?, 2018, split vinyl basketry, synthetic vinyl and neon pink flagging tape, 6 x 6 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Kelowna Art Gallery.

Meagan Musseau’s crisp, elegant, boutique-styled display featured a sequence of split vinyl baskets and mixed materials, including wall-hung vinyl strip bunches in colour types found in the woven baskets. There was something garish, and paradoxically both appealing and confrontational, in these push-back neo-punk translations of traditional Mi’kmaw basketry. Plastics must rank among the most repugnant, vilified and ubiquitous materials in the world today. That these and other petroleum-based products are all but germane to material existence is a constant reminder of the myriad environmental problems related to resource extraction and its economies. Musseau’s position on this subject is made abundantly clear by her addition of flagging or surveyor tape woven into the split vinyl basketry designs. Looking in the baskets, I discovered such things as a small pouch of tobacco and, in another, a bundle of sweetgrass. The juxtapositions of disparate and equally culturally significant materials are an especially poignant mode of address voiced from an artist of her generation, which is, arguably, a seventh generation.

Tania Willard, of the Secwépemc Nation in southern BC, sited her installation in the KAG’s open-air courtyard, which she likened architecturally to a basket, something to hold other things. The other things in her piece titled Gut Instincts, 2018, which incidentally will remain in place for a year, are a large digital mural on adhesive-backed textile, silk and satin ribbons, copper welding rods and wood stumps. Willard’s utilization of the courtyard takes a page from Michel de Certeau’s theory of the tactical intervention of “place” (hegemonic, fixed, delimited and demarcated), an action he described as generating a “space”, (frictional, fragmented, temporal, relational and counter-hegemonic); thus Gut Instincts appropriates the courtyard and insinuates itself and all it may represent into the proper place of the gallery. The artist referred to the installation as “an affirmation of women’s intuition, gut instinct and ancestral voices that collapse the past, future, and present into an embodied and visceral experience.” She cites a late 19th-century ethnographic expedition into the Stl’atl’imx territories as a research source for the dominant visual design in the wall textile, called the “entrails pattern,” which Willard reads as representative of “a deep reciprocity with Indigenous lands and sacred acts of reciprocity and interrelationship with animal and other non-human worlds.”

Alongside the contemporary artists in the exhibition, curator Jaimie Isaac exhibited three Indigenous ancestor baskets, all identified as “Maker Unknown,” borrowed from the Kelowna Museums Society. In reference to the artist’s anonymity, Isaac said, “The neglect to acknowledge the artist’s names, the dates, even the material forms of the basket weavings … speaks to the categorization of fine art and craft, and of mainstream and marginalized cultural production.” This regrettable archival neglect was a product of past colonial cultural mentalities, and now, sadly, the shame this intentional failure of acknowledgement represents has been written into the objects’ intercultural public histories and meanings. This particular example is far from an isolated incident, but the artistry of these baskets survives the anonymity of their maker, and that survival has unwittingly assigned them the emblematic representation of generations of colonial hegemony and cultural erasure. That this erasure has been incomplete is, one imagines, at the foundations of contemporary Indigenous peoples’ philosophy of thinking and doing. The artists in “Woven Together,” their young age not withstanding, have through their work and articulate voice shared a knowledge of the past, present and future of Indigenous contemporary art, cultural expression and survival, and in that we are all beneficiaries.

“Woven Together” was exhibited at Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna, BC, from July 14 to October 7, 2018.

Gary Pearson is an artist and professor emeritus at UBC Okanagan, in Kelowna, BC.

Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.