John Wood and Paul Harrison, installation view from ‘I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T KNOW IT’, Contemporary Art Gallery, February 12 – April 24, 2016. Photography by SITE Photography

CAG in the Classroom | Voufnurog Cadisi

Inspired by Olivia Whetung’s exhibition Sugarbush Shrapnel, CAG worked with a class of Grade 5/6 students from Renfrew Elementary throughout November and December 2019 to build a collaborative artwork representing an imaginative ecosystem. The artwork incorporates embroidery, beadwork and colour to explore symbiosis and the many relationships that make up our world.

The project began with a guided visit at CAG, where students were introduced to the work of the Mississauga-Nishinaabe artist. Whetung’s practice considers how knowledge is carried and transferred through land, language and water. For her solo exhibition at CAG, Whetung represented animal and plant inhabitants of her home territory, considering their roles within a complex web of interconnectedness and roles within food and harvesting practices. Through beadwork on birch, maple, cherry and oak veneer, the exhibition contemplated the precarious nature of these intimate relationships as our world faces rapid and large scale changes due to climate change.

Olivia Whetung, ‘Stand’ (detail), 2019. Photography by SITE Photography

After learning about species of Mississauga-Nishinaabe territory, students were invited to reflect on the interrelated animals and plants of the coastal territories they occupy. Publications that highlight Indigenous animals of the Northwest Coast were used to learn more about animals who call this place home [1]. Afterwards, students expanded their representational techniques by designing their own embroidered animals and plants, thinking through colour selection, representation, style and size. Embroidery is a great introduction to beadwork: an art practice that requires patience and skill-building that the students embraced.

Making and learning continued onsite at Renfrew Elementary, with bundles of thread and buckets of beads accenting an already colourful, creative classroom. Discussions with the students through the making included the global history of beadwork and its importance in many cultural traditions. While a central art practice of many Indigenous cultures, Indigenous styles and techniques are often appropriated and taken outside of their specific cultural contexts. In order to expand their visual representational skills, students were encouraged to develop their own style, rather than use motifs from a culture not their own.

Students demonstrated immense amounts of creativity, patience and ingenuity. Their new, collectively created world, titled Voufnurog Cadisi (an anagram of Division Four CAG), now stands as a collaborative representation of a west coast ecosystem. Each student created at least one inhabitant, and shown together, they imaginatively demonstrate the symbiosis and web of interconnectedness of this region.

Thank you to teacher Jeff Tse and the Division Four class of Renfrew Elementary.

We are also grateful for the Aboriginal Arts Development Award funded by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council towards Emily Dundas Oke’s appointment of Indigenous Curatorial Assistant.

[1] Some resources for learning more include: Northwest Coast Native Animals by Kelly Robinson, Sharing our World: Animals of the Native Northwest Coast. To share more about animals in the Nishnaabeg territories, we used Ojibway Animals by Jason Adair.