Sisters Brittney Namaakii Bear Hat and Richelle Bear Hat draw from their shared Blackfoot and Dane-zaa Cree heritage to illustrate experiences in land and language displacement.
Brittney and Richelle both feature new and existing work in their ‘Story Keeping’ exhibit at the Nanaimo Art Gallery through various mediums, including sculpture, photography, drawing and video. The artists ask which stories are theirs to tell, which are not, as well as share differences of growing up rurally and in urban environments.
Shadow box frames showcasing several items that incite family connections and memories, such as dried leaves, moccasins, willow and birch bark are part of an earlier exhibit, ‘Little Cree Women (Sisters, Secrets and Stories),’ Brittney and Richelle also collaborated on approximately seven years ago. The items hold immense value to the artists and demonstrate shared learning and intergenerational care.
“It’s nice to keep showing this work because of the stories that are rooted in our practices. And I think there’s been a lot of change that’s been happening since we started this work… Not that we’ve switched paths, but in the way that we tell stories – it’s so adaptable and always changing,” Brittney said.
In one of Richelle’s videos, Nitssapaatsimaahkooka (she shared with me), she presents what sharing and learning language across different mediums, generations and nations can look like.
In Nitssapaatsimaahkooka, Richelle uses customized animated emojis, known as Memojis, to convey emotion as she learns Nitsiipowahsin language from her grandma, Alona Theoret.
“The first time our grandma did it, it was in our family group chat, and she just recorded herself and sent it in. And I just loved it so much. It really stuck with me,” Richelle said.
Specifically for the Nanaimo Art Gallery, the artist also worked with Snuneymuxw elder Lolly Good for a similar exercise.
“I really love thinking about how we share stories and how we connect. Growing up in Calgary, I think there’s a lot of opportunities to feel disconnected and that ‘otherness’ of being an Indigenous person within an urban-scape,” Richelle said.
For ‘Story Keeping,’ Brittney created a large sculptural work depicting family photos printed on blankets. She said she chose to use blankets because as blanketing is often associated with celebrations, such as age ceremonies and rites of passage in many Indigenous cultures including Blackfoot and Cree communities.
As the artist frequently works with cutouts and photographs to reconstruct memories of her home territory, she said printing the images on blankets adds greater interconnection to the sculptural work.
“Both of them have such deep relationships with storytelling in their practices and real sense of care for stories,” said Jesse Birch, Nanaimo Art Gallery curator. “And thinking very carefully about why you share and why you don’t share… and why it matters to be thoughtful of those things… I was interested in the connection or rural and urban, as Nanaimo sits in the space between both worlds. I thought that dialogue would really resonate with this community.”
‘Story Keeping’ will exhibit at the Nanaimo Art Gallery until April 9.
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