At the Dunlop Art Gallery, inside of Reginal Public Library Central, in the downtown of Saskatchewan’s capital city, the people who wander into the gallery are welcomed by artworks that invite their involvement. A part of the “generator” series, the Stitch in Time exhibition and its programs are expected to reach audiences that include art viewers as well as library visitors who regularly pop into the space, which is opposite the check-out desk. “All libraries should have art galleries!” Lori Weidenhammer and I concluded at the end of four interactive sessions commissioned by the Dunlop curators Wendy Peart and Blair Fornwald (or was it that we thought, “all galleries should be inside of libraries”?).
Libraries and art are indeed well matched, from the perspective of Slofemists. Active (from time to time) since 2013, Slofemists reflects the way both Lori’s and my art practices have settled on the kind of “social practice” that aims to emphasize issues affecting our participants. In Slofemists we bring relevant topics like feminisms and ecology “to the table” and use art or craft processes to focus the discussions and enable the kind of connections and sociability needed to understand our shared challenges. As one of the groups featured in Stitch and Time, we spent four long workshop sessions in the gallery with visitors.
After we left Mindy Yan Miller and Suzanne Miller, next in the Stitch in Time series, presented the performance Needle and Thread. The components of Needle and Thread were on display while we were there, as if in-waiting for the artists to make them come alive. A circle of clothing stitched together was lying on the floor, ready for one of the performers to take her place in a waist-sized opening in the centre, and another to work on the periphery where more clothing would be attached. Behind this large disc of used clothing, a video projected names from the archives of Yad Vashim (The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre) up the wall like a movie’s final credits. An evocative sound work by Allan Paivio repeated this list of first names with softness and intensity. It was both a haunting and soothing accompaniment for the handwork and conversations that we shared during our sessions in the gallery.
I understand that tonight in the gallery the artists Heather Majaury and Terre Chartrand will be presenting the piece Neighbours as their part of Stitch and Time. The gallery’s notice describes how today’s workshop is aiming to “provide newcomers to Canada and its citizenship a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada.” When we were in the galley, Neighbours was shown as two incomplete “blankets” of textile pictures on the wall: one set made by newcomers to Canada and the other by Indigenous people. Many of the newcomers’ panels displayed Syrian signifiers like red boats commemorating people lost at sea--as was pointed out to me by one of the Dunlop Library’s staff members who was herself from the Middle East. The centre of the Indigenous panels was a dividing line made from three fabric strips in purple, white and purple. Owing to the generous teachings of Haudenosaunee hosts from Four Directions Indigenous Centre who welcomed me at events on the campus of Queen’s University (during recent studies), I recognized these horizontal stripes as likely representing the Two Row Wampum, or Gusweñta--a beaded belt recording a 406-year-old treaty of mutual respect between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch settlers. Two ships represented by the purple lines are on parallel but separate trajectories. Above these unfinished panels, the words of another document of respect and responsibility, the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada: Call to Action #93, formed a heading text for the entire display:
We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with the national Aboriginal organizations, to revise the information kit for newcomers to Canada and its citizenship test to reflect a more inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the Treaties and the history of residential schools.
It was very humbling to sit and embroider—one of many survival skills inherited from my newcomer grandmothers—under this call. Many of the visitors to the gallery were themselves newcomers and the handwork of Neighbours gave us an opportunity to talk together about the Truth and Reconciliation commission, and the way it included newcomer neighbours through Call to Action #93.
Following Heather Majaury and Terre Chartrand’s support of newcomers with information about Indigenous people and histories, the final artwork in Stitch and Time will end the series by supporting Indigenous people themselves. Stacy Fayant will later this week present Hand-Sewn with Love, a session for friends of this Métis artist to receive “comfort and medicine” through traditional skin stitching.
During our Slofemists time in the gallery, visitors were invited to consider how and what in their world needed mending while they sat quietly on or near Slofa, a patchwork created in similar gatherings during the years 2013 to 2016. In a nearby “Menditation Station” small boxes were set out to receive their handwritten mending descriptions and intentions for change. The Slofa’s embroidery patterns were wall-mounted in the space, as was a new pattern we had designed for Stitch and Time: “Famished Road Ecology: for 25 Million Refugees”.
As described on the “Famished Road Ecology” pattern, our topics for this visit to Saskatchewan were broad but surprisingly interconnected. We wanted participants to sit with the biggest of our world’s problems by embroidering a hungry road with stitches representing refugees and ditches filled with threatened ecological diversity. Generously, Lori had also designed and brought materials for participants to make indigo eye masks filled with a soothing mix of lavender seeds, buckwheat, and wheat; and covered with sun-printed shadows of native plants. These were needed when the heaviness of the topics required an inward turn to meditation or rest.
Now that a couple of weeks have passed since Lori and I were stitching and getting to know newcomers to Regina, I am thinking about how the exhibit gathered artists and craft practices to count and be accountable. Needles and Thread by Mindy Yan Miller and Suzanne Miller recited a large number of historic names and processed a large volume of used clothes to mark a much greater number of lost lives—forever grievable. Another project of Mindy Yan Miller, Six Million Stitches, also memorialized people lost in the Holocaust with counted stitches that the artist made with human hair onto blanket fragments and counted on paper during public performances. Heather Majaury and Terre Chartrand’s Neighbours demonstrated for me how the TRC’s Calls to Action need to be read expansively. Majury and Chartrand's action to inform newcomers, in an art setting, goes well beyond the TRC call for the government to take on this responsibility. In this way they are demonstrating how the Calls to Action are expected to be enacted in spirit, not just in words or in literal interpretation of the words.
With the library in the background—itself an ever changing storehouse of records and reading—this exhibition seemed to me like its own archive-in-progress. Soon, the curators will return to us the Slofa and the menditation boxes with cards recording realizations of brokenness and intentions to make change. Lori and I have decided that we will stage a quiet ceremony here in Vancouver to close our time with this evidence. We are also expecting that the embroidered famished roads will have collected more stitches and pictures of the problematic ecologies of forced migration and settler roadways. We will send them to Jennifer Kim Sohn to help her realize the 25 million stitches needed to make the number of refugees more real for her audiences in California. Besides the ecological losses recorded on the Slofemists banners made at the Dunlop, the stitches now also carry remembrances of genocide of European Jews in the twentieth century, and the responsibility of all Canadians to address our own broken treaties and genocidal histories.
Thank you to everyone at the Dunlop Art Gallery and Dunlop Public Gallery, particularly curators, Blair Fornwald and Wendy Peart, and Director Curator Jennifer Matotek.