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Conversations on Reconciliation that Move Beyond the Classroom

I have spent years visiting art galleries, and for a portion of my career I had the opportunity to work in an art gallery. I am the person who stands reading the labels in art galleries, curious to understand what the artist is wanting to express through their art. Art can convey visually what words simply cannot. Art can evoke a wide range of emotions from the viewer and invite people to share in an experience together through those feelings. Often, art becomes a vehicle for contemplation for me in a way that words simply cannot. To create art is to find a way to express my innermost thoughts. 

This past month, I had the pleasure of participating in a trip to the Art Gallery of Hamilton with a group of people from Meadowlands Fellowship CRC. A docent guided us through 2 exhibits that are on right now at the gallery: Radical Stitch and Duane Linklater: they have piled the stone / as they promised / without syrup. Both exhibits, while vastly different visually, shared the lived experiences of Indigenous artists. 

“Deep grief at the losses of families, children, communities. Gratitude for beauty and meaning through beads - so much history and meaning." - Participant

Duane Linklater, an Omaskêko Cree artist, spent time on the land of a residential school, exploring the exterior architecture of the remaining building on the site. As he walked the land, he reflected on the lives of the children who had been separated from their families and had been forced to build the very walls of the building that imprisoned them in the school. Especially poignant is the fact that Linklater’s ancestors had been in residential schools and the sadness conveyed through the art is palpable.

Radical Stitch brings together over 30 artists from across Turtle Island to share with us the traditional art form of beading. The sheer magnitude of the show is in and of itself magnificent, but upon closer inspection, the stories woven into the beading share often very raw emotions of the artists. Some of the works allowed you to step into deep intimacy with the artists’ grief, while others had quite the opposite effect, sharing the joy and beauty of their culture with us. One vacillates between grieving the generational trauma the Indigenous communities lived through and celebrating their resilience. 

"What amazed me was the range of emotions expressed in this beadwork and the emotions this art brought out in one. Range of beadwork was eye opening - I had no idea of the range of skills in the art." - Participant

As noted earlier, this was a tour that I took with members of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC. I was curious about their deep interest in the exhibit. Syd Hielema, a member of this church, shared this with me: 

“In February 2021, Meadowlands Fellowship CRC began a journey of learning how to love our Indigenous neighbours. This journey of racial reconciliation was first evoked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and then took on added urgency with the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School in May 2021. For the first six months, this journey included four zoom evenings with guests focused on Indigenous issues, and a book group reflecting on Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. In the fall of 2021, 17 members engaged with the Hearts Exchanged process, which was powerfully transformative. A second Hearts Exchanged group with 13 participants launched in the fall of 2022. Other events supplemented the Hearts Exchanged activities. Thus, when the Radical Stitch Exhibit came to Hamilton, the Meadowlands Community was very ready to engage. In addition to the group that enjoyed the exhibit together on April 20, many other members experienced the exhibit at other times.  (Watch A story of hearts exchanged to learn more)

"The beaded works told stories of Indigenous culture, clothing and history. They also represented deep emotions attached to some of those stories. The art works in one of the galleries spoke to the negative effects of settlers on those cultures, namely consumerism, health impacts, and mental health." - Participant

Often when I have conversations with people about the unmarked graves, the truth and reconciliation report and Canada’s dark history with residential schools, the question that surfaces is what we can do. The past is terrible and dark. How do you move forward? I want to suggest this - take time to learn about the beauty of the Indigenous culture through art. Support Indigenous artists. Buy their art, visit galleries with their work. Ask your local galleries to include Indigenous artists in their collections. Take a beading course hosted by an Indigenous artist so you have a deeper appreciation for the art form. Move beyond talking to doing!

You can participate in a Hearts Exchanged cohort this fall.  Check out the website for more information.

Photos provided by the author.  

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