I’ve been meaning to go to the Royal Alberta Museum to see Maskwacîs (Bear Hills) for a while now. Today’s heat gave me the push to take an air-conditioned break viewing another slightly unknown gem at the RAM. Maskwacîs is a display of art pieces from members of the community of Maskwacîs, also known as Bear Hills, or Hobbema, Alberta. Hobbema is in the news all too often with the sadly familiar tale of poverty, gang activity, and innocent, senseless death. Maskwacîs is a welcome tonic to the negative picture of this First Nation too often presented to the rest of Canada.
The pieces are arayed along the south wall to the left and right of the front desk, opposite the bronze sculptures of the pronghorns and the settler family. I began my viewing at the east end, just outside Wild Alberta, making notes as I went. The exhibit contains only about two dozen pieces, so these refreshing images of/from the community of Maskwacîs can be admired/studied on a quite brief visit, although returns would certainly be in order.
Clayton Saskatchewan’s “Whistle Stick”, a tremendous piece of bead and feather work is the first piece that caught my eye. In a sense timelessly traditional in appearance, I can’t help but feel that Saskatchewan’s piece is something other and a very modern expression, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. It seems another visit is quite in order.
Llorinda Louis’ “Never Hide” from 2009 is a mixed media piece — what used to be called a collage — made up largely of clippings from newspapers and magazines. The influence of Jane Ash Poitras seems clear, but Louis’ piece is about more than just the state of her people. The images particularly — models in underwear, Sophie Loren assessing Jane Mansfield’s cleavage, a Latin American peasant — make clear that this is also a feminist and anti-colonial expression. “It’s not about the Laundry!” one phrase shouts. Indeed, it’s about a whole lot more than that.
Felicia Standingontheroad’s 2009 photo “Free” is the overwhelming charmer of Maskwacis. A young woman (Standingontheroad herself?) is held in mid-joyful-leap, her body twisted into a gentle arch and slight spiral. Her light smile of pure joy peeks from behind the collar of her jacket. Behind her, a child is walking toward her across the snowy field from which she has taken flight. I could stand for hours lost in this image. What joy! And what a joy!
Shawn Rabbit’s untitled piece from 2008 has the feeling of a contemporary petroglyph — handprints on a synthetic orange background.
Sandy Heimer has photos hung on both wings of the exhibit. On the left is “The Carver”, a vivid portrait of a man intent on his work butchering a bison. On the right side, “Portraits 1” and “Portraits 2” like “The Carver”, are evocative glimpses into the complex, vibrant, living community.
Another exquisite piece which on its own makes a visit to Maskwacîs worthwhile is Rusty Threefingers, Jr.’s monochrome gem “Drummer”. The black ink work is executed with remarkable confidence and fluidity. “Drummer” is a jewel of striking confidence and absolutely fascinating.
Please don’t miss the last two pieces tucked in the display case at the west end of the exhibit. Myra Saskatchewan’s “Beaded Infant Moccasins,” 2006, “Beaded Crown”, n.d., like Clayton Saskatchewan’s “Whistle Stick” seems firmly rooted in traditional forms, but somehow they are also something other and more. These works provide a powerful, thought provoking frame through which to view Maskwacîs.
“Hai hai”, I say to the community of artists of Maskwacîs, and also a “thank you” to Myra Saskatchewan for the curation and Sandy Heimer for coordinating the show.
Maskwacîs (Bear Hills) continues at the Royal Alberta Museum until September 3, 2012.
Update, January 2, 2014: Yesterday the New Year was rung in with the official, long overdue renaming of Hobbema. Today is the first full day of the town called Maskwacîs.