Indigenous culture is a key cornerstone of Canada's history and contemporary times. Although learning about this diverse culture should be an ongoing pursuit, June marks National Indigenous History Month and prompts Canadians to reflect more deeply on the experiences of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

The Summer Indigenous Art Market at the National Arts Centre (NAC) on Jun. 17 gave visitors the opportunity to admire an eclectic collection of works by Indigenous artists and artisans. Featured paintings, carvings, baskets and dreamcatchers were closely tied to themes of land, storytelling and spirituality.

Arts Help's Zier Zhou spoke to the few artists at this years event.

Louise Vien's Birch Bark Baskets — Rooted in Land and Family

Birch bark baskets with caribou tuft, moose hair embroidery and quilled flowers crafted by Louise Vien. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

As a multidisciplinary artist with Métis lineage, Louise Vien is experienced in working with various textiles and raw materials. Her birch bark baskets garnered considerable attention from crowds at the NAC. The baskets are traditionally used to house herbal medicines like sage, cedar and sweetgrass. Alternatively, these pocket-sized boxes can be perfect for storing trinkets and jewelry.

Apart from harvesting birch bark from Northern Ontario, Vien collects and colours moose hair and porcupine quills. She then uses these animal materials to embroider flowers and other designs on her basket covers. By turning into art what would otherwise be discarded by hunters, her practice supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Responsible Consumption and Production.

In an interview with Arts Help, Vien divulged that her inspiration for incorporating elements from nature into her crafts stems from her enthusiasm for museums. The artist shared that she extensively conducts her research by exploring ongoing exhibitions as well as historical archives. By reaching every corner of the gallery, Vien learns from past Elders to fully appreciate their works.

This underlying groundwork leads Vien to invest incredible energy and meaning into each one of her creations. "I am a firm believer in creating pieces as heirlooms," she said. "I'm not just thinking of you buying it I'm thinking of your grandchildren having it passed down to them. That's what makes it special."

Holly King's Paintings — Celebrating Indigenous Women

Acrylic paintings of Indigenous women coming together in the ceremony by Holly King. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Hailing from Moose Deer Point First Nation, Holly King is an Indigenous painter who describes her style as "abstract fluid art with an Indigenous twist." Her acrylics displayed at this summer’s Indigenous Art Market radiated a sense of harmony and joy.

Named after the tradition being performed, Round Dance is a series of paintings that are easily distinguishable by their vibrant orange hues. Each woman depicted in these acrylics is dressed in a ribbon skirt, which represents the reclamation of Indigenous identity following a history stained by colonialism and injustice. Symbolizing strength and resilience, ribbon skirts are proudly worn at social gatherings and ceremonies to celebrate Indigenous culture.

The other painting of seven women gazing toward the swirly pastel sky is titled Water Protectors. Here, King emphasizes the interconnectedness between living beings and bodies of water. She further conveys the value of maintaining a harmonious relationship with Mother Earth, reflecting on the Sustainable Development Goal for Life Below Water.

Joey Nakoolak Carvings — Symbols of Inuit Culture

Inuit sculptures made of soapstone and walrus baculum carved by Joey Nakoolak. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Joey Nakoolak is a talented artisan who specializes in Inuit carving and jewelry making. Growing up in Coral Harbour, Nunavut, he has been immersed in this craft since he was nine years old. "Many of the carving techniques I use were passed down by my father, who was also an artist,” Nakoolak shared in an interview with Arts Help.

Shaped from soapstones, Nakoolak's inukshuk is a familiar Inuit symbol. Resembling a human figure, this structure offers guidance and direction amidst a vast Arctic landscape. The stones are known to help people from all walks of life, including travellers, hunters, and believers on a spiritual journey, find their way and carry on.

Sitting beside the inukshuk is an elaborate totem featuring northern creatures like the walrus and polar bear. According to Nakoolak, it took around six months to sketch these images and carve the totem out of walrus baculum. The sculpture shows appreciation for Arctic animals and promotes the sustainable use of this terrestrial ecosystem, which links to the Sustainable Development Goal for Life on Land.

Nicole Beauchamp's Dreamcatchers — Whimsical and One-of-a-Kind

Dreamcatchers made of homegrown gourds, animal leather and feathers assembled by Nicole Beauchamp. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Nicole Beauchamp is a Métis artisan whose handmade dreamcatchers were another sought-after item at the NAC Art Market. Dreamcatchers originate from the Ojibwe and are traditionally hung in bedrooms. Their webs are believed to trap nightmares that are eventually cleared by the morning sunlight.

This contraption ensures a peaceful and positive atmosphere for slumber, so only sweet dreams reach the dreamer. Since sleep affects one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, dreamcatchers present during sleep align with the Sustainable Development Goal for Good Health and Well-Being.

The dreamcatchers with gourds, which were grown from Beauchamp's summer garden and dried for five months before carving, especially stand out. The other steps in constructing a dreamcatcher involve weaving the web, decorating with semi-precious stones such as turquoise and amethyst, and attaching moose leather strings and wild turkey feathers.

Beauchamp's works are known for being unique. "I never repeat the same design twice," she said in an interview with Arts Help. "It's challenging because things can take longer to create, but then people leave with something one-of-a-kind."

Overall, the 2023 Summer Indigenous Art Market brought together art lovers residing in Ottawa and neighbouring regions. This dynamic presence at the NAC offered the community an important portal into Indigenous ways of living and creating.

Expanding on the event's significance, the NAC’s Indigenous Cultural Resident Mairi Brascoupé (Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg) added, "Our goal is to invite both Indigenous artists and Indigenous audiences into the building. We want to create a welcoming space and support local artists from our community."

The market certainly succeeded in providing many Indigenous creators the chance to showcase and share their art with others in-person. Its timing further coincides with National Indigenous History Month, which encourages everyone to engage in meaningful education and celebration of Indigenous culture.

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