When Cathy Mattes was 19, her aunt – who thought Mattes had been spoiled growing up – set out to teach her generosity and patience by gifting her the traditional Michif beadwork.
The two sat down at the kitchen table and Mattes began his lessons. What was originally supposed to be just three days turned into two weeks of meticulous learning to separate beads with a needle and sew with sinew to create a pair of moccasins. Whenever she made a mistake or the work was not up to par, her aunt would tear up her work until she succeeded.
But she was strongly encouraged, her aunt often telling her, “You will get there. You’re almost there.” Not only did she learn patience and color palettes, but she learned generous reciprocity — which she passes on today.
Mattes is now one of three curators of Radical Stitch at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina – one of the largest beadwork exhibitions ever. It features 48 artists at various stages of their careers from across North America/Turtle Island and includes three commissioned pieces. The Mackenzie, which was one of the first public art galleries in Canada to hire Indigenous curators in full-time, permanent positions, has chosen to feature artists who use beads as a communication tool.
The exhibition is a contemporary look at how beading is redefining representation and cultural determination, says Michelle LaVallee, one of the other curators. She hopes pearlers will come to revel in the massive display of pieces including wearable works, portraits, installations and videos.
Three artists included in the exhibit spoke to The Globe and Mail.
Nehiyaw, George Gordon First Nation, Sask.
One of Anderson’s pieces in the exhibition is titled Every time I think of you, I cry. She created it in honor of her brother who was part of the Sixties Scoop and, she says, was taken from them when she was just two years old. The artwork measures 9ft by 7ft and is made with beads and sheer fringe, both meant to signify the amount of tears she has cried over the years, mourning her brother.
Anderson identifies with the Aboriginal saying, “Beading is medicine.” For her, beadwork is more than just aesthetic: beadwork is meditative, and often the patterns can come to Indigenous peoples spiritually or through ceremony.
You can tell a lot about a person through their beadwork, she says, because it often tells a story about the wearer.
“Beads have a way of bringing us together in community,” Anderson says. “If I’m at a powwow, I can look across the room and see that their color is thisand that’s what they do thisand they come from here. You have just learned this.
Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation in Treaty 4 territory
For Dana Claxton’s play Jeneen, she asked different collectors to sit with her as she arranged their bead work on mannequin-like figures. Headpieces usually cascade behind a person, but this one falls in front, showing every beaded piece in detail. Claxton calls it an “inverted coif”.
Indigenous peoples haven’t always had the privilege of wearing beads, Claxton notes. The Indian Act banned the wearing of traditional badges, as well as Native spirituality and dances, until 1951. It forced them underground and affected the creation of beads and badges.
That’s why Claxton sometimes feels like she’s “exposed to non-natives” when she wears beads. She remembers wearing a pearl necklace to work one day and her non-Aboriginal co-worker reaching into her blouse trying to grab it to get a better look. She felt violated.
“It was really offensive to me,” Claxton says, adding that the incident speaks to the privilege her colleague felt entitled to.
“Beauty does not only belong to Western Greek philosophy. We have a deep aesthetic beauty in our communities that is unlike any other. It’s so distinct and unique to our tribal communities. It is something powerful.
Ms. Claxton hopes people will revel in the beauty and size of the exhibit – and that Indigenous peoples will be inspired not just by the traditional badges, but also by the baseball caps, denim jackets, toques, handbags, jewelry and anything that comes to hand. .
Anishinaabe and member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation
Williams often beads things he finds on the street.
“I always try to channel objects that speak to native communities that somehow represent us or can have a conversation with the colonial stuff that’s going on here on Turtle Island,” he says.
In its early days, it was relegated to small shops. Now Williams has a beaded Amazon bag included in the exhibit.
“I always think of our ancestors or even the pearls on the powwow trail,” Williams says. Her grandmother was still beading, but her family no longer has a single item of hers. It’s common in Aboriginal families, he says: Pearlers create something and as soon as they’re done, it’s sold and kicked out.
Of the show, Williams says, “Opportunities like this haven’t really happened until recently because there’s been a pearl explosion on social media like Instagram.
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