Artist grieves for miss­ing women, lost cul­ture

Work has added res­o­nance in Win­nipeg now

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - ALISON MAYES

THE plight of miss­ing and murdered abo­rig­i­nal women in Bri­tish Columbia — and those who grieve for them — was a key in­spi­ra­tion for Ojibwa artist Char­lene Vick­ers to create her in­stal­la­tion Omin­ji­men­daan/ to re­mem­ber.

“I feel wit­ness to a lot of trauma and tragedy,” says the Van­cou­ver­based artist, whose solo show had its pre­mière at Van­cou­ver’s Grunt Gallery in Fe­bru­ary.

“For abo­rig­i­nal women to know there are women who have gone miss­ing, it’s a very per­sonal sort of so­cial re­al­ity that you’re con­nected with.”

Vick­ers, 42, had no way of know­ing how top­i­cal the show would prove to be as it opens this week­end at Win­nipeg’s Ur­ban Shaman gallery for a run that ex­tends to Aug. 11.

With the re­cent lo­cal ar­rest of Shawn Lamb for the mur­ders of three young First Na­tions vic­tims, mem­o­ries of dis­ap­peared abo­rig­i­nal women are raw once again.

“The idea of try­ing to create a kind of me­mo­rial and a heal­ing space is re­ally per­ti­nent — and cru­cial,” the artist says.

Re­mem­ber­ing as a path to un­der­stand­ing and heal­ing is the theme of Omin­ji­men­daan, Vick­ers says. The kind of loss she has grap­pled with per­son­ally is the ab­sence of re­mem­bered cul­ture, lan­guage and birth­place.

She was born in Kenora, but was re­moved from Wauzhushk Onigum (Rat Portage) First Na­tion be­fore the age of two and adopted by a white fam­ily in Toronto.

“It’s not an un­com­mon story,” she says. “I grew up in a re­ally white, mid­dle-class com­mu­nity.”

She knows nothing about her birth fam­ily and has never vis­ited her First Na­tion, but may go one day if she feels ready.

Vick­ers moved from Toronto to Van­cou­ver about 20 years ago and grad­u­ated from the Emily Carr Univer­sity of Art and De­sign. She is a master’s stu­dent in fine arts at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity. Her show in­cludes three kinds of sculp­tural ob­jects, two video in­stal­la­tions and one paint­ing.

Peace­fully “swimming” across the gallery floor is a “clan” of eight black styl­ized tur­tles that Vick­ers carved out of hard foam and painted. She de­scribes them as “searchers of things lost.” They have an an­cient qual­ity and are some­how com­fort­ing. Some vis­i­tors to the show in Van­cou­ver sat with them for an hour.

Vick­ers was in­spired to make them by small is­lands of smooth rock that rise out of On­tario’s Ge­or­gian Bay. An abo­rig­i­nal woman re­cently told her those is­lands were tra­di­tion­ally known to First Na­tions peo­ple as “tur­tle is­lands” or “tur­tle rocks.” Could that knowl­edge have been stored in her DNA as a cul­tural mem­ory? Vick­ers thinks it’s pos­si­ble.

An­other sculp­tural work is a silent sis­ter­hood of tall grasses that rise against a wall. From a dis­tance, they look like grace­ful cat­tails. Vick­ers made them by gath­er­ing ur­ban grasses from ig­nored sites such as ditches and rit­u­ally wrap­ping them, ban­dage-like, with cot­ton fab­ric. Th­ese “bone-like forms” evoke “vul­ner­a­bil­ity and re­cov­ery,” Vick­ers sug­gests.

The dark cat­tail heads are made of hu­man hair (Vick­ers’ own). The bot­tom end of each “plant” is a braided rope, re­sem­bling cer­e­mo­nial sweet­grass.

The third sculp­tural piece is a col­lec­tion of tall, pointed cedar poles that lean against the wall, as if ready to be seized as tools to hunt, fight a bat­tle or erect a teepee.

Vick­ers bought them as squared-off lum­ber and la­bo­ri­ously carved them back into tree-like forms. She was think­ing about por­cu­pine quills and how they ward off preda­tors, but when the poles were fin­ished, they seemed more like a tribe of spears.

The artist, born in 1970, has re­searched an armed con­fronta­tion that took place in the sum­mer of 1974 in Kenora’s Anishin­abe Park. Ojibwa ac­tivists oc­cu­pied the park as both a land claim and a civil-rights protest.

“A lot of the rea­sons why they oc­cu­pied this park were to ad­dress so­cial con­di­tions and poverty and racism in Kenora,” she says. Those are all likely rea­sons why she was given up for adop­tion. “It’s a his­tory that shaped my per­sonal re­al­ity.”

The show in­cludes a 10-minute video that doc­u­ments how Vick­ers re­cently made a large red-let­tered sign say­ing “Oc­cupy Anishin­abe Park 1974” and took it to Van­cou­ver parks as a sym­bolic oc­cu­pa­tion of her own his­tory. “It’s also em­pha­siz­ing my own dis­con­nec­tion from that his­tory,” she says.

The video shows her me­thod­i­cally mak­ing mud balls as well. That’s based on child­hood mem­o­ries of care­free mud bat­tles in her Toronto neigh­bour- hood circa 1974.

“While I was play­ing war,” she says, “an ac­tual con­flict was hap­pen­ing.”

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Van­cou­ver artist Char­lene Vick­ers sits among her clan of tur­tles.

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