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Local beaders showcase masks in exhibit

Courtesy Janice Patton

Beaded face masks made by Kahnawa’kehró:non are being highlighted at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta.

The exhibition titled Breathe. aims to reflect resiliency throughout the 21st century from various cultures across Canada, with a particular emphasis on Indigenous resiliency.

“One mask is actually constructed out of a menu from a Chinese restaurant, just to give you a sense of diversity,” said Anne Ewen, chief curator of art and heritage at the museum.

The exhibit is a continuation of a similar project launched in early 2020 – at the height of COVID-19 – curated by co-creators and Metis artists Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd.

A one-of-a-kind travelling exhibit, Breathe. is an amalgamation of that earlier first wave and a new second wave of submissions, with approximately 80 masks on display.

“People are just mind-boggled,” said Ewen. “Now that masks aren’t being worn on a regular basis, I think they look at this exhibit as a period in their own history when we were all forced to wear masks.”

Janice Patton, one of the few Kahnawa’kehró:non artists whose work is on display at the museum, has been beading for over 12 years. When she saw the co-creators’ announcement on Facebook in April 2020, she immediately got to work.

“For me, doing my mask signified how even though the pandemic was a blow to humanity, things would get better,” said Patton. “We just have to hold onto that resilience and perseverance. That’s why I did the colours of a rainbow, because after a big storm, the rainbow comes out, and it’s like everything is new again.”

The name of her mask, Rainbow (After the Storm), is therein apropos considering her vision for the project.

“I had an idea and went with it,” she added.

During COVID, Patton, who works as a nurse, found comfort in her beadwork in the pockets of free time she could find. Although hesitant at first, she eventually felt that participating in the exhibit was a no-brainer.

“It’s very emotional because I am a nurse, and we went through a lot when the pandemic started… That’s why I decided to do this.”

In a similar vein, Ewen has regarded feedback of the exhibit as thought-provoking based on attendees’ reactions to the pieces.

“In a way, it’s kind of like a déjà-vu to generations prior whose relatives were gravely impacted by infectious diseases,” she said. “People have been taking a great deal of time to really look at and absorb what’s in front of them.”

Patton has her community in Kahnawake to thank for her passion behind traditional beadwork – the women especially, who have passed down the artistic tradition for generations.

“I took bead classes, I took moccasin classes and little classes here and there, but originally it was my sister-in-law, Robin (Delaronde), who inspired me, and now I’ve been beading for over 12 years,” she said.

The Facebook announcement called for artists to submit traditionally crafted masks made from various materials, such as birch bark, fur, feathers, beads, ribbons, brass metal, glass and other fabrics.

Like Patton, Kahnawa’kehró:non beader Towanna Miller received notice of the Breathe. callout via the networking platform, which led to the creation of her mask titled Corona Covid.

She claims that the feedback she’s gotten on her mask these last few months has been nothing short of endearing.

“The feedback has been fantastic. On Facebook, the photo I posted of me wearing the mask… was shared 103 times, with 188 likes. I was humbled by the feedback,” Miller said.

Miller began beading at 14 when her mother taught her how to make her first regalia in preparation for powwow dancing. She has been beading for 40 years now.

Now, Corona Covid has been shared in a few magazines, including the Whispering Wind Magazine in 2020 and the Alberta Views’ November 2022 issue, and has also appeared on the Native Women’s Association of Canada website.

“I truly appreciate the curators of Breathe. exhibit, Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd. They helped me with the shipping instructions and have kept me informed on where the exhibit would travel to next and the feedback it was receiving,” Miller said. “It was an honour to be included.”

The curators of Breathe. have successfully created an environment that allowed artists to feel welcomed and to explore various mediums of traditional craft. As such, quite a few Kahnawa’kehró:non artists participated in the exhibit, like Terri Thomas. Her masks, Covid Contrast and Grey Areas are also part of the exhibition.

“I’ve been beading for 18 years, and it’s something I enjoy doing, as I feel like I’m helping to keep our tradition of Haudenosaunee-raised beadwork alive,” Thomas said.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever submitted my work for consideration. I would consider submitting to other shows and exhibits if I had work to submit!”

The Breathe. exhibit will flourish until October 16, and all candidates’ masks can be viewed on the museum’s website – a tool that has made accessibility to the event quite favourable among art enthusiasts who cannot physically attend the showing in person.

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