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Ursula Johnson: Traditions and Transformations

Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, Halifax June 6 to August 3, 2014

Traditions were challenged and myths created in Ursula Johnson’s exhibition “Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember)” at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax. Johnson, an artist residing in Eskasoni First Nation, Cape Breton, descends from a long line of Mi’kmaq artists. Her late great-grandmother, Caroline Gould, taught her the distinct art of Mi’kmaq basket weaving.

The viewer initially walked into Museological Grand Hall, located in the centre of the large gallery space, and was confronted by a dozen spotlit wooden plinths holding up Plexiglas boxes of similar but varying sizes. The Plexiglas boxes were empty, but featured sandblasted etchings on all four interior sides that depicted diagrammatic images of traditional Mi’kmaq baskets made by Johnson’s great-grandmother. The texts for the diagrams were written in Mi’kmaq language, rendering it unreadable to all but a few people. The etchings also delivered a ghostly presence to the vacant boxes.

In the same gallery was a small space constructed as a work area, where Johnson laboriously split a long white-ash log during regular gallery hours. She would split the log with an axe and rip it at length with a double-handled draw knife into planks, which were further reduced to splints. The work area, a blank white room except for two opposing walls for observers, had the attributes of an outdoor workspace, where Johnson utilized a custom sawhorse, sledgehammer, axe and anvil—all refinished family heirlooms. In an interview, Johnson described the task of breaking down the hardwood as being emotional. For her, it involves seeing both potential weaving materials going to waste alongside the harvesting of a slow-growing hardwood. Yet the “wasting” of the white ash is done to make a point about how a younger generation of Mi’kmaq has lost knowledge and respect for materials utilized by their ancestors for generations.

In The Archive Room, located just off the main gallery, the viewer was invited to interact with works in an environment featuring steel shelving units that held several dozen baskets. Each basket displayed signifiers of Mi’kmaq pattern and design, but all were in odd shapes and sizes, as if mutated, which made them impractical for use as baskets. Viewers were invited to scan affixed barcodes that gave access to the proper nomenclature and descriptions of imagined uses, which turned the baskets into objects of mythological standing.

The impact of the exhibition increases when one registers how well Johnson actively transformed the well-known Mi’kmaq visual form to both alter and preserve its traditions for the future.

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