Kwaata-nihtaawakihk – A Hard Birth Exhibition Review
Mary Jane Logan McCallum
June 30, 2022
Kwaata-nihtaawikihk opened March 19, 2022, and runs until September 3, 2022, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It is curated by Sherry Farrell Racette, Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Regina, and Cathy Mattes, curator, writer, and Associate Professor in History of Art of at the University of Winnipeg. For many historians in Winnipeg and beyond, the show was greatly anticipated for its Métis perspectives of Manitoba’s 150-year history (1870-2020). It had been held off due to the pandemic, but two years on sustains its relevance and public interest due to the topic, the ways commemoration and national history are politicized, and the two accomplished artists and historians who curated the show. Indeed, the show exceeds all expectations and generously, if subtly, offers worlds of methods and evidence for a starving audience of a too-long house- and computer-bound public that is engaged in conversations about national identity and commemoration, truth and reconciliation and current, ongoing impacts of colonialism.
More than 152 years ago, the province of Manitoba was born in conditions of sustained armed oppression within a context of Métis life and material culture profoundly embedded in Winnipeg. Works of historical and contemporary art in the show examine the era between 1850 and 1870, prior to removal and resettlement, in a way that speaks to how the past is always present in this place. These beautiful works – Farrell-Racette calls them “gifts to the people of Winnipeg” – were collected from far and wide under lockdown conditions. They include historical and contemporary everyday items like clothing, footwear, and household items, but also artifacts that are now potent symbols of political participation, resistance, and oppression.
When we think about Canadian confederation, we often hear the term “fathers of confederation,” referencing the masculine (and paternalistic) labour of formal politics and governance at the time. Kwaata-nihtaawakihk turns this narrative around and depicts feminine labour – a reality as prevalent in homes and communities in Manitoba. Women’s labour welcomes visitors to the show, including a remarkable piece by Jennine Krauchi. Her work, “The Frame,” created between 2019 and 2022, is an enormous beaded picture frame holding in place an enlarged reproduction of an 1870 photo and later postcard by Joseph Langevin of the Louis Riel with elected representatives of Manitoba’s Second Provisional Government and its supporters. The frame features a carefully symmetrical and also seemingly alive floral pattern on deep maroon-coloured velvet, edged with a beaded surveyor’s chain – a symbol of the struggle over the land.
The show manages to capture a wide range of nineteenth century expression: the ridiculous excess of the state, the struggle of Indigenous people for a voice within it, profound religious faith, Indigenous ingenuity, and the astonishing visual beauty of Métis art and labour. Kwaata-nihtaawakihk successfully makes the case that all of this must be accounted for in our history of Confederation.