CURATED BY SHERRY FARRELL RACETTE, MICHELLE LAVALLEE & CATHY MATTES
Organized by The MacKenzie Art Gallery
Art Gallery of Hamilton
February 11 – August 27, 2023
REVIEW BY VICTORIA PERRIE
Whetung uses photography to convey a message, rather than presenting portraits where viewers can consume smiling faces.
Travelling exhibition Radical Stitch showcases customary and contemporary transformative beadwork as a connection between and a symbol of tradition and resistance. Featured in the group exhibition, Olivia Whetung’s photo series, saasaakwe (2016), is an example of refusal through beadwork and portraiture.
In saasaakwe, a series of long-haired women pose with their backs to the camera. We gaze from behind each subject, observing the back of their heads as they refuse to make their identities known. Beautiful long brown hair flows down their backs, necks, and shoulders. Attached to barrettes in their hair are recontextualized and reworked quotes by other artists. The figures stand facing nature: field, wood, plant, and stone.
These images are reminiscent of past and present colonial relationships. Beaded black words are sewn into large white plaques, drawing the viewer to experience the photograph through the messages. Whetung uses photography to convey a message, rather than presenting portraits where viewers can consume smiling faces. In her artist statement, Whetung says her intention with these images is to “ask us to re-consider the consuming nature of the photograph.”
The juxtaposition of black text against white canvases creates a reflection of the desired colonial state—a Canada where residential schools were successful in “killing the Indian in the child.” The darker beads stand at attention, assimilated into well-organized white outlines.
Hair is sacred to many Indigenous Peoples, tying us to community and culture. Some save hair-fall, such as from brushing, for ceremonial fire. In some cultures, hair is analogized with spirit. In this series, messages hang from hair. Here, the subject’s spirit (signified by hair) isn’t free—it’s tied up and occupied. Her hair is clasped together behind her head while she looks out at the earth, mirroring a life where she is in ceremony, on the land. She faces away from the statements, disengaging from the colonizer.
The subject’s spirit (signified by hair) isn’t free—it’s tied up and occupied.
All four of the phrases hold what first appears an accusatory tone. The phrases “There’s not going to be anything left” and “protect me from what you want” speak to the impacts of colonial greed, calling to mind the Wet’suwet’en land defenders who will fight charges in court this year after resisting a disruptive and destructive gas pipeline between 2019-2022. saasaakwe encourages us to consider our own complicity within systems of oppression. The series’ phrases reflect Indigenous resistance to ongoing colonial invasion and leave a non-Indigenous viewer to consider their reactions to these situations.
The figures look away from the violence of land domination and instead engage with the earth. This gesture of calling out while turning their backs leaves the next action with the viewer. Each subject disengages with the perpetrators and keeps resistance at the back of her mind. She has participated and resisted enough. In this way, these photos speak to both Indigenous and settler communities. saasaakwe is a statement of activism, inciting the viewer to internalize the statements and take the next step in resisting colonial violence.
Victoria Perrie is a queer Métis-Cree aunty, author, educator, and lawyer. She lives and practices art in Winnipeg, regularly travelling to Nunavut to practice law. Perrie co-founded Nishtis Collective.