Trading: Bubonic Plague, 2008, acrylic paint, glass seed beads on beading medium mounted on suede board, 61 x 45.7 x 3.1 cm, Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the support of the York Wilson Endowment Award, administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, 2009-8
There must be a word for when an artist’s work combines materials and meaning perfectly; how else to describe Ruth Cuthand’s Trading series? Her mixed-media images use beadwork to portray enlargements from microscope images of diseases in twelve circles of dramatic colour and pattern. Identified by a name stencilled beneath each, the portrait gallery of killers is a familiar list: influenza, bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria, yellow fever, whooping cough, chicken pox, syphilis. As the title of the series suggests, these were the pathogens exchanged between European and First Nations people in the first 450 years of colonial contact, traded alongside resources and technologies. The eleven diseases that came from the Old World are depicted in beads, signifiers for the items Europeans brought to the Americas to trade for furs and resources. The twelfth design is in quillwork and depicts syphilis which sailed to Europe with returning traders. While the impact of syphilis in its time is comparable to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 20th century, the pandemics in the Americas were far more destructive. As is well documented, infection followed trade routes and killed more than 80% of Indigenous people by the end of the 17th century, emptying cities, ending empires. From 1520 to 1918 there are records of 91 major epidemics, about one every four years.1 Suffering on this scale is abhorrent, and seemingly contradictory to the beauty of Cuthand’s beadwork. It is a dissonance which invites us to consider the values exchanged in trade. Our current access to factory-based goods may have inured us, but the beads and other items that were traded profoundly altered the cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.2
In the decade since this artwork was first shown3, Trading has exhibited almost continually in various contexts. It has become an iconic cultural document, resonating with our current discussions on colonization, identity and history. Its currency marks a shift in aesthetic culture as well. There are an increasing number of artists such as Sonny Assu, KC Adams, Brian Jungen, and Nadia Myre who are mixing contemporary culture with Indigenous materials and methods. In her new series of works Cuthand continues to use the medium of beadwork to discuss issues facing First Nations. She has also inspired colleagues and students such as Judy Anderson, Sherry Farrell Racette, Katherine Boyer and Catherine Blackburn to use beadwork as a material in their contemporary art production.4
Cross over/mash-up/assemblage—however we name it, cultural hybridity is at the heart of what makes Cuthand’s Trading series profound. The meaning of her work is held in the materials and methods she chose just as much as her subject matter. In addition to the historical allusion to colonial trade, beading carries a history of craft decoration and women’s expression. In the past, these connections would have stopped an artist from using them to create fine art, but Cuthand rejects this division of values between high art and craft. She also refuses to comply with the romantic fantasy that Indigenous people must conform to historical forms and materials or lose their cultural identity. In using text and beadwork to encode scientific images Cuthand reenergizes the medium’s power to convey information. Just as traditional beadwork patterns were once read easily, Cuthand’s visual language addresses contemporary audiences with contemporary symbols.
This fall and winter, a selection of Ruth Cuthand’s Trading series is part of a group exhibition curated by Michelle Lavallee as context for the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s “Canada 150” programming, an exploration into national commemoration, public art, and intercultural relations.5 Along with Living Post-Oka Kind of Woman the Trading series is presented as one of several cultural documents to inspire discourse. To paraphrase Gerald McMaster writing on Cuthand, her work functions as a vaccination against ignorance. Knowledge is a type of medicine, and just as we can be inoculated against a disease, we need to be inoculated against forgetting our past.6 Cuthand’s work is also a powerful cure for dated aesthetic rules for cultural expression.
(1) Details condensed from Gerald McMaster’s essay, “Cruel Beauty: New World Holocaust” in “Ruth Cuthand: BackTalk Works 1983 – 2009” (Mendel Art Gallery/Tribe 2012) McMaster cites a number of sources and statistics on the biological catastrophe that resulted from colonial trade in the Americas.
(2) Ethno-historian James Axtell describes the influx and rapid adoption of new technologies into the Americas in the 17th century as the first consumer goods revolution. “Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America” (2001). The details are fascinating. For example, the Canadian Encyclopedia lists that in 1684 the HBC shipped 300 flintlock muskets, 2,000 iron axes, 2,160 kaolin tobacco pipes, 3,000 jackknives and 5,000 butcher knives to its Albany post. [online at http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-trade-goods/]. Indigenous peoples were rapid adopters, and even under profoundly changed circumstances, the toll of disease and war, new cultures and art forms rose and flourished. The fur trade was the foundation for the Métis nation, which is now twice as old as Canada. During this time, global trade rapidly increased, bringing both wealth and new ideas into Europe. Around the world, political and social structures destabilized and reformed, laying the foundation for our modern age. So many writers have detailed these histories, including Lisa Jardine, “Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance” (1998), and Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1999).
(3) “Coming-to-Presence” Dunlop Art Gallery, 2008 Curated by Adrian Stimson, with work by Jason Baerg, Lori Blondeau, Ruth Cuthand, Darren Gowan.
(4) Carmen Robertson beautifully details the rhizomatic connections around beading, plains history and prairie-based artists in her essay, “Land and beaded Identity: Shaping Art Histories of Indigenous Women of the Flatland” RACAR 42(2017) 2:13-29.
(5) Entitled “Transformative Landscapes: Contemplating Space, Time & Connection” the programming runs from June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2018 and includes workshops, screenings, panel discussions, and artist talks, exploring the themes of public art, reconciliation, intercultural relations, and national commemoration. In this context, Cuthand’s work is on exhibition with artwork by Bob Boyer, Rebecca Belmore, KC Adams, Wally Dion, and featured works by Jeff Funnell, Brett Graham, Dana Claxton, Shary Boyle, and Jeanne Randolph.
(6) Gerald McMaster: “Cruel Beauty: New World Holocaust”, published in “Ruth Cuthand: BackTalk Works 1983 – 2009” (Mendel Art Gallery/Tribe 2012).
Ruth Cuthand Trading
Part of Canada 150: Transformative Landscapes: Contemplating Space, Time & Connection
MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina
June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2018