Entering the installation Axenet’i Tth’ al takes us from the well-lit Wanuskewin Galleries into the darkness of a forest at night, with birdsong and a smoky pine smell from real trees and moss.

As our eyes adjust, we can see a labyrinth of trees awaits exploration. We must walk through carefully though, as the trees are linked into a maze with rope and hanging sticks. This is the “Axenet’i Tth’ al” or “fringe”, a system created by Northern Dene trappers of hanging carefully selected and dried sticks to gain an acoustic awareness of any animals that brush past the fringe. The immersive installation also incorporates video projection, images of forest and people shine through the tree branches onto the gallery walls. Experiential and meditative, the installation invites us to explore the connection that the Dene have with land and forest.

The work was realized through a group effort, the culmination of a multi-year residency by visual artist Michèle Mackasey at the community of Patuanak, hosted by the English River First Nation with support from Common Weal Community Arts, PAVED ARTS, and the electro- acoustic artist Manuel Chantre. For the installation, Mackasey and her son Chevez Ezaneh worked with Percy Kenny, Jonathan Apesis and English River First Nation members to bring dozens of trees, hundreds of branches, and over 200 pounds of moss into the gallery. The audio-visual elements were created in collaboration with Chantre. A second gallery space at Wanuskewin holds  contextual photos documenting the community and workshops by English River band-member Percy Paul and a video by Chantre. Common Weal Northern Artistic Director Judy McNaughton observed:

“The community has invested a lot of time,  energy, expertise, and passion to the project. Many community members brought their own knowledge of cultural practices and living on the land and worked alongside the young people, to have fun together and share skills. I believe it may reflect a Northern way of coming together to make things happen, regardless of the difficulty—just as in the early morning of the day the exhibition  opened, people in Patchuanak lined up in cars for hours while others built up the washed-out road so everyone could get to the gallery at Wanuskewin.”1

Experiential and meditative, the installation invites us to explore the connection that the Dene have with land and forest.

Though located in the rolling plains of southern Saskatchewan, seven hours drive south of the lakes, rock and forest of Patuanak, Wanuskewin is a gallery site that holds additional meaning for this work. Here in the Opimihaw Creek valley near Saskatoon, First Nations have come together for over 6,000 years. The current buildings at Wanuskewin combine an archaeological dig-site with an interpretative museum, spaces for community events, and contemporary art exhibitions. Their hybrid purpose reflects strongly held Indigenous values: teaching environmental respect, “the peoples’ sacred relationship with the land”2 and the idea that culture—though rooted in historic practice, is the way people live in contemporary life; themes that also run deeply through the installation Axenet’i Tth’ al. Unpacking the process that led to this artwork reveals the impact an artist’s work can have within a community, and what it means to make work with respect for an Indigenous world view.

The multi-faceted nature of the projects Mackasey initiated and the resulting artwork Axenet’i Tth’ al are both very much the type of work that Common Weal is known for supporting; they work to create social change through art. It is art-work that does not sit in a category easily; it embodies elements of collaboration, healing, and aesthetic vision. Judy McNaughton describes the development of Mackasey’s residency and the resulting exhibition as an organic process, “emerging from conversations between the artist and the members of her community.”3 Mackasey is a visual artist and mother of two youth whose grandparents and extended families are part of the English River First Nation at Patuanak. In 2011, she approached Common Weal for support to create arts programming. Over several summers Mackasey taught painting and developed workshops in conjunction with the community Elders and artisans. Leona Aubichon, Mary Jane John, and Mary Jane Pakitine taught traditional basket making, quillwork, and moose hair tufting; Elder Jacob Estralshenen taught the tradition of the Axenet’i Tth’ al. The projects operated as a catalyst, bringing youth and families together, and with guidance from the Elders, an early version of the fringe installation was built at Patuanak. With further funding in 2014, Mackasey was able to invite Manuel Chantre to workshop the youth in new media while documenting the original Axenet’i Tth’ al maze. When McNaughton applied for and received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter program, the artists and community were able to create and install Axenet’i Tth’ al as a multi-media art installation at Wanuskewin Galleries.

While the residencies and process of creating and presenting this artwork indisputably brought the people of Patuanak closer together, McNaughton describes the real strength of the work in the gallery as paradigm shifting: it invites the gallery visitor to engage with the Denesuline world view. McNaughton describes this as fundamental to her work at Common Weal: not fixing perceived deficits in a community, but working to shift the greater cultural paradigm from a strictly colonial viewpoint which sees itself as correct and others as to be corrected, to a culture which will be able to respect and celebrate the strengths of Indigenous world views. She says, “There is more of a sense of continuum in the Indigenous worldview than in Western thought. The West tends instead to define the world through reductive dialectic terms, such as: past and present; valued and disposeable; subject and object; center and periphery.”4 In bringing Axenet’i Tth’ al to a gallery site McNaughton hopes to communicate something of this Indigenous worldview to wider Canadian society, using the experience of art to kindle a sense of understanding for the Northern Denesuline: their finely attuned sense of the world around them which continues to inform their lives, regardless of the technologies they use; their ingenuity and dedication to young people; and their method of teaching through a gentle guidance.

(1) Quotation is taken from an email correspondence with Judy McNaughton, Northern Artistic Director of Common Weal Community Arts in Saskatchewan, who developed the project with artist Michèle Mackasey and the community at Patchuanak, and provided administrative and funding support.

(2) Part of the Wanuskewin Mission Statement, last accessed July 2017.

(3) Quotation from email correspondence with McNaughton, as above.

(4) Ibid.

Axenet’i Tth’ al
Wanuskewin Galleries Wanuskewin Heritage Park Saskatoon
July 15—October 6, 2017