value the brain & cut the priviledge
Kwey (hello), Tara Francis is The Gynocratic Art Gallery’s feature artist for the final month of 2016, and we are so thrilled to be hosting her work. Francis is a contemporary Mi’kmaq artist from Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, specializing in work which addresses the history, and rich traditions of the Mi’kmaq people.
Francis works in a variety of media, and has taught porcupine quill workshops throughout the Atlantic provinces which an art form which she is becoming particularly known for. In the past work, she has taught at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design’s (NBCCD) Aboriginal Visual Arts Program, where she was also a student under the well known artist and elder Gwen Bear (b.1941-d.2012) in the original Native Art Study Program at NBCCD. The current NBCCD program boasts a curriculum that is unique in Canada for its emphasis on the traditional learning of the Atlantic region — New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, areas of study in the program include: Ash and Birchbark Basketry (fig. 1), Quillwork and Beading, Drum and Traditional Paddle Making, Wood Carving and Sculpture, Drawing, Colour, 2D/3D Design Principles, Aboriginal History, Anthropology, Communications, and Digital Media.
Tara Francis is well though of in her community. Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier) is Wolastoqiyik, an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist with extensive experience working as an aboriginal arts outreach officer for ArtsNB, and is also close friend to Tara Francis. When The GAG got in touch with Samaqani Cocahq about Francis’ work, this is what she had to say:
“I am surfaced with home when I gaze upon Tara Francis’s art work. She is an artist who we call a keeper of knowledge and teachings which is shown through her walk and through her artwork. The natural colours have an effect of subtleness and magic with imagery that creates curiosity of what surrounds us and what is in our own landscapes-the medicines. Tara’s unique stories also create a constant inspiration for the emerging Aboriginal artists, because she creates with no rules just a beauty of expression of being an Mik maw Indigenous woman living in modern world who creates work that reminds of what is important.”
To better appreciate the rich history with which Tara Francis is engaged, below is a brief bit of history that focuses on quill work in Mi’kmaq culture (figure.2) . It is written by author Ruth Holmes Whitehead (Nova Scotia), who has published extensively on the subject;
Figure 1. Mi’kmaq Birch-Bark Box.
Porcupine quills are naturally white with black tips. To make the colourful mosaics, they were dyed with home made or commercial colours. The ends of the porcupine quills were then inserted into holes in birchbark, which the artists cut and sewed into shapes that would appeal to European buyers. As thread, Mi’kmaq women employed the long pale roots of black spruce, debarked and split suitably fine. They also used these roots decoratively, both by dyeing them a variety of colours and by using them to wrap around the bands of bark that formed the sides of a box or lid. This wrapping was then interwoven with more quills in a checkered pattern. By the end of the 19th century, the more delicate birchbark creations frequently had their panels sewn with cotton thread or seamed with ribbon.
Bark insertion quillwork developed into a highly valued commodity and, in the two hundred years after 1750, it became a major source of cash or barter income. More and more European forms were added to the quillworkers’ repertoire: jewel boxes and hat cases by 1774, flower pots with accompanying saucers by 1830, as well as lampshades, wastepaper baskets, fire screens, firewood caddies, tea cosies, doll cradles, fans and all sorts of small containers – for playing cards, calling cards, cigars, eyeglasses, watches and needles.
(retrieved November 30th 2016, from http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=11&tablename=theme&elementid=69__true&contentlong)
Figure 2. Collection of images of porcupine quill work.
In 2013 the Metropolitain Museum of Art hosted the exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800. The exhibition featured a beautiful headdress attributed to the Maliseet/Wulustukwiak people from the late 18th century. Though the piece described as ‘Man’s Headdress/Part of Chief’s Costume’ (fig. 3) was made of wool broadcloth, silk ribbon, embroidered with metal-wrapped thread, and glass beads not porcupine quills, it is none the less evidence of the wide variety of materials traded between local Indigenous Nations and the Europeans. Mi’kmaq and Maliseet Nations in the area controlled the fur (porcupine included) supply so coveted by Europeans and thus, had access to a wealth of the quilts used so exquisitely and extensively by Mi’kmaq then, as is still the case today. Additionally, the Interwoven Globe catalogue notes that indigenous traders from the north Atlantic coast were were excellent judges of quality, easily identifying/differentiating between products created in England, France and elsewhere in their trades (Peck, 2013. p. 287). It is from rich history such as this that Tara Francis draws to create her contemporary works.
Figure 3. Man’s Headdress (Part of Chief’s Costume), from Interwoven Globe exhibition (2013) Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, NY.
Figure 4. Work in progress. White Peacock Butterfly 2012, by Tara Francis
Marie-Hélène Morell of Created Here Magazine –writer, entrepreneur, and creative herself – wrote an article on Francis’ quill work in the magazine’s May 2016 issue. In that article she describes Frances’ work as “stunningly precise and intricate”, adjectives that could be indicative of both traditional and/or contemporary works and yet, importantly from that article Morell quotes Tara Francis at affirming that “We [the Mi’kmaq peoples] are not a dead people who exist behind glass in a museum.” This is something that is very clear when looking at Francis’ work. She does not appear afraid to make use of fresh colours, combinations, and subjects in her practice. The image below (fig. 5) of her quill piece – a butterfly- is from Morell’s article.
Figure 5. quill butterfly piece by Tara Francis, image by Marie-Hélène Morell.
There are many other indigenous women artists in Canada today operating under similar mantras to that of Tara Francis. These are female artists showing the world that Indigenous culture is not only very much alive, but has a tremendous amount to teach us about how to more forward in the future! Many respected Indigenous Nations have spoken out and continue to do so about the vitality of indigenous art forms. They are working to raising awareness that indigenous pieces do not belong in dusty colonialist museums, but rather must be understood as pieces inseparable from living culture, and spirituality. Some such artists include; Ursula Johnson (Mi’kmaw), Angela Marston (Coast Salish),Tsēma Igharas (Tahltan), and – quite well known in the Canadian art world, the artists Susan Point (Coast Salish), Rebecca Belmore (Anishinabe), and (sadly) the recently passed Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook who famously and very deservedly, won the Sobey’s Art Award in 2006.
In closing the story on Tara Francis, it is exciting to not only learn about the tradition within which Francis is working, but also to think about all of the work from her that is yet to come. Francis’ pieces are part of collections in many countries including Germany, Belgium, Hawaii and Mexico and she has been awarded a Creation Grant from ArtsNB, for her exploration of the Mi’kmaq Petroglyphs. Huge thanks to Tara Francis for sharing the richness of work with us all.
Written by Danielle Hogan
Photos below are from a workshop on Aboriginal Craft Making taught in 2015 by Francis and fellow Elsipogtog First Nation artist Sandra Racine.
And below here, are images from a workshop Francis taught in 2015 along with fellow Mi’kmaq artist Judy Googoo of Waycobah First Nation, N.S.
Sources used for this online exhibition
Peck, A (Ed.), (2013). Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.
Other important online resources
Warrior Publications (from the Elsipogtog First Nation)
Canadian Materials Archive (University of Manitoba)
The New Brunswick focused magazine Created Here is:
CreatedHere is a website, directory and print magazine all about local creatives, from those who make art and fine craft to photography and dance. This project is focused on growing community of people who love beautiful things made with care and who are passionate about supporting our local makers. CreatedHere is where creative meets local.
Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Elitekey: Micmac Material Culture from 1600 A.D. to the Present. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1980.
Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Micmac Quillwork. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1982.
Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. “The Traditional Material Culture of the Native Peoples of Maine.” In Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine, edited by Bruce J. Bourque. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001, pp. 249-309.
Whitehead, Ruth Holmes and Harold McGee. The Micmac: How Their Ancestors Lived 500 Years Ago. Halifax: Nimbus,1983.