Manitushiu-puamuna - Between the two worlds
Curated by Logan MacDonald
July 17, 2021 - September 11, 2021
Manitushiu-puamuna is a new installation work by artist Sonia Robertson (Innu/Scottish) presented as the sophomore art exhibition for the newly established non-profit Indigenous artist-run centre, daphne.
I first learned of Sonia’s work in 2002, when she presented Dialogue entre elle et moi à propos de l’esprit des animaux at Skol Gallery. A tour de force exhibition, created to honour the memory of her recently deceased sister, Diane. She did this lyrically, by suspending beaver skin pelts from the ceiling, creating an all-encompassing gallery installation, where furs collectively appeared to float up and outwards, directed towards the west. This gesture drew connections to her Ilnu ways of knowing, specifically concerning the spirits of animals and the directions their spirits take when released. Moreover, the pelts she incorporated were repurposed from fur coats, a significant conceptual gesture connected to the industrial history of the exhibition space, with being situated inside what was once a fur coat factory. I draw attention to Sonia’s earlier work here, as I feel in certain respects Manitushiu-puamuna is a complimentary exhibition, extending values and ideas, weaving together both the personal and the spiritual, in ways that are reflexively nuanced and exciting.
Manitushiu-puamuna is immersive, having filled the gallery with imagery and textiles. Yet, simultaneously the exhibition is simplistic and welcoming – with Sonia having created pathways by draping long pillars of white muslin linen - that hangs from ceiling to floor, creating trunk like shapes, intentionally meant to reference a forest of trees. Cast upon these soft sculpture columns are a series of multi-directional videos, featuring bright imagery of poplar tree leaves shaking in the wind. The looped videos permeate, echoing on each layer of linen, which are accompanied by the audio of rustling leaves. The illusion of being in a forest is both effective and broken, as the space allows for viewers to walk freely throughout the gallery, staged in a spatial arrangement where one’s own shadow can at times interrupt the video projections. In addition, Sonia has mounted two large-scale hyper-coloured digital prints of magnified poplar leaves in both the large public-facing gallery windows. The prints are mounted to function like lightboxes at night when viewed from outside the gallery. Sonia was very intentional about all these elements for an array of reasons, each being distinctly purposeful, layered with meaning, and significant to her understanding of the world.
At the onset of developing this exhibition, Sonia was intent on creating an installation that could draw viewers into thinking about the unconscious realities that connect us to dream-worlds and the afterlife. The poplar tree is a significant symbol in making this connection for Sonia: their leaves when blowing in the wind have an almost visual and audio dreamlike effect, but also this pre-colonial native species of tree to North America holds significance to the Ilnu in the ways it is harvested, and in its importance within nature, particularly as a favorite food for beavers. Importantly, both poplar trees and beavers are plentiful along the beaches in Mashteuiatsh, where Sonia is from. All these connections have been intentionally drawn together by Sonia, who values how materials and imagery can echo layers of meaning.
As viewers move through the main gallery, which visually evokes an almost ghostly forest as the white at times beams in a haunting manner. There is a reference being made here as well, with how trees are a lifeforce that have purpose, and with life comes death and the release of a spirit. Sonia could be asking us to reflect: do you connect with the spirits of the trees that were once here before us? What can we learn from them? The path way inevitably leads to a smaller space. In this space are two intimate video projection pieces, which in relation to the video projections of the poplar leaves in the main room are intended to symbolically reference the four natural elements: earth, air, water, and fire. In one video we see sand and waves lapping continuously. The videos are projected below our eye level and are small in scale. They each have their own dedicated wall and are each projected through a cluster of lenses that are connected by wires extending out from the walls, to resemble a cutting of branches with leaves. Having the videos projected through the lenses creates a stirring effect where the videos appear distorted, hazy and skewed, there’s a dreamlike cinematic effect. To witness this installation is like looking through the eyes of someone’s dreaming.
Throughout our time discussing this work, as Sonia developed ideas, I was frequently inspired by how thoughtfully she would incorporate materials, imagery, and ideas, always very purposeful in ways that were meant to support the specific context of the ideas she was trying to illuminate. At certain points throughout this process, even without our wonderful translators present, I felt we were able to converse beyond our colonial language barriers, with being able to communicate and share through our energy, expressions, simple gestures, and material references. I bring this up, because it’s a strength that belongs primarily to Sonia, in being able to communicate by harnessing energy, something she has translated into her practice. It’s something she’s quite intentional about, perhaps it comes intuitively to her, where she is able to instinctually connect materials and images in ways that conceptually support spiritual meaning, where she’s able to push past colonial rhetoric to present work that is meaningful at the animal and natural level. Manitushiu-puamuna is an example of this mastery.
Early in the planning of this exhibition, Sonia outlined a strong desire to use this exhibition as a platform to engage with community, in ways that could nurture and support Indigenous community members to connect with their dreams. With this work, I believe Sonia wanted to draw attention to how so many Indigenous communities have cultural legacies where traditionally sharing the significance of dreams and connections to afterlife was once highly valued, but through ongoing colonization and cultural oppression, sharing and analysing dreams has become taboo. Sonia pushes against this, asking us all to open our minds and souls to this important part of who we are and where we come from—let us consider the value of looking at this part of ourselves. What can we learn? How can we be better? How do we connect beyond our own realities? In learning more about Sonia’s work as we developed this exhibition, I came to realize how central servicing, working within, and supporting the community is to Sonia. Knowing this helps with understanding what I have come to understand as core to Sonia’s overall artistic intentions and motivations – which I believe are indistinguishable from her values in life, with being anchored to respecting and honouring land, nature, ourselves, our souls, and community. Which is why it was unfortunate that due to the social distancing restrictions of the pandemic, the project could not easily include active community engagement—but was nonetheless a core intention that moved the project forward. This exhibition has become somewhat of a letter from Sonia that invites everyone to dream.
Sonia Robertson is an artist, art therapist, curator and entrepreneur from Mashteuiatsh where she currently lives. She received her Bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary art from the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi in 1996 and has participated in numerous artistic events in Canada, France, Haiti, Mexico and Japan. She has developed an in situ and increasingly participatory approach. Art is for her a great means of expression and healing. She also completed a master's degree in art therapy at UQAT during which she created an approach linked to the imaginary of hunter-gatherer peoples.
Involved in her community, she has worked to promote art as a means of empowerment and expression for people in her community. She has co-founded various organizations and events, including the Diane Robertson Foundation, now Kamishkak'Arts, which supports artists at all levels and uses art as a social lever through various projects; the TouT-TouT artists' workshops in Chicoutimi in 1995; Kanatukulieutsh uapikun in 2001, which works to safeguard and promote the Pekuakamiulnuatsh's knowledge of plants; and the Atalukan Storytelling and Legends Festival in 2011.
Logan MacDonald is a Canadian-based interdisciplinary artist, curator, and educator and activist who focuses on queer, disability and Indigenous perspectives. He is of European and Mi’kmaq ancestry, who identifies with both his settler and Indigenous roots. Born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, his Mi’kmaq ancestry is connected maternally to Elmastukwek, Ktaqamkuk in belonging to the Qalipu First Nation. His artwork has exhibited across North America, notably with exhibitions at L.A.C.E. (Los Angeles) John Connelly Presents (New York), Ace Art Inc. (Winnipeg), The Rooms (St. John’s), Articule (Montréal), and the Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin). He currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Indigenous Curatorial Collective (ICCA), and is a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Art at the University of Waterloo.
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