Canada’s 150th anniversary is proving to be a lightning rod for issues of concern to First Nations peoples. From political discussions over land treaties and residential schools fallout, to cultural events showcasing Indigenous art and culture, the country is coming to terms with its complex history.

Not to be outdone, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is highlighting the art of female Indigenous artists, with exhibitions and workshops under the title Woman, Artist, Indigenous.

One of these artists is Montreal-born Nadia Myre. Winner of the prestigious Sobey Art Award (2014), and recognized internationally, she is a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg, born to a First Nations mother and a French father. That initial dichotomy is at the root of all her work – a continuous quest for self-assertion and re-definition of her ethnic background.

Titled Scattered Remains, an overview of her oeuvre from 2000 to 2017 showcases pieces from the artist’s most important series, starting with the Indian Act (2000-2002). Its central work on display at the Museum reproduces pages from the original Indian Act – dating back to 1876, and amended in 1985 – a document which gave the Canadian government exclusive legislative authority over land reserved for Indigenous peoples, while also imposing on them certain rights and limitations. In Myre’s interpretation, the text, reproduced on blank pages and mounted on black felt, is replaced by slowly encroaching red and white beads, erasing fragments of sentences, and in the process, the injustices suffered by First Nations peoples.

This is probably the most politically charged work in this elegant and minimalist exhibition, which continues Myre’s personal journey with a sculpture titled Grandmother’s Circle (2002). Composed of wooden poles arranged in a circle, it carries symbolic meanings, from family bonds, to a barrier separating the artist from her ancestral history, while echoing the shape of wishbones and snowshoes.

Orison/Oraison (2014) harks to one of Myre’s most poignant and unforgettable creative accomplishments called The Scar Project, which continued from 2005 until 2013. Reaching out to the public, the artist asked participants to embroider a depiction of a personal scar on a canvas, using threads and fibres, and in this exhibition, the results are presented in the form of large digital prints, whose resolution is simply breathtaking. Composed of the knotted and twisted ropes arranged against a black background, the photographs are unbearably tangible, the threads close to three-dimensional, and lined up horizontally, resembling a mysterious script. A highly contemplative piece, it ties the viewer to the work and its profound connotations, reflecting on the human condition that reaches beyond ethnicity or gender. It is memory and pain woven into delicate, enigmatic patterns.

Accompanying the prints is an enormous wicker basket filled with fragrant tobacco, placed in the centre of the exhibition space like a sentinel, its symbolism in no need of explaining, while a red net suspended from the ceiling twists and unravels as if breathing. Meditation is the key to appreciating this sophisticated installation, its underlying message notwithstanding.

But perhaps the most stylized and visually appealing are works from a series titled Code Switching, which Myre created as part of an artist residency at the Darlington Foundry in 2016-2017, sponsored by the MMFA. The idea was born while on an early morning walk along the banks of the River Thames in London. Scavenging the muddy bed at low tide, Myre began collecting small white ceramic cylinders that reminded her of Indigenous artefacts. In reality, these fragments resembling bleached bones came from early smoking pipes, dating back to the beginning of widespread tobacco use in Europe.

In a true spirit of artistic licence, Myer assembles these pieces in compositions that defy their original designation, transforming them into works of art that speak in her voice.

Presented as large-scale digital prints, echoing the Scar Project photographs, they are being shown in Canada for the first time. In Pipe Beads the shards are woven into a Native necklace, or bracelet, ossified jewellery with Indigenous connotations. But certainly the most striking image is that of Pipe, where one small fragment usurps the space with its stylized presence. Akin in shape to the type of pipes used in Native American cultures, it is Myre encapsulated. That one tiny object, presented with such reverence and beauty, carries myriad interpretations, while remaining in essence a lovely work of art.

Scattered Remains illustrates the artist’s reflection on her personal history, and on the encounter between First Nations peoples and the European settlers, a relationship fraught with conflict. It is to Myre’s great talent and credit that her works choose to speak of the possibility of reconciliation, and of an identity that cannot be denied. 

Woman. Artist. Indigenous. Nadia Myre. Tout ce qui reste – Scattered Remains
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
November 15, 2017 – May 27, 2018