Artist grieves for missing women, lost culture
Work has added resonance in Winnipeg now
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.”
Vancouver artist Charlene Vickers sits among her clan of turtles.