Algonquin artist Nadia Myre recovers Indigenous identity

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In the middle of the darkened exhibition space is a large horizontal video screen two feet above the ground. Standing over it, you watch two pairs of hands – one on either side of the screen – diligently working away on handicrafts.

These hands are busy measuring material, outlining shapes, sketching images, folding cloth, cutting leather and stringing beads. It is only when you walk around the room that you realize the hands belong to Algonquin artist Nadia Myre, the driving force behind this multidisciplinary show.

It is then that you see the creations of Myre’s adept handiwork placed behind the glass of the display cases alongside traditional artifacts made in the 19th century by various members of other First Nations communities – including Haudenosaunee, Mi’kmaq and Coast Salish.

Myre’s latest artistic endeavour is titled Decolonial Gestures or Doing it Wrong? Refaire le chemin. It opened February 18 at the McCord Museum, where she is the artist-in-residence. The exhibit is her final project that summarizes the research and work she’s been doing for the past year at the museum.

Sifting through the museum’s large collection of First Nations artifacts, Myre uses a mix of objects, photographs, books and paintings to shed light on traditional Aboriginal crafts.

Nadia Myre - Sac

A member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation – located next to Maniwaki – Myre uses her show to illustrate how she is engaged in recovering a Native identity.

Set up in front of the display cases are headphone boxes that allow you to hear the instructions Myre followed in making her four original pieces – a pair of moccasins, a bag, a hair-receiver and a basket. What you quickly realize is that her contemporary pieces are not out of place positioned next to artifacts made 100 or 150 years ago. The attention to detail and purpose is evident. The new pieces serve as a reminder that the traditional process continues.

Myre’s black-and-red shoulder bag with dangling yellow-and-white braids and nine white feathers delicately stitched on the flap is a something a young Native woman in the 18th or 19th century could easily have made.

Myre’s objective is to underline the idea that with colonization came a devaluing of traditional artifacts. This is stated in one of the explanatory texts: “Museums function as active agents in the process of decontextualization; many artifacts from the First Nations collection have lost their cultural function as a result of ‘being collected’ and removed from their communities, and, in turn, many communities have lost the cultural knowledge of these objects.

“The production of these re-imagined pieces epitomizes personal learning, re-skilling, as well as a system of knowledge transmission. Their creation allows me to restore the cognitive processes that have been the backbone of Native cultures; in revitalizing a material practice, I am performing a decolonial gesture and forging a cultural identity.”

Victorian inspiration

Myre discovered that women in Victorian society had a fascination for Indigenous artwork. Many women’s periodicals of the time featured articles instructing their readers how to produce bead- and needlework items.

These periodicals provided a window to the world and faraway places and peoples. Exoticism was in vogue and the readers wanting to enjoy fascination could follow the detailed instructions the publication provided and create colourful and exotic pieces.

Periodical Le Conseiller des Dames et des Demoiselles

Periodical Le Conseiller des Dames et des Demoiselles of France

A quote from the London-based Lady’s Newspaper and Pictorial Times of April 2, 1859, states: “…taste is not confined to any clime or country nor yet to any condition of existence. This beautiful piece of bead-work carries us, by a natural transition of thought, far across the Atlantic, into the recesses of Indian life.”

The exhibit showcases a number of books directed to the female reader. Whether published in London, Paris or New York, the interest for the exotic was widely shared.

Also included in the exhibit are a number of black-and-white photographs. Several of them feature Native women and girls selling their beadwork and crafts. Others depict Victorian women in their homes engaged in making similar handicrafts – presumably following the instructions found in their favourite periodical.

The most intriguing photo, titled Interior of G. W. Gill’s Home, highlights a Winnipeg woman sitting in her parlour, a large sleeping dog at her feet and the walls adorned with Native and Native-inspired artifacts.

James Wilson

Two black-and-white portraits by noted Montreal photographer William Notman are nicely juxtaposed. One captures the intense-looking Huron-Wendat hunter François Gros-Louis holding snowshoes, moccasins and other items he is prepared to sell (1866). The other features a dashing James Wilson, wearing a white hunting outfit in front of a wintery backdrop, and carrying a rifle and embroidered pouch (1876). While one sells his wares to survive, the other poses in them in a moment of exotic pretense.

Myre tackles the issue faced by many Indigenous communities of reclaiming their traditional output. It is a concern that resonates with Indigenous peoples around the world, when faced with the realization that many of their cultural artifacts reside in the air-conditioned vaults of museums and private collections located in the countries of the former colonial powers – completely isolated from the cultures that created them.

As Myre firmly underlines, the need to reconnect is of utmost importance. It is only through this linkage that identity can be recovered, enlivened and maintained.

Decolonial Gestures or Doing it Wrong? Refaire le chemin. at the McCord Museum to May 29

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