Catching up with the Curators: Kwaata-nihtaawakihk: A Hard Birth

Kwaata-nihtaawakihk: A Hard Birth is an incredible exhibition with a long road to opening; originally a part of the Manitoba 150 commemoration, the exhibition was delayed by the onset of the pandemic.

Now, as Kwaata-nihtaawakihk comes to a close (September 5), we caught up with curators Sherry Farrell Racette and Cathy Mattes for their reflections on this exhibition exploring Métis contributions to the birth, formation, and culture of this incredible province.

As Kwaata-nihtaawakihk: A Hard Birth comes to a close, how does it feel to have this exhibition out in the world?

Cathy Mattes: I am elated now that the exhibition is out in the world. We began this project four years ago, and with Covid-19 postponing things, there were moments of uncertainty. The opening was such a celebration, and we have been receiving positive feedback about the exhibition.

We’ve hosted events, workshops and gatherings in the Gathering Space in the exhibition for the duration of the show. These have been important cultural and artistic activations of the space.

What was the inspiration for this exhibition?

Sherry Farrell Racette: Pre-Covid, the exhibition was a Manitoba 150 exhibition – commemorating the Manitoba sesquicentennial. Manitoba’s birth was significantly different from other provinces, and we wanted to honour that. I heard stories of Riel stepping on the surveyors’ chain as a child. We had a house a couple of miles from the marker noting the border of the original postage-stamp province. These events are living histories in the Métis community. We consulted with Métis elder, Verna DeMontigny, asking for the word to describe a difficult birth, thinking of the process as a female being giving birth to the province.

CM: As a Métis women living in Southwest Manitoba (Wesman Local), my inspiration was my family and the Métis nation, past, present and future. The magnitude of our ancestors’ experience in forming the Province of Manitoba, and what it was like for them and other Indigenous people in the aftermath, was enormous. This exhibition is an opportunity to honour, celebrate, and really recognize the contributions and lived experiences of Métis, First Nations and our relationships with settlers in what is now known as Manitoba.

What are the key themes you wanted to explore in this show?

SFR: The creation of Manitoba was a Métis accomplishment, but the Red River Settlement was a diverse community – 80% Métis, but also Saulteaux and Cree villages, retired HBC traders, with a small group of recent arrivals from Ontario. We want to centre the tensions and connections. I’m not sure if it’s a theme, but we wanted to give viewers a sense of what was lost in the aftermath of 1870. So – beauty, conflict, resistance, but also resilience and continuity. Visually we are grounding it with three elements key to Manitoba: land, water, and sky.

CM: For me personally, the key themes, in addition to what Sherry has shared, is recognizing the importance of kinship ties, and how continuance and continuum is present in ancestral and contemporary art.

What do you hope this exhibition has communicated to the public?

SFR: Probably a combination of respect, celebration and sorrow. Things could have gone differently and it would have been better for all of us. Also awe for the amazing art. This was/is a strong creative community.

CM: For myself I want to remind the public of how this Province was formed, and the resilience of Métis and First Nations people then and now. I think this show communicates to the public the vitality of art in story-sharing, and I hope it’s also recognized as an instigator for conciliation and reconciliation.

Métis communities use a variety of languages, including Michif, French, and English. How did you approach language use in Kwaata-nihtaawakihk?

CM: For myself, art is itself a language, and the most centered one in the exhibition. Southern Michif is the heart language for the exhibition. The Michif language emerged from the Red River in the late 1700s and has four variants: Southern Michif, French Michif, Northern Michif and Bungi. Many ancestors spoke multiple Indigenous languages, particularly Nehiyawewin and Anishinaabemowin, in addition to French and English. We are grateful to Elder Verna DeMontigny, who gifted the name for the exhibition, and provided new titles of selected artworks in Southern Michif.

Since its inception, Sherry and I have always envisioned there would be events, workshops and gatherings in all languages known to be spoken by Metis peoples, past and present. While visual art remains the centered language, and Southern Michif the heart language, our wish is to provide opportunities to expose, introduce and consider the multiple languages ancestors spoke while art-making, negotiating, and sitting around the kitchen table and igniting home with laughter, love and beautiful art.

Can you tell us a little bit about one artist or object in the exhibition that you find special?

SFR: So hard to choose! I will do two. A central piece will be a large beaded picture frame commissioned from Métis artist, Jennine Krauchi, to present the iconic photograph of members of the Provisional Government. It is stunning. That’s all I can say! So lovingly and thoughtfully executed. Watching its creation has been a high spot for me as curator. The other is a watercolour by James Settee Jr. He was Cree/Métis teacher, and a member of St. Peter’s. He was Chief Prince’s secretary. His painting is a dramatic event in Métis-woman’s life that he either witnessed or heard.

CM: This is a tough question to answer for sure! I fell in love with the beautiful Metis sash when I first saw it in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. I am so thrilled it will be in the show, and that it is being displayed in a manner that really honours the artistry and importance of the sash to Métis people. There are some great photo-based works in the exhibition that affirm the here and now, and the incredible resilience of our people. As well, there is stunning beadwork by ancestral and contemporary artists, and a collaboration between two artists that ignites reconciliation in ways that gives hope for the future.

Anything else you’d like to share?

SFR: With Covid delays and cancellations, curation has been a wild ride. I am so grateful to the lending institutions and artists, and of course the staff of the WAG who have been awesome, helpful, and never lost their enthusiasm for the exhibition.
We hoped to fill the gallery with people – laughter, tears, contemplation, visiting, and music – and we’ve done so much that we set out to do. This is a big story that we are still living today.

CM: Although Covid-19 continues to challenge us as co-curators, I am so incredibly grateful to the artists, lending institutions and especially the staff at the WAG, who have gone beyond and above to make this exhibition happen. Through their commitment and hard work on Kwaata-nihtaawakihk: A Hard Birth, they have honoured our ancestors and my family and nation, and for that I am humbled and appreciative.

Kwaata-nihtaawakihk: A Hard Birth closes September 5, 2022. Don’t miss your chance to witness this exceptional exhibition!

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