Home Arts & Culture Identity through contemporized tradition

Identity through contemporized tradition

Courtesy Arts Commons

When Thea Thomas picked up the phone for our interview, she was sitting at a sewing machine working on her next project: a two-by-eight woven wall hanging for a show in Red Deer early into the new year. 

Deeply tied to her heritage, Thomas draws inspiration for her artwork from traditional Haudenosaunee arts. 

As a fibre-based Haudenosaunee artist from Kahnawake, Thomas moved to Calgary to pursue an arts education at Alberta University of the Arts. 

Aside from representing her community through her work, Thomas places a focus within the fashion industry – one she noted is notorious for cultural appropriation. 

“I just want to be a part of this movement of artists and designers that are just changing that for Indigenous youth,” she said. “My work really stands like dialogue pieces in terms of keeping conversations alive about how Indigenous cultures have longevity in this world that we live in.” 

Describing her style as Indigenous contemporary, she created pieces threading together notions of modernity and Indigenous visibility within white spaces while also showcasing long-standing traditional art forms. Through this approach, she explained her work speaks to the adaptation of identity in a colonial landscape. 

Thomas’s work is part of the ongoing Expressions of Truth and Reconciliation exhibit open to the public at Arts Commons in Calgary until January 22, 2023. 

The multimedia exhibit is a collaboration between CIF Reconciliation Society and Arts Commons showcasing the work of 12 Indigenous artists from all across Turtle Island, the majority of whom are based in treaty six and seven, according to one of the curators. 

Ranging from paintings, drawings, and photography to beadwork and sculpture among other art forms, the exhibit offers a wide variety of works aiming at addressing the meaning of truth and reconciliation. 

Thomas showcased a single piece of her work catching the eyes of many: a pair of white sneakers incorporating a basket-woven leather tongue and intricate beadwork detailing. 

“They’re just bringing a lot of joy to a lot of our students that walk through, or artists that come through,” said Sanja Lukac of the sneakers, visual media arts curator at Arts Commons. “The woven leather tongue on the shoe is just delicious, it’s so beautifully done,” she said. 

The idea originated when Thomas heard Cree artist Kamamak, who is also known as Mackenzie Brown, speak on a panel at an artist talk about the politics of identity as an artist.

“She said that she’s always standing in one regular sneaker, and her (other) foot is in one mocassin at the same time so you’re walking these two roads equally,” Thomas recalled. 

“What I wanted to focus on was just allowing Indigenous artists and people to take up the space that they deserve.

Participating in the exhibit gave Thomas a paid opportunity to bring her work outside the classroom and into the real world which she explained can be hard to come by for students. 

“The umbrella of my work is really just speaking to Indigenous visibility in colonial spaces,” she explained. 

The exhibit prompted artists with questions reflecting on the meaning of truth and reconciliation while allowing them to showcase their traditional craftsmanship and ways of making. 

“Thea’s work is very impressive. It’s a beautiful combination of working with hides and beadwork and assembling it to make an object that’s very modern,” said Diana Frost, chair of the board of CIF Reconciliation Society and primary curator of the show. 

The CIF Reconciliation Society accepted all submissions from artists, as the organization’s goal is always to include all ideas, approaches and expressions of art. “We always accept everyone so it’s not really a contest,” Frost explained. 

“Indigenous art is very multifaceted and there are many ways to express different aspects of truth and reconciliation,” said Frost of the artwork’s ability to not only honour culture and traditions but also to address ongoing issues affecting Indigenous Peoples. 

“The beautiful thing about art is that it makes difficult things much easier to grasp and much easier to look at and it provides a window into the soul of the artist who made that piece,” she said. 

“It helps us all on our journey towards learning about the history, learning about what’s currently happening and developing appreciation for the beauty of Indigenous culture,” said Frost. “And I think all of that helps with bringing us closer to reconciliation.”


Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.