February 20, 2024

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Jerry Evans’ ‘Weljesi’

Jerry Evans’ ‘Weljesi’

Feature Image: Migration Cycles (2002). Lithograph (14/20). Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Collection, The Rooms.

When I travelled to Ktaqmkuk this past summer to see Mi’kmaw-settler artist Jerry Evans’ retrospective Weljesi at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s, I stood before his incredible vast body of work and cried tears of joy. The celebration of the Mi’kmaq revival in Ktaqmkuk through Weljesi offers a sense of belonging I’ve never fully experienced before.

Jerry Evans, Living Portrait (Amelia Joe), 2022. Video. Dimensions variable. Collection of the artist.

The first time I encountered Evans’ work was when I was a teenager in 1998 while I was visiting Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. One of his early solo exhibitions All My Relations was on display at the Christina Parker Gallery downtown. I remember feeling a mix of awe and intrigue seeing depictions of the Beothuk, colourful Mi’kmaq symbols and iconography and images of Mi’kmaq women of the French shore. I thought about these women for years to come. All My Relations dramatically challenged the colonial Newfoundland and Labrador one side of family portrayed, and left me with many questions around the other side of the island where my father came from. A place called Epwikek, which I only knew at the time as Flat Bay, and is a Mi’kmaq community on the coast of southwestern Newfoundland. All My Relations brought forth questions like: Who am I? Where do I belong? How is this my place? which I carried quietly with me for many years but was too afraid to ask, and didn’t yet have the language.

Less than two decades ago Mi’kmaw history and presence in Newfoundland and Labrador was questioned, kept secret or flat out denied. While Evans’ was grappling with questions around identity, belonging and place it formed the roots of his artistic practice. Through reconnecting to community, exploring who he is as a settler of Welsh and L’nu heritage, and looking at where he belongs, Evans built a relationship to place and sparked an ever-evolving diverse practice. Evans’ work has paved the path for so many of us like myself, and in particular Mi’kmaw artists like Jordan Bennett, Nelson White, Megan Musseau and Emily Critch. Not only is a major retrospective of his work an achievement, Weljsesi is a celebration and honourings of the beauty of being L’nu (the Mi’kmaw word we call ourselves as human beings).

Image: Installation shot of Jerry Evans: Weljesi at The Rooms. Photo courtesy The Rooms.

Guest curated by Jenelle Duval, Weljesi is based on a L’nu term describing the feeling when we are happy. It’s rooted in an emotion that is not described in English. It’s the feeling of sharing roaring belly laughter together and experiencing a form of contentment. In the hardcover exhibition catalogue Weljesi (which is simultaneously published in English and Mi’kmaw) that accompanies the retrospective, a preface with the definition of the word describes: “this feeling happens when we are with other L’nu. It is unique (but always shared) and whimsical, and it acknowledges the importance of relationships and interconnectedness.” The text includes several essays: a foreword by Kate Wolforth, a curatorial overview by Duval “Qataqamu’k vs. The Retrospective,” Pam Hall’s “The Becoming of Jerry Evans,” a conversation between Jordan Bennett and Evans, and of course, over 50 staggeringly beautiful and powerful works of art.

Evans describes the intentions of his work as representing “actual people of and from this place – living people, individuals with personalities, No’kmaq, living relations, blood relations, ancestors. Of this place! With caribou, with seal. Each object serves a purpose to speak of our story, my story, our family story of who we are and how are tied to this place.”

Born in Grand Falls in central Newfoundland and now based in St. John’s, Evans began tracing his Indigenous roots and relations in the 90s. His journey brought him to Miawpukek First Nation, or what was once colonially known as Conne River. It was then he met the heredity Saqamaw Chief Mi’sel Joe and his family, Elders and knowledge keepers.  For over 30 years, Evans has been dancing at the Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Maiwiomi and extending his artistic practice to making his own regalia. Not only does he continue to share his journeying through printmaking, painting, film, and new media, but Evans is also a cultural tattoo practitioner. Also, recently he co-authored Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge, Chapter III: Miawpukek – The Middle River (Breakwater 2022) with Pam Hall, which was presented in English and Mi’kmaw.

Image: Installation shot of Jerry Evans: Weljesi at The Rooms. Photo courtesy The Rooms.

In Hall’s essay included the Weljesi exhibition catalogue, she writes: “Jerry’s pebbles send their ripples outward, into the worlds of younger Indigenous artists who view Jerry as a role model, representing their own aspirations and encouraging possibilities.  Into the worlds of Elders and youngsters in Miawpukek, or any Indigenous community, who sees their people’s culture represented, revealed and honoured in Jerry’s world.”

Evans’ work has a profound ripple effect that trickles out into the ocean, and beyond. To see Weljesi at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery is monumental, not only for the artist’s work but for seven generations. His work reminds us that we are in a reciprocal and respectful relation with those who were here before us, who is here now, and who will come after. Weljesi is deeply connected to the non-human world that we share with plants, animals and the cosmos. As a master printer, Evans’ artistic journey began with a series of questions – Who am I? Where do I belong? How is this my place? This prompted him to study at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in the early 1980s (despite the fact that at that time there were no Indigenous artists on faculty).

Over 40 years later, Evans’ retrospective Welsji celebrates Evans’ enduring and significant cultural contributions to Mi’kmaw art in Mi’kma’ki and beyond. His red ochre and warm palettes combined with bold images portray the sovereign perspectives of Mi’kmaw and Beothuk relationships through a reclaimed L’nu/beautiful perspective. Unlike majority of retrospectives that are linear exhibitions drawing particular attention to milestones or eras, curator Duval organized Weljesi into five ideas, concepts and Mi’kmaw terms that are drawn from the artist’s life and work.

The retrospective is divided into sections: TA’N WETAPEKSLTIEK/ Where are Our Roots Are, APAJA’SI/ ‘I Am Coming Back’, KITO’QA’SULTIJIK/ They Are all Going Around, ANKAMI/ ‘Look At Me’ and PEMAPTOQ/ Making/ Leaving Tracks.  Duval writes in her curatorial essay about Weljesi: “The exhibition shows how Jerry’s work honours the lives, images and narratives that assist in the revitalization of Mi’kmaw identity in Ktaqmkuk. It shared his different ways of making, weaving together stories of where he comes from.”

Image: Installation shot of Jerry Evans: Weljesi at The Rooms. Photo courtesy The Rooms.

Weljesi spans Evans’ work 1986’s “Blue Mussels” to 2022’s “Ktaqamkuk Qalipu Migration” and “Living Portraits of Amelia Joe, Duval and Philip Muise” which are photographs of Mi’kmaq people dressed in traditional clothes and accompanied by a second portrait of the individual model’s in their contemporary dress. The retrospective also includes Beothuk pendants from the 1600s and William Gosse’s 1841 portrait of Demasduit, which is a miniature portrait reproduced in 1819 of Demasduit by Lady Hamilton. The image has been reproduced by many artists – who identify the subject as either Demasduit or Shanawdithit, or the name colonizers once gave her ‘Mary March.’ Evan’s four-colour lithograph image on paper “The People, 1999,” features the portrait and red smeared over faintly handwritten words: Beothuk/ Red Indian/ Good Night/ Good Night Indian/ I’m Going Home.”

Weljesi runs May 27, 2023 to January 2, 2024 at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s, marking a significant moment in Indigenous art history, and will tour throughout Mi’kma’ki in the future. Most recently, Evans’ circular video installation acquisition “Apaja’tujik/ We Are Bringing Them Back,” is also on display at the Royal Bank of Canada Plaza on Bay and Front Street in Toronto.

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About The Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is of Mi’kmaq and settler heritage. She is a member of Flat Bay First Nation. Her books include: the forthcoming Re: Wild Her (Book*hug 2025), Lunar Tides (2022), I Am a Body of Land (2019), and Still No Word (2015), which was the recipient of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award. Shannon is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, and the editor of Muskrat Magazine and Visual Arts News.

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