This exhibition’s title is paraphrased from a quote by Eber Hampton, which concludes with the powerful line, “The source of our traditions is present.” That source, curator Missy LeBlanc writes, is the land: “We learn from the land, and we learn our language from the land.” The seven artists in this touring show organized by TRUCK Contemporary Art from Calgary, are engaged in an active process of cultural reclamation and revitalization of language. They are learning their mother tongues, which, following Indigenous custom, they define not as the language they first spoke at home (which for most of them was English), but the language of their ancestors. There is an urgency to their project, because, as LeBlanc explains in her essay, Indigenous languages are uniquely threatened. “How are we expected to survive when we don’t have the words to fight?” she asks. It’s a somewhat rhetorical question, though, because the works themselves in this remarkable exhibition provide words.
The interdependence of the land and language is central to Tsēmā Igharas’s (Tāłtān First Nation) video installation Tāłtān for Reclamation 2 (2019). “Reclamation” in the Tāłtān language is esghanānā. This word is cut out of a moose hide that was used as a screen for a video projection documenting a performance. Igharas used the hide as a stencil to paint esghanānā on a rock in traditional Tāłtān territory. Esghanānā literally translates as “give it back to me”; when the paint was applied, the ash from a recent forest fire on the rock acted as a barrier to it sticking. Most of the pigment washed away, except for es, in Tāłtān the pronoun me. What survived was an act of reclaiming through evoking the land.
Inuvialuit artist Alberta Rose W./Ingniq’s video Speaking Mother Tongue (2019) uses a video of a park in a busy urban setting as the background for a poetic meditation on how language grounds community. Individual Uummarmiutin (a dialect of Inuktitut) words are spoken and shown onscreen as subtitles. With each utterance, a piece of an old family photograph appears, eventually filling in the whole picture when enough words have been spoken. Language, this work shows, creates worlds. ilihaqtunga (I learn) (2019) documents a performance in a gallery in which the artist uses her dominant hand to write Uummarmiutin words as high on the gallery wall as she can reach. Simultaneously, using her non-dominant hand, she writes the English translation on a more accessible level. The mental and physical stretching involved in this process succinctly evokes the difficulties inherent in reclaiming a language.
Joi T. Arcand, an artist from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, uses a neon sculpture to express the path of learning one’s mother tongue. Part of series of four works called Wayfinding, ĕkăwiya nĕpĕwisi (don’t be shy) (2019) makes up one quarter of an imagined conversation about learning: “I want to speak Cree (but),” “I don’t have my words,” says the student. “Don’t be shy,” responds the teacher, “never mind!” The boldly coloured sign evokes the optimism of the teacher’s words.
Métis artist Audie Murray uses sculptural installation to retell a story her grandmother shared, of how her father encountered a rugaru, a creature like a large black dog or wolf. Becoming a rugaru traditionally means that someone is engaged in something that was harming them. In Murray’s great-grandfather’s case, it was drinking and partying, and the encounter convinced him to stop. Murray presents the story succinctly, with a chair, a small table covered in beer cans, a pedestal ashtray (complete with cigarette), a coiled-rag rug on the floor, and a folk-art-inspired painting of a rugaru on the wall, alongside an upside-down bouquet of dried flowers. The beer cans and the cigarette are sheathed in black beads, suggesting their affinity with the black wolf of the rugaru legend. The harm being done here, though, is not addiction but colonialism’s effects on Indigenous communities, symbolized starkly by the crushed (though unopened) Budweiser cans under their black coverings.
Susan Blight (Anishinaabe from Couchiching Frist Nation) present two hooked rugs from her ongoing series On the Occasion of Our Small Gathering (2019–present). These blue-and-white rugs are shaped like speech balloons, mimicking the graphics of iPhone text messages. Common phrases in Anishinaabe suggest a world in which mother tongues are not threatened. The painstaking reproduction of the seemingly instantaneous mode of communication that is texting, however, highlights the work and struggle involved in any process of revitalizing languages.
Blackfoot/Dane-Zaa Cree artist Richelle Bear Hat’s two-channel video installation also evokes contemporary communication technologies (in this case, the familiar cartoon avatars used in so many social media platforms), to address the serious and painstaking process of learning one’s mother tongue. The two-screen installation nitssapaatsimaahkookah (she shared with me) (2019) features two avatars, one to each screen, and the accompanying soundtrack documents a back-and-forth conversation. One voice asks for the name of an object in their mother tongue, the other provides it, and the first voice repeats it back, often resulting in good-natured laughter. Patient and loving, the lesson continues for as long as we choose to listen.
Michelle Sylliboy, a L’nu artist and poet from the Mi’kmaq First Nation of We’Koqmaq in Cape Breton, is a fluent Mi’kmaw speaker and educator. Earth and Water (2021) is a two-sided wooden sculpture that features the flowing lines of Mi’kmaw hieroglyphics, fashioned in dark walnut over light maple and birch wood. Each sculptural text is a poem (translated into Mi’kmaw in Latin letters and into English on the label). This triple translation, text and sculpture at once, allows the viewer to feel the sound of the language (albeit figuratively) as the eye follows the sinuous track of the hieroglyphics.
“What does it mean to feel something so deeply but not have the words to explain it or to fully understand it?” asks LeBlanc. Each of the artists in this exhibition provides their own answers. As a viewer steeped in the imperial language of English, I left the gallery moved and a little shaken, wondering what it would feel like to have a mother tongue on my lips, a summer language for growing things, rather than the wintry tones of colonial power.
Taskoch pipon kona kah nipa muskoseya, nepin pesim eti pimachihew/Like the winter snow kills the grass, the summer sun revives it
Artists: Joi T. Arcand, Richelle Bear Hat, Susan Blight, Tsēmā Igharas, Audie Murray, Alberta Rose W./Ingniq, and Michelle Sylliboy
Curator: Missy LeBlanc
Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax
Organized and circulated by TRUCK Contemporary Art, Calgary
May 28–October 2, 2022