Blackburn’s work reviews the lethal legacy of residential schools

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Catherine Blackburn: Tell Me The Truth
Sherwood Gallery

Until Jan. 3

Between the time I interviewed Catherine Blackburn just before Tell Me The Truth opened on Oct. 13, and I sat down to write this review in early November, she received the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s 2017 Emerging Artist Award at an Oct. 26 reception in Saskatoon.

It’s the latest accolade for Blackburn, who has a BFA focussed on photography and drawing from the University of Saskatchewan. Of mixed Dene and European descent, she’s making a name for herself in the fine art, jewellery and fashion worlds through her use of traditional Indigenous art techniques such as beading and quilling.

Blackburn was born on the English River First Nation in northwestern Saskatchewan. She spent about two years there before her family moved when her father took a teaching job in Choiceland. But she made occasional visits home, and stayed in touch with extended family and her Dene culture that way.

“My grandmother is a bead work artist,” Blackburn said during our interview. “She makes traditional garment wear. So when I went for visits, I was always surrounded by that, and it’s played a big part in my memory of culture.

“But I didn’t learn bead work from her, I learned it from a friend during a job on the Morley reserve in Alberta. Bead work has been a nice bridge for me as an artist who is wanting to familiarize myself with my cultural tradition, but be able to play with it in a contemporary way.”

When I met with Blackburn, Tell Me The Truth was still being installed, so I didn’t get to see it. However, we did speak in general terms about the exhibition.

“The residential school system plays a large part,” said Blackburn. “So there is work that speaks to broader themes of Aboriginal history in Canada. But I wouldn’t say it’s my focus. I get inspired by family, and I use the work as a way of recording loss, resilience and reclamation.”

That was instantly obvious when I returned to the gallery later to view the exhibition. To begin with, two of the four gallery walls were painted an ominous black. Then there’s the work itself.

I’ll start with five framed photos on one of the black walls showing close-up shots of people’s mouths with their tongues out. Overlaid on the tongues are images of beadwork, some with floral designs, one depicting a message in Dene syllabics.

The back story to the images involves a punishment children in residential schools were sometimes subjected to for speaking their own language, where they had pins pushed into their tongues.

No art exhibit, no matter how expansive, could cover the enormity of the impact of residential schools on Indigenous people. That’s not Blackburn’s intent, though. Instead, she presents several groupings of familiar objects such as picture frames, mirrors, cameos, tea bags, pillows and necklaces that evoke thoughts of family mementoes, rituals and milestone events.

That brings it down to the personal level for both Blackburn and viewers. But instead of smiling faces and celebratory scenes, we’re greeted by mostly blank black surfaces. On two groupings, there are even dangling black tulle veils that are positively funereal.

Coupled with some family-style snapshots of people posing in the sparse landscape and isolated cabins at Blackburn’s birth community of English River, where she’s cut out some figures, leaving ghostly beaded outlines in their place, the sense of loss and absence is palpable.

That’s a central point of the truth and reconciliation movement that’s active today. First, that residential schools were an historical reality in Canada; and second, that the abuse and cultural dislocation that children suffered created inter-generational trauma that is still impacting today.

While black is the dominant motif, it’s not the only colour in the show. The bead and quill work, in particular, under gallery lights, is very vibrant. One wall is pink too, which reflects the notion of flesh and the body. The fourth wall (white) has three photo transfers where Blackburn, in mirror image form, is depicted performing three tasks: reaching into a birch-bark basket, filleting a fish and putting on mukluks.

The duality of the images, which is underscored by Blackburn dressing in Western style clothes with prominent Indigenous accents such as jewellery and a beaded breastplate, speaks to the idea of her living as an Aboriginal woman with the legacy of colonialism in modern-day Canada.

The twin images of Blackburn in each photo transfer are conjoined, but that doesn’t impair their ability to function. Where they are joined, Blackburn has put a decorative patch of beadwork that suggests a cultural bridge that enables the figures to operate as a unified whole.

Throw in some sensuous textures from swatches of rabbit fur and a beaver pelt, and this is a must see show.