‘I paint for healing’: Indigenous art in the time of COVID-19

During the pandemic, Indigenous artists are finding innovative ways to stay connected, hone their skills, and make a living
By Jolene Banning - Published on Mar 08, 2021
Daniel Stilla at a photo shoot for Michel Dumont’s Coronavirus Disco Ball installation. (Courtesy of Michel Dumont)

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This story was published in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights.

Michel Dumont, 53, remembers getting a new job when he was 29 and partying so hard in celebration that he missed his first day of work. Alcohol abuse was not new to him — he says it’s connected to intergenerational trauma. His mother had attended the Indian Residential Day School in Nipigon, where she received an education in colonial values. “For my mom, school taught her not to value herself or culture. School beat the Ojibway out of her,” he says. “And my mom tried the same with me and my sister. And I have trauma resulting from that — the trauma from Indian Day School carried on.”

Dumont, a queer, Métis, two-spirit man living in Thunder Bay, coped by drinking until he couldn’t feel or remember the pain. But missing his first day of work was a turning point. He promised himself that his thirties wouldn’t be like his twenties, and he began working toward sobriety. He got a job as a personal support worker at a transportation company serving people with disabilities — a job that involved lifting people. He focused on work as a distraction from alcohol but pushed himself too far. “No one told me with pain you should stop,” he says. Now, he has a degenerative disc disease and near-constant back pain. 

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He has been connected to art since early childhood — his mother was his first teacher, and elementary teachers quickly recognized his talents. In grade school, his work was selected for a travelling exhibit. He even won the Queen’s Jubilee, a competitive art award from the local legion. He turned to art to cope with both his physical and emotional pain. “I learned that I’m only so young — I only have so much time left,” he says. “My pain-free hours, I could be creating work.” 

He had his mother's Indian Day School classroom picture made into ceramic tiles. From there, he smashed it into broken pieces and remade it into a mosaic to honour the students. The piece now hangs on the walls of the Definitely Superior Art Gallery in Thunder Bay.

a mosaic made up of up photographs
Michel Dumont’s mosaic artwork is on display at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery in Thunder Bay. (Courtesy of Michel Dumont)

Today, Dumont is not letting the COVID-19 pandemic — or his back pain — prevent him from showing his art digitally in Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal; he held his first solo show in Winnipeg last summer. And he’s not alone. Artists from across Turtle Island are finding innovative ways of staying connected, honing their skills, and managing to make a living creating art.

Wanda Nanibush, an Anishinaabe curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says the pandemic has reinforced the importance of Indigenous art. “I think it’s interesting that everyone is at home and everyone is isolated, and they immediately turn to art,” she says. “And I think that’s because art is a place we can get out of ourselves and beyond ourselves. Art has always been seen as part of healing. I wouldn’t say it can heal a pandemic — that’s impossible. That’s an actual physical thing. But it can heal some of the trauma of living through one.”

Giizis Soon Ikwe is an Anishinaabe woman from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, but calls Animikii-wiikwedong, Thunder Bay, home. Her English name is Leanna Marshall. She  works as an Indigenous counsellor and is currently enrolled in the Winnipeg Holistic Expressive Arts Therapy Institute. The diploma program is taught through an Indigenized lens and honours Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy.

woman from behind wearing a vest
Giizis Soon Ikwe works as an Indigenous counsellor. (Courtesy of Giizis Soon Ikwe)

According to Marshall, the Western model of counselling is an uneven playing field, with a “client” who has a problem and an “expert” who can fix it. In this Indigenous art-therapy model, Marshall says, when a student enrolls, “there’s already that assumption that they are carrying that wisdom within themselves to help with what it is they are looking for. That wisdom comes from them, but it also comes from that ancestral knowledge that we all carry as Indigenous people of this land.”

Marshall says that there is a heaviness to Indigenous stories but that she feels a shift among nations due to the acknowledgement of trauma. These days, she notes, she’ll often hear friends, family, or clients say, “Okay, that happened: Now how do we fix it for us, our children, and future generations?”

“You see this resurgence of language, you see a resurgence of traditional knowledge, and you see a resurgence of people out on the land and doing things that haven’t been done for years because of the residential schools,” she says. “Because all these policies have kept Indigenous people quiet and ashamed of who we are, but people are becoming really proud.”

Lucille Atlookan, a 31-year-old from Eabametoong First Nation, was always encouraged by relatives to doodle and draw. Their uncle gave them their first paint set. However, they also struggled with health issues and trauma stemming from a sexual assault. As a teenager, they moved to Thunder Bay to access mental-health care. Now, they’re working on managing their physical health. “I got really sick because of lupus and chronic kidney disease,” says Atlookan. “I was close to kidney failure so I changed my diet drastically and went back to beading and painting. I’m not a painter, but I paint for healing.”

a woman sits on a chair in front of a row of paintings
Lucille Atlookan created the Neechee Studio, a space designed for young Indigenous people to learn traditional skills. (Courtesy of Lucille Atlookan)

Atlookan moved to Thunder Bay at 15 years old and now calls the city home. They became involved with the Definitely Superior Art Gallery and created the Neechee Studio — a space designed for young Indigenous people to learn traditional skills that was originally hosted in the gallery (it’s now operating virtually). Through Neechee, they realized they wanted to be a better role model to other young people new to the city. For Atlookan, that meant getting an education. “I took the Native Access Program [at Lakehead University] and found my passion. It was always art, but I found I wanted to be an arts educator,” they say. Today, Atlookan is working toward concurrent honours bachelor degrees in fine art and education.

Atlookan is also learning how to run the studio’s arts programming. “For a long time, [Neechee Studio] wasn’t exactly run by Indigenous youth. I didn’t know how to run it — I was really shy and modest about it,” they say. “But I started to grow. I was mentored by Indigenous artists in Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation, like Jean Marshall, Helen Pelletier, Rihkee Strapp, and Cree Stevens.” They also count non-Indigenous artist Lora Northway as a mentor.

Atlookan says their line of family portraits helped them see the strength and wisdom in their family. They want to use art to help youth see their inherent traditional knowledge.

naked woman in front of a colourful shell near water
During the pandemic, Michel Dumont has been showing his art digitally in Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. (Courtesy of Michel Dumont)

Dumont is now focusing on a line of cellophane art called Queer CosPlay. Essentially, he takes coloured cellophane and creates a shape — a wig, an Elvis outfit, a COVID-19 virus — and adds multiple layers until he’s reached a desired colour and design. He enjoys the medium because it doesn’t bother his sensitivity to smell. He also still works with tiled mosaic, which he first used 20 years ago. “I found these sample boards on Simpson Street, behind a ceramic-bathroom-tile store, and these sample boards were just lying in the alley, with these beautiful colours,” he says. “I took them home on the bus; that’s what started me off at that first show.”

He’s now part of a mentorship program with the Arts AccessAbility Network of Manitoba.

He says art helps him manage his anxiety and helps him express his creative side. He learned to focus his energy on creating while he is pain-free, usually first thing in the morning. The act of creating, he says, relaxes and soothes his mind — it reminds him of his grandparents knitting in front of the television, which grounds him as he does the same, only with mosaics or cellophane: “I’m still doing that, working while I watch television.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Michel Dumont's first name. TVO.org regrets the error.

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