October 10, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Alvin Balkind Gallery
Olivia Whetung’s artistic practice extends across a range of media to examine how translation and the transfer of knowledge can be understood, in her words, as “acts of/active native presence.” A significant strand of the Mississauga-Nishinaabe artist’s research has explored ways that knowledge is carried by language, land and bodies of water. For her solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Sugarbush Shrapnel, Whetung expands these material and conceptual investigations to consider her own connections to the complex ecosystem of her home on Chemong Lake, Ontario, particularly the importance of food sovereignty and the fragility of symbiotic relationships in an era of accelerating climate change and environmental destruction.
Beads have long held a significant place in Whetung’s practice, from early loom-woven works that reference her efforts to become fluent in Anishinaabemowin, to performance collaborations with Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli, when beads were used as dynamic, sound-making entities. Whetung’s most recent beaded works involve embroidery, a method where beads are sewn with needle and thread onto a surface material that provides the support and background for the imagery. For Whetung, beadwork is a mnemonic device. Knowledge is indexed not only in the beaded image itself, but through the artist’s technique—the embodied act of beading—and encoded in the materials with which she works. In this way, beadwork can be understood as an index of action, witness and acknowledgement. In works such as wabano (2012), which transcribes the electronic data of a recorded Nishinaabe song into material presence, or tibewh (2018), describing birds-eye views of the 43 Trent-Severn Waterway locks, the sounds of words and the understanding of shorelines are carried by the beads without entirely revealing them. Standing before these works, what we face is a new translation—a testament to the ways in which Whetung employs Nishinaabe visual language to at once withhold and re-inscribe meaning.
For Sugarbush Shrapnel, Whetung focuses her attention on the plant and animal inhabitants of her own home territories. Sobering climate predictions have prompted the artist to imagine how we might remember ecosystems after we have irrevocably altered them. What food harvesting practices—specifically the Nishinaabe practice of maple syruping—will or won’t be sustainable in the decades and centuries to come? How will environmental devastation impact Nishinaabeg abilities to pass cultural knowledge and environmental stewardship to subsequent generations? How will such alterations impact the myriad non-human beings whose existence needs are inextricably entangled with our own?
Whetung considers these questions in her exhibition through new and ambitious large-scale works. Ultra-thin panels of maple, birch and cherry wood veneer stretch vertically from the gallery floor to ceiling like a stand of trees. In the sparest of bead-embroidered and wood-burned lines, sewn through and drawn upon the near-translucent surface of the wood, Whetung traces the fragile—and often undetectable—relationships between species in the forested region in which she lives: the red-winged blackbird, which shelters its nest in the lakeside fields of wild rice; the squirrel, who in the hunger of late winter scrapes the bark of the maple to feed on its sugary sap, signaling that the trees are ready for tapping; the hummingbird that drinks from and simultaneously pollinates the honeysuckle vine; the acorns of the oak tree, which offer nourishment to the wild turkey; and the lady’s slipper, whose seeds are sustained in part by a fungus growing unseen beneath the forest floor. Like half-remembered scenes pulled from the fog of memory, Whetung’s images offer only the barest edges of a rich and delicately balanced symbiosis already in the process of irrevocable change. The wood itself is chosen from trees native to the Great Lakes region, but in her choice of highly manufactured veneer signals the artist’s own acknowledgment of her passive complicity in destructive forestry industries.
Nearby, a separate body of work offers fragments of a different kind: tiny nuggets of exploded stone, residue from the intense heat of the Whetung family’s winter sap-boiling fire, are encased in beaded pods. Like tiny structures, tombs or time capsules, they house a valued memory. Perhaps they are not for us but for a future when knowledge of the maple-sugaring practice could be lost with climate change; a practice, as Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests in Braiding Sweetgrass, which was first learned from the animals whose existence is now under threat. Together, the works in Sugarbush Shrapnel stand as mnemonic prompts to futures lost, and as urgent honourings of wenji-bimaadiziyaang, which in Anishinaabemowin means something close to “from where we get our living or life.”
Curated by Kimberly Phillips
Assisted by Julia Lamare
Sugarbush Shrapnel is generously supported by the Audain Foundation