In a new exhibition in Halifax, artist Jordan Bennett, who is Mi’kmaw from Stephenville, Newfoundland, and now living in Halifax, brings traditional Mi’kmaq and Beothuk design motifs to life, extending them through time and space. “Ketu’ elmita’jik (They Want to Come Home)” is now on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Bennett, who was recently named the 2018 Atlantic Canada nominee for the Sobey Art Award, uses his practice to look forward and backward in equal measure, paying homage to the past and envisioning a vibrant future. His site-specific works, installations, paintings and sculptures grace galleries and art collections across the country. Now, his work is available for a mass audience.
In a related project, you can also see Bennett’s work in the gallery’s gift shop. Right now, the AGNS shop windows are emblazoned with signage advertising The Jordan Bennett Collection, a selection of clothing and jewellery designed by the artist to complement his concurrent exhibition. Here, familiar staples of museum shops around the world have been turned into artworks. Bennett’s designs, based on traditional Mi’kmaq and Beothuk iconography and drawn from historical sources such as petroglyphs, Beothuk pendants, and Mi’kmaq quillwork and basketry, are vibrant and visually stunning. Strongly graphic, they are also smart. This is leading-edge contemporary art that you can wear.
Steeped in historical awareness, Bennett’s works speak to the changing seasons and to the long tradition of Mi’kmaw visual culture, rooted in ancestral stories, traditions and lands. Much of what remains of historical Mi’kmaq design dates from the 19th century, when there was a vibrant industry of fine crafts—primarily quillwork and basketry—made by Mi’kmaq artisans for export across the world. Many of these now grace museum collections.
The centrepiece of the collection is a limited-edition wool blanket made by Pendleton Woolen Mills. It is the first Mi’kmaq Pendleton design, combining most of the design elements used by Bennett throughout this collection and in his exhibition. Evoking the seasons and the landscape of Mi’kma’ki, traditional Mi’kmaq territory, this blanket is a remarkably contemporary take on design motifs drawn from traditional basketry and quillwork.
His T-shirt, Pjilita’q Mi’kmaki (Welcome to Mi’kmaw Territory) features a round design that, as his artist statement says, evokes “Community, inclusivity, and growth: this design is about people gathering in Mi’kma’ki, making their way from West to East to learn about this place, take part in community, and grow in a good way.”
There are 12 pins in the collection. The four chevron pins represent the four seasons and can be worn alone, but in combination they form the traditional Mi’kmaw eight-pointed star, one of the most prevalent graphic elements in Mi’kmaw visual culture. With pieces such as Double Rainbow, Double Mountain and Sunset Step, Bennett evokes the landscape of Mi’kma’ki. In Basket Banding and Holding Down, he uses structural design elements from basketry and quillwork. In Gwitna’q (Go By Canoe) (pronounced G-weed-Nawgh), he combines Mi’kmaq and Beothuk design elements into a symbol of his home, Ktaqmkuk/Newfoundland.
Bennett has designed two scarves for the collection, one in bold black and white and the other in vibrant colours drawn from traditional Mi’kmaw iconography. In both he revisits themes explored in his blanket and pins: the four seasons in Seasons Through Black and White, and the stepped mountain form in Red Porcupine Quill Mountain (Mekwe’k kawi kmtn).
Everything in the collection is a limited edition, and any example from The Jordan Bennett Collection is a unique way to own work by one of this country’s most important emerging voices.