“Everything – the plants, insects, winds, stars, rocks, animals, us – is a giant web of pure spirit. Nothing is separate from anything else. The spirit world surrounds us at all moments and is present in all things.”
– Christi Belcourt
In both her art and her activism, well-known Michif artist Christi Belcourt is guided by an awareness of the interconnectedness of all living things and her deep respect for the traditional knowledge of her people. Through her engaging paintings, she invites viewers to reflect on the power of Mother Earth.
From June 22-November 25, 2018, a mid-career retrospective of this prolific artist’s work will be at Thunder Bay Art Gallery. UPRISING: THE POWER OF MOTHER EARTH is an exceptional gathering of Belcourt’s paintings from the collections of individuals, Métis organizations, and major Ontario galleries.
Spanning more than 25 years of art-making, the show is a national touring exhibition co-produced by Thunder Bay Art Gallery and Carleton University Art Gallery. About 35 works celebrate Belcourt’s artistic and collective achievements. The exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to see many significant canvases by this prolific artist in one place.
Among Belcourt’s most popular works are paintings rendered in hundreds of painted dots which echo the traditional motifs of Métis beadwork. Beautiful twining stems, flower blossoms, and root systems are painstakingly created by dipping the end of a stylus, paintbrush or knitting needle into paint and on to the canvas. The effect is mesmerizing.
Exceptional pieces in the exhibition include Belcourt’s 2002 painting, The Conversation – a valued work in the permanent collection of Thunder Bay Art Gallery – and The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014, commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario and voted the visitors’ favourite artwork from the AGO’s entire collection in 2015.
In a more recent work, Offerings to Save the World, 2017, figures gesture in reverence to Mother Earth. They remind of us of our responsibility to protect all life across Turtle Island (North America).
“The sacred laws of this world are of respect and reciprocity,” Belcourt says in her artist statement. “When we stop following them, we as a species are out of balance with the rest of the world.”
A passionate advocate for water, land, and the preservation of Indigenous languages, Belcourt is the guiding force in the Ontario–based Onaman Collective. [link: http://onamancollective.com] The collective’s projects focus on the sharing of Indigenous traditional knowledge and language with youth, efforts designed to foster the regrowth of cultural practices that were lost or suppressed.
“I don’t think that Canadians are quite aware that there’s a really big movement of resurgence and reclamation all across the country,” Belcourt said in a 2015 interview with the Globe & Mail’s Robert Everette-Green. “It’s beautiful to witness and be part of, to see people practice the ceremonies and put the pieces back together.”
UPRISING: THE POWER OF MOTHER EARTH draws on Belcourt’s collaboration with Onaman Collective member and traditional knowledge holder Isaac Murdoch. New Beginnings, 2014, in the collection of the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa, is an example of their collaborative work.
Belcourt and Murdoch also work together on community-based banner-making events which they call ‘art builds’. In various locations, the artists engage community members in the print-making process as a way of sharing strong messages about environmental and social conditions affecting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The now iconic image of Thunder Bird Woman has appeared on hundreds of banners and t-shirts, helping to unify anti-pipeline protest efforts, most notably at Standing Rock, North Dakota.
Although Belcourt is known primarily as a painter, she also practices traditional arts, working with beads, hides, clay, copper, and wool trade cloth, and most recently, plant fibres, birch bark and ochre. These traditional materials link Belcourt to her Métis ancestry in the historic community of Manitou Sakhigan (Lac Ste. Anne), Alberta. Raised in Ontario, Belcourt is the first of three children born to Indigenous rights leader Tony Belcourt and Judith Pierce Martin.
Belcourt is also associated with the art project, Walking with Our Sisters, which began in 2012 to honour the lives of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada and the United States. This community-based art installation has continued as a touring memorial involving over 1500 artists and thousands of volunteers. Over 30,000 people have visited it in 13 communities. The tour will conclude in 2019.
Belcourt has not had a major retrospective exhibition of her own work until now. After an extended stay in Thunder Bay, the exhibition will tour nationally to galleries in Ottawa, Joliette, Regina, and Winnipeg until 2020. As it travels, Belcourt will ask us to remember “that all life, even the rocks, needs to be treated with respect.” She adds in her artist statement, “The sacred laws of this world are of respect and reciprocity. When we stop following them we as a species are out of balance with the rest of the world.”
The Conversation, 2002
acrylic on canvas
137 x 137 cm
Collection of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program/Oeuvre achetée avec l’aide du programme d’aide aux acquisitions du Conseil des arts du Canada and the Friends of Yvonne McRae, in her memory, 2003
Michif, born 1966
The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014
acrylic on canvas
Unframed: 171 x 282 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario
Purchased with funds donated by Greg Latremoille, 2014
© Christi Belcourt
Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch
New Beginnings, 2014
acrylic on canvas
122 x 183 cm
On loan from the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, Ottawa, ON
Isaac Murdoch, Thunderbird Woman