A history of Mi’kmaq artwork spanning over 200 years was brought together in a single exhibition, Souvenir.
It was curated by Kahnawa’kehró:non Ryan Rice, executive director and curator of Indigenous art at Onsite Gallery in Toronto.
“It was an opportunity to go in the vault at museums and bring these works out that haven’t been shown frequently. Or maybe ever,” said Rice.
The exhibit was one half of a two-part project, which includes an outdoor mural painted by Mi’kmaq visual artist Jordan Bennett titled pi’tawita’iek: we go up river.
As a whole, the project, Jordan Bennett X2: Souvenir + pi’tawita’iek: we go up river, was shortlisted for the exhibition of the year, budget over 20,000, monographic; and exhibition design and installation categories for the 2023 Galeries Ontario Galleries (GOG) Awards.
The 46th edition of the annual ceremony where winners will be announced is slated for December 2.
The exhibit was presented at Onsite Gallery in Toronto from June 15 to December 10, 2022, while the mural takes up the wall of the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) University, just a couple blocks from the gallery. It will be up until 2024.
“It’s a special award because there’s not many awards for art exhibitions in Canada,” said Rice, adding this one is specific to looking at the work of galleries and museums across Ontario. “It’s an important recognition, it’s a symbolic gesture.”
The GOG awards have a peer-assessment jury, meaning it follows an arm’s-length process to prepare the shortlist and ultimately pick the winner. “If your peers recognize you, then that’s considered to be the highest form of recognition. And it also helps raise the profile of the gallery,” said GOG’s executive director Zainub Verjee.
“The awards are really important in educating the public also about the importance of Ontario’s galleries and Canada’s galleries,” Verjee added. This year, GOG received about 100 nominations from over 24 galleries across 16 cities in the province of Ontario.
Souvenir was nearly four years in the making, he added, since it was repeatedly postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Most of these works have never been back home, back in Mi’kmaq territory out east. So the idea was to go find them and to bring them together to visit with each other,” said Rice.
As the exhibit’s curator, he worked hand in hand with Bennett to develop the idea that is put across in the exhibition. Although the mural – curated by Lisa Deanne Smith of Onsite Gallery – and exhibit were created independently, they are complementary to one another.
The exhibit can be seen as Bennett’s response to the Mi’kmaq history of quill working and design and in doing so moves forward his own practice. For Souvenir, Bennett completed nine murals inspired by each of the artefacts borrowed from museum collections across Toronto all the way to the Nova Scotia Museum and even Montreal’s McCord Museum.
“A lot of times, you see our community belongings in museums and historically they’ve been displayed as if our stories are over, a lot of times. But as Indigenous people we’re continuing to create, we’re always creating based on ancestor artists, we’re also creating for future ancestors,” said Bennett.
As for the mural, pi’tawita’iek: we go up river, it was inspired by Mi’kmaq porcupine quill design – specifically from a circa 1870-1900 birchbark chair back panel from an unknown Mi’kmaq artist – borrowed from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Bennett felt honoured to be recognized in Toronto’s art scene for his work that showcased his cultural lineage.
Souvenir created an interaction between traditional and contemporary aesthetics through the juxtaposition of these historic pieces with Bennett’s painting practice, while giving space for a dialogue between the artefacts themselves, too.
“Each of these pieces, they have a spirit, they have stories. And a lot of the porcupine quill design makers, they all come from our communities, and they would have been visiting one another, they would have been sitting at the table some of these folks creating porcupine quill work,” said Bennett.
The installations featured other mediums, further showcasing Bennett’s range, including a limited edition Pendleton blanket Bennett crafted.
The exhibit also brings to light the economy related to traditional craft which saw the incorporation of artistry into the practical function of a piece to meet the market’s demand, Rice said. Most of the artefacts are chair seats or chair backs, which at the time, were small, portable pieces. That’s what inspired the title Souvenir. “The idea of souvenirs is bringing something back to remember something.”