Wolastuk Point of View

This episode explores how art forms translate or are conceived in an indigenous language.

Making beautiful things by hand
The art we see, feel and remember.

Jeff Bear

The word for art in my language is as varied as the plants we eat. There is not one word, but many that describe the things we make out of ideas, customs and necessity. And like the plant we rely on for sustenance, art creation nourishes us, feeding our soul and the human need to make utilitarian, functional and beautiful things with our hands.

That is how many indigenous languages describe art, as we know it in modern times. And we make art as a work of beauty and displaying grace, mostly doing the best we can. That is how I see art; a beautiful work. Even if it’s a concept. Even if it is dance, music or song. It must be beautiful and somehow make me feel a certain way, to move and elevate my senses. It can also be eclectic, or the opposite to have meaning in history. Art can be many things.

Wolastuk call art Amalhluqawagon. The word means “an object made with flair”, or fancy creation. But we also call baskets, posnut, and a canoe, akwiten. Our word for photograph, however, is the same as for a book, Wikhigan. My father would say “Kis-wikhewg” as he took my picture. Well, they took his photograph because my father was a skillful artist. He made baskets, canoes and photographs. His father and grandfathers were artists. Mom’s family lineage was filled with artists who were skilled in beadwork, ash, birchbark, pottery and textiles.

My family has been making things with their hands since as far back as anyone could remember. Did they consider themselves to be artists?

When we produced the Ravens and Eagles TV documentary series, 2000-2004, I had heard the saying time and again, “I don’t consider myself an artist”. This came out of the people most talented in their fields. I considered them artists because they made beautiful things with their hands. Inclusion in our series was dependent on the skills of each artist. Our series about Haida art examined one of the oldest art forms in the world. Why would their master practitioners not consider themselves an artist? Perhaps because it was part of everyday life.

Noel Bear

Art creation has been a distinctly human impulse from the very beginning of time. That’s why we call our current TV project, Petroglyphs to Pixels. Indigenous art is a continuum. Early drawings recorded on rock walls had to be the earliest evidence of painted history. Each and every instance of petroglyph drawing was created by those compelled to leave a record, an impression and/or a message for future generations. We’ll never know the motivation of petroglyph artists, but it is possible, if not likely, they were drafting their own history.

One of the artists in Petroglyphs to Pixels says that the Inuit do not have a single word for art. Each form of art, however, is linked to a function in society. And it can be a beautifully made object. Manasie Akpaliapik tells us the story of when he tells his friends in the north he is a full-time carver, they think he is just playing around in life. Much like his Haida friend, Reg Davision who tells me that he is not an artist but a practitioner of culture. That notion is in sync with Kwakwakuwakw artist Lou Ann Neel who uses her family crests in nearly all of her work. Each of these people produce a tangible physical product, a beautiful object made by hand.

What about others who come out of an idea, or a concept? What about using dance to make people laugh, or music to bend reality, carving to make a political statement? What about those who eschew traditions, using words, paint, animal objects, landscapes, still and moving images? Is it art if you can hang it on a wall or set it on a table or stage? 

Art as a tangible or intangible object is no longer a requirement. Contemporary and modern art are more elusive to define than the more “so-called” traditional forms. All things made out of creativity are now considered art. Are there limitations in this context?

Mom with basket

What if my Mom and Dad were still alive and attended an exhibit of Marina Abramovic? Marina and former partner Ulay became famous for a performance known as Relationship in Space where they ran past each other naked, moving with increasing speed at each pass and occasionally interrupted by a collision, continuously, until they couldn’t get up. This is considered pioneering work in modern performance art. Mom and Dad might not have got it. I know they would not call it art.

Society has evolved and art has a multitude of purposes, whether eclectic or practical. There are many voices and many nuances. Art that we choose to survey, to experience and to feel. Art cannot be pushed in your face, you have to come to it. I believe that we approach art with intent. That’s why the Wolastuk Point of View was essential. We need to know that art is for everyone. Indigenous art is at the center of our existence. It could be there for you as well.

We would set out to produce a series of stories of accomplished and independent artists in our community who are doing important work, whether as an established voice or as an emerging vitality. We would work with people who want to be heard, collaborators who peel back the layers of their art. We see ourselves as curators who unpack our own digital box of treasures. 

Indigenous art has evolved. Now we need only lay claim to being an artist. There is no licensing procedure, no social or political division in our societies that will acknowledge this. We are mostly driven by our own ability to produce, demonstrate and exhibit. Increasingly we are inhabiting gallery spaces, museums, theatre stages, music venues and lately we are present in narrative film and surfing on the mainstream TV screens. Yet, we stand at the crossroads of a great digital divide.

An artist was historically apprenticed with a master. Now many seek and attain art knowledge in higher education. It is not uncommon for an exhibited artist to possess a Fine art Master’s degree. Some attain a Ph.D., and many become curators. The number of indigenous curators is staggering. Today’s major galleries have a designation of indigenous art, so the status of indigenous art has grown. While this is a positive development in the last decade, some of the traditional arts have experienced a setback because of the control the emerging curator has on exhibitions. There is a spotlight on the colonial experience, but the discourse is active in either the French or the English language. There is hardly any curator who critiques in an indigenous language. They are incapable and blame it all on the colonial experiment.

In my Wolastuk point of view, the discussion of whether we have a word for abstract art is but a microcosm of a larger question. I ask myself, who are we when our languages disappear? As we preach about dismantling all vestiges of colonization, are our languages falling at a faster pace than disgraced statues and mascot names? 

During a career that spans 30 years of storytelling in diverse digital forms, I have been called many things. Artist is not the first noun used to describe me. Yet somehow, miraculously, I have remained independent and focused on indigenous sources as my expertise, critical voices of our life and times. All of my closest friends are the contemporary artists of this generation. Most of us don’t get worked up by colonization. Many of us speak our language, are learning and/or somehow committed to the renaissance of our mother tongue. 

Growing up on the Tobique Indian Reserve in New Brunswick taught me about how a modest life can be a rewarding one. The place was also known as Maliseet and the Indian Point. I always knew it as Ngootkoog, or “behind the knee”. I have not lived there for forty years and now it is called the Tobique First Nation and our Nation is called Wolastuk, after the river’s original name. This is what the youth are calling acts of decolonization. I am one of the lucky ones whose parenting includes the use of the old language, Skicinway Lutwakanol. 

Did we consider ourselves artists? Yes, we did. I come from a long line of the artists who modified the European idea of one-dimensional art. My great-great-grandmother added beads to a topcoat. My Great-great grandfather adapted utilitarian baskets to look like human bodies, made the tiny berry basket into a fish basket, a fiddlehead basket into a food strainer, containers into floral art. My ancestors were the first modernists.

My oldest sister is Shirley Bear. She is a painter and has practised political activism with the subjects in her canvas art, in her spoken word and in her poetry. She fought for equality for women, painted images of woman’s multi-layered spirituality. She is the main inspiration for my interest in art. She is a fluent speaker of Wolastuk.

Our time on earth is short and precious. While here we try to live a good life in a good way. We treat each other with kindness and love. We enjoy art, alone and together. We share stories in the languages we understand. We learn to love art, or not. 

Petroglyphs to Pixels is an escape from both questions and answers. It is a trip to the other side of fun and pleasure. It is an inquiry of the mind and the spirit. It’s a chance to spend some time with family and friends. 

I have invited artist and my brother Victor to spend time with me looking at the paintings of Alex Janvier. He wanted to know what all the fuss was about at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. He wasn’t quite sure about the idea of abstract art. Vic didn’t understand all of the abstract meanderings made by the Master’s hand but concluded that he loved what he saw. Perhaps the art took him somewhere else, a place in his soul where there is no dialogue or any pressing need to define. A curator would be of the least interest to Victor Bear. His mind is like that of the vast world of the art going public. He wants to see, to feel and to remember.