Manitoba History: Exhibit Review: “Witness Blanket,” by artist Cary Newman, and “We Are On Treaty Land,” curated by Jaimie Isaac

by Frieda Esau Klippenstein
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 80, Spring 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Witness Blanket: Exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, by Cary Newman (Master Carver), December 2015 to June 2016

We Are On Treaty Land: Exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, assembled by Jaimie Isaac (Curatorial Resident, Indigenous and Contemporary), 13 November 2015 to 22 May 2016

Witness Blanket exhibit at Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Source: Frieda Esau Klippenstein

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was one in a series of pivotal events that coalesced in 2015 to bring jarring new realizations about the need for reconciliation and re-ordering of relationships between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada. Contributing to the conversation are two poignant travelling exhibits, in Winnipeg this spring, which call people towards reconciliation.

In the “Witness Blanket” artist Cary Newman (of British, Kwagiulth and Salish descent) has created an evocative and attractive exhibit bringing attention to the Indian Residential School era in Canada (1870–1996). Fittingly, it opened to the public at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on 15 December 2015, the very day that the final report of the TRC was released. The visitor is drawn to explore the sparse and inviting features of the exhibit: a short video in which the artist comments on his work, a school desk on which images are projected, and the Witness Blanket itself—an enormous, undulating stretch of connected cedar wood components.

Visually, the installation is striking in its beauty, especially from a distance. It is reminiscent both of the geometric shapes of a homey, intricately-stitched quilt, and of the stained glass windows of a majestic cathedral—an effect continued behind the blanket by long shafts of light that penetrate through. A blanket is a useful metaphor, as symbol of parental nurture and childhood security, but also as something, which can be used to smother or to hide something shameful. It also suggests the Salishan potlatch ceremony in which a blanket is draped around the shoulders of the person being honoured, while visitors are called on to witness and remember the events. Far from soft or comforting, however, the Witness Blanket is clearly also a wall, as there is a door, half open, installed in the centre, recalling those doors that forcibly closed on Aboriginal children, separating them from their parents and communities for so many generations.

Some 887 artifacts, which were collected over a year and a half from 77 communities across Canada, are not so much attached as woven into the blanket—and in such a seamless way as to be almost invisible from a distance. The artifacts are all donated or recovered fragments and remnants—such items as images, letters, stories, children’s’ belongings, parents’ gifts, and bits of the structures and furnishings of the residential school buildings themselves. Particularly striking are the cut braid of hair, the wrapped child’s shoe, the rusted pieces of bed frame, a strap used for corporal punishment, metal signs for girls and boys washrooms, and such mundane pieces as a ceiling fan, light switch covers, and torn draperies. The many fragments come together in the longest and most coherent contribution—the lengthy story written on the door, which reveals the commonly heard, but so often ignored story of persisting despair and suicide.

Significantly, the exhibit communicates the illusion of order and beauty, and the need to look closer. It also conveys the startling insight that among the fragmented ruins are people, lives, and communities. The pieces of pain need to be faced. A bench is present for those wishing to contemplate the blanket from a distance, although the secrets of the blanket are revealed to those who explore it up close. Detailed information on each tiny component is available via a downloadable iOS mobile app (also available from guides on site). A website (witnessblanket. ca) provides much more information about the project, including the artist video and the seven-year schedule of the exhibit’s national tour.

Visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding to a projected word cloud or adding a physical memory item to the bottom shelf of the installation. The Witness Blanket provides a powerful experience for the uninitiated. But undoubtedly, it is much more vivid for survivors of the residential school experience, many of whom have indeed reported feeling both the deep pain and the hope in it.

The “We Are On Treaty Land” exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery has a similar effect of calling for new insights, and in effect, reconciliation. All the works support the communication of a single theme—recognition that this area, and indeed the very gallery space the visitor is within, is on Treaty No. 1 Territory, homeland of Indigenous peoples from time immemorial. It calls visitors, and especially Winnipeggers, to more deeply feel and appreciate the fact that we live, work, and visit here because of a specific negotiation and an enduring agreement. In the title panel, curator Jamie Isaac (from Sagkeeng First Nation) articulates the goal of this project: “We Are on Treaty Land supports knowledge consciousness of this territory’s history to better understand where we are today and to move forward in collaboration.”

On walls of deep red and white, the exhibit is made up of paintings, prints, and photographs from WAG’s permanent collection by various Indigenous artists from and/or depicting Treaty 1 Territory. Jeffrey M. Thomas’ photographs of two indigenous men, one elderly and one young, in front of the Treaty One commemorative plaque at Lower Fort Garry seem to invite visitors to wonder along with them about that 1871 event, and its meanings and implications.

Additional works of Jeffrey M. Thomas are prominently featured: photographs from his “Indians on Tour series.” These colourful works initially appear whimsical, with their small cigar-store figurines posed and photographed in familiar spots such as Portage and Main or at the ‘Canada Day’ railroad yard in Brandon. However, upon a closer look at these “Delegates,” as the artist calls them, the visitor is bound to reflect both on perceptions and on inappropriate representations of Aboriginal people. This theme is further explored in KC Adam’s series of four large portraits of strikingly beautiful Aboriginal models. Upon closer look, embossed words of jarring, disparaging stereotypes become visible on the t-shirts that each are wearing.

Powerful feminine images are also seen in the works “Pagan” by Lita Fontaine and “Thunderbird Woman” by Daphne Odjig. With their commanding colours and designs, they seem to anchor the whole exhibit. Exploration of Aboriginal beauty and femininity continue in the centre cases exhibiting four historical items from everyday life, on loan from The Manitoba Museum and dating back as far as the mid-1800s. Though these artists are all anonymous, it was most likely that women created these items – a birch bark basket, a pair of moccasins, a beaded necklace, and a ceremonial beaded sash. In this gallery context, these items of everyday life are easy to appreciate as works of extraordinary artistry and beauty. As a medium of expression the beaded items also speak volumes, as they are how women effectively “decorated” others with their love and protection.

Also striking in this exhibit is the work by Métis artist Rosalie Favel: “I awoke to find my spirit had returned.” In this curious image, a woman awakes from under a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket to face people gathered around her bed, who appear to be waiting for her return. The provided description points out the reference to Louis Riel’s famous statement, “My people will sleep for 100 years, and when they awake it will be the artists who will give them back their spirit.”

As the call for reconciliation makes so clear, at the heart of healing is not forgetting and moving on, but remembering and understanding. In both of the exhibits reviewed here, the power of art in communicating, awakening, and restoring spirit is clear.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 July 2020