waawiindamaw. promise – Indigenous Art and Colonial Treaties in Canada
April 12 2022 – January 8, 2023
Three indigenous artists address colonial treaties. Their artworks tell stories of reserves, resources, rights and land. An exhibition about loss, broken promises and indigenous resistance.
Wawiindamaw means "promise" in the language of the Anishinaabe First Nations. When was the last time you promised something or signed a contract? Did your signature have consequences for generations? Colonial treaties promised much and delivered little. Above all, they legitimized the claims of colonial powers to indigenous lands. Since the 17th century, colonial powers and First Nations in what is now Canada have made treaties with each other. Early treaties determined trade and diplomacy, war and peace. They were sites of ceremony and ritual, in which European and indigenous treaty partners negotiated as equals.
To this day, they form the basis of the relationship between Indigenous nations and the Canadian state. Historical treaties were based on different concepts of land and had devastating consequences for Indigenous peoples. For Indigenous land was no more for sale than the air we breathe. Three indigenous artists address colonial treaties and their consequences in their works. An exhibition about the loss of land and broken promises. Under the pressure of the growing influx of settlers, the land and its resources soon became the focus of interest. However, when people spoke of "land", they were at best using the same word – but their understanding of and the cultural concepts behind it were fundamentally different. In North America, treaties have become synonymous with broken promises. Their history echoes the ongoing struggle for Indigenous rights. Most importantly, they still form the basis of the relationship between Indigenous nations and the Canadian state.
In "waawiindamaw. promise", three Indigenous artists reflect on treaties. Their works tell of Indigenous rights, the impact of treaties on the lives of First Nations, and the consequences for the land and its resources. For Indigenous Nations in Canada, treaties are among the most pressing issues of the present, with immediate implications for the future and well-being of their communities and reserves.
Three Anishinaabe artists and their works
The Anishinaabe artists Barry Ace, Michael Belmore and Frank Shebageget are not only present in the exhibition with their works. Through workshops, talks and guided tours, they invite you to personal encounters and participatory engagement with a highly relevant topic, which is little known in Switzerland. What does it mean to sign a contract? What happens when treaties are broken? What does reparation actually mean and why do Indigenous Nations speak of living treaties?
Barry Ace grew up in Sudbury, Ontario and lives in Ottawa. He should have been an electrician. Instead, he incorporates electronic components into his art. His works are represented in museums, galleries and private collections in Canada, the USA and Europe. He has a long-standing friendship with NONAM. This is his third time at the museum, and his works are an integral part of the NONAM collection. Ace draws inspiration from the momentum of the digital age. By combining traditional Indigenous motifs with electronic capacitors and resisters, he bridges tradition and the present. Ace draws from historical sources, traditional knowledge, found objects, and cultural research. The aesthetics of Anishinaabeg culture speak through all of his work.
For as long as the sun shines, grass grows and water flows comprises 94 "Calls to Action" from the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The work was created in collaboration with Canadian art and law students and is on view at NONAM. For "waawiindamaaw. promise" a related work will be realized, based on the UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ace will create a new work in collaboration with 46 participants during workshops at NONAM and at the Musée d'Ethnographie in Geneva (MEG). The work will be inaugurated at the "Treaty Day" at NONAM on April 30. The workshops will take place on April 22-23 at NONAM and April 27-28 at MEG. Those interested are welcome to attend. Registration is required.
Michael Belmore lives near Toronto. He grew up in Upsala, a small town not far from Thunder Bay at Lake Superior. He studied art in Toronto and received his Master degree in Fine Arts from the University of Ottawa. He is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Beltmore's topics concerne interventions and alterations in nature and natural materials. He works primarily with stone and metal, sometimes with wood and ceramics, or with pencil and paper. His working processes are intense and meditative. They speak of interrelationships, of the environment, land and water – and of what it means to be Anishinaabe.
The power of maps
In "waawiindamaaw. promise," he addresses the interaction of mapping and treaty making. How do different societies record, survey, and map land, and how does mapping relate to claims of property?
In June, Michael Belmore invites children and adults to a family workshop to create their own maps – from the power of their own memories.
Frank Shebageget lives and works in Ottawa. He grew up in Upsala, north of Lake Superior, where he attended school together with Michael Belmore. He studied in Toronto and Victoria, where he completed his Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria (BC). Shebageget's works mirrors his interest in the geography of his homeland and in aesthetic qualities of everyday materials. Through often labor-intensive work processes, he explores the tension between production and consumption.
Uniformity on reservations
In "waawiindamaw. promise", he recounts the impact of treaties on the living realities of Indigenous communities. Through standardized houses and facilities, the Canadian government aimed to control Indigenous peoples' cultures, eliminate cultural idiosyncrasies, and homogenize their way of life on reservations.
In 1993, Shebageget began a long-term project called "Communities." On tarpaper, he produced a meticulous, handwritten listing of the more than 600 First Nations in Canada. Every ten years, "Communities" receive an update. "Communities IV" is about to be created in Zurich. In June, visitors will have the opportunity to look over the artist's shoulder while he is working on the project and to enter into conversation with him.