wave: Felicia Gay on Faye HeavyShield
The songs we hear as children, the ones we hear in our own tongue, are medicine. Those songs teach, those songs soothe a pained heart. In a wave of visual sound, Faye HeavyShield releases songs she has sung to the world; we see them in a wave, we see them in visual and profound poetry. We are lucky to have seen the song she has sung, to feel it, to know some small part of it. The song sung is about a journey.
There are no partitions to protect the capacious and muted installation located, lonely, on the gallery floor. Alone in a room, it teems with a power that feels too knowing, a mystery too painful. The ancient spiral is an Indigenous symbol, and there are many suppositions as to what it has signified over the course of millennia. HeavyShield’s interest in this formation and its many meanings are to be read through the lens of home territory. Perhaps the spiral means aoh’ki, or water, pointing us to good water. Many Indigenous people of the northern plains had to contend with little available water and alkaline sloughs where water was undrinkable. Good water was precious, life to the people.
I feel the spiral is more about the journey between this world and the next. When I think of HeavyShield as a mother, I think of water. Water is an important symbol for Indigenous women that are connected to this land. I think of the water that carried my children in my own womb, I think of the water that creation provides us with to live. This brings us to the journey. Armed with a digital camera HeavyShield photographs Kainaisskahko or Kanaii land; her home in Southern Alberta. Before the reservation period the Blackfoot people travelled seasonally and had the ability to transport their home within the realm of their territory. Wrapping up their belongings, loaded onto a travois, songs were sung. HeavyShield takes pictures of the prairie grass of Kainaisskahko. The photograph becomes her record frozen in time and she formulates in her mind how to transform that territory into a language, into song, into a new time and place. She diligently coils the printed images of prairie grass over and into lengths of rope. At first glance it reminds me of a medicine root we find in my community called weekesk or rat root. It reminds me of the coiled rugs my kokum made and sold to make extra money so she could buy groceries at the Hudson Bay. I am grateful for the way my memory is triggered because I am reminded of comfort and care given to me as a child in my home.
The rope is made of territory; coiled, a map pointing to Kanaii land and each photo a record of a point in time. wave sits as a transient marker within the gallery. It begins to sing of home and calls each of us to look down and listen to the call.
The repetitive work done to create this marker reminds me of the power of traditional women’s work that I watched as a child, the act of prayerful creation. wave brings to my mind the meditative qualities of adding bead after bead onto a thread, the tacking of sinew onto and over quill after quill, the rubbing of a sick child’s back until they fall asleep. The spiral leads you in and out, out and then in. If the grass is land and the land is home, the rope is a lifeline to home. When a child is born it journeys between worlds. When someone dies we say they pass, they pass from this world to the next one, where their home fire burns. When our children arrive to greet their land, we feel waves of joy, relief. wave is like an umbilical cord to the land, it is how we are nurtured and loved by creation.
There are journeys that we all must travel; to be born, to die, to love, to grieve. How one navigates that journey is made easier through community, through belonging. Although I live far away from my territory, I take it with me so that I journey under the predicate of belonging. When I experience HeavyShield’s wave, I see the North Star, I see a map, and I see an ancient marker pointing to Kainaisskahko, her home. She can pack up her territory and take it with her; she can lay it down to help others find home through memories, through listening to the soundwaves of the song it sings.
Felicia Gay, of Swampy Cree and Scot descent, is a vital presence in the Saskatchewan art community. She is curator of the galleries at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon. Under her direction, Wanuskewin has become the only gallery in the region to exclusively feature Indigenous contemporary art and is a model of international leadership in this area. Gay’s recent projects at Wanuskewin include Paskwaw/Nipiy-Amanda Strong (2018) and Power Lines: The work of Norval Morrisseau (2018). Her contributions to the presentation and understanding of Indigenous art and culture has been ongoing for many years. In 2006, Gay founded the Red Shift Gallery, a contemporary Aboriginal art space, with Joi Arcand. The gallery was central in addressing issues around colonial histories and violence against Indigenous women and girls, and sharing Indigenous voices. Gay’s past curatorial projects include Give her a face (2006), Grunt Gallery, Vancouver; no word for good-bye (2006), Kenderdine Art Gallery, Saskatoon; Othered Women (2008), PAVED arts, AKA artist-run and Red Shift Gallery, Saskatoon; Mapping me in…, (2015) Kelowna Art Gallery. Her writing has been published by Kelowna Art Gallery, Dunlop Art Gallery, BlackFlash Magazine, and Canadian Art.
This text was commissioned in association with the exhibition III: HeavyShield, Knowles, Cameron-Weir (August 31, 2018 – January 20, 2019). The exhibition brings together artists of different generations connected to the Prairies: Faye HeavyShield, Dorothy Knowles and Elaine Cameron-Weir. Working in diverse media, including large-scale installation, painting and sculpture, they offer powerful reflections on the natural world and human experience.