Studio Arts student Dina Hamed was in her third year Practical Issues course when she was tasked with creating a proposal for an art installation around the theme of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Hamed, who is Canadian born with Egyptian roots, saw similarities between the situation in Palestine and the conflict and trauma Indigenous people have faced, and continue to face in Canada.
“What does it mean to celebrate being Canadian? [I don’t think it’s] about whether it is okay or not okay to celebrate it. We don’t even know what we are celebrating, we don’t know our history, in my opinion, the question we should be asking is what happened in Canada?” explained Hamed.
Hamed reached out to the McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance (MISCA) to collaborate on a project as an ally of the Indigenous community. For the next year, Hamed worked with MISCA organizer, Gail Jamieson, and Honours Indigenous Studies student and artist, Evan Jamieson-Eckle, to curate the 150 Years of Resilience: An Untold History exhibit.
“For me personally, seeing people celebrate this country and then getting upset when other people can’t find something to celebrate in it, it hurts, but also there is a large, and very overwhelming presence of ignorance within Canada. [There is] very little effort… to educate people about these things through institutions,” explained Jamieson-Eckle.
“150 years of resilience, this project, is a humble and modest attempt to educate people about what happened, from 1867 up until now. That’s why I think it’s important,” added Hamed.
Despite the critical take, the proposal for the exhibit was met with support from the McMaster Mills Library and they commissioned the artists in November 2016. Unfortunately, there was still some backlash.
“When we won the proposal someone came up to me and said ‘oh working with Indigenous people, that was genius’… I got really upset… I told myself, this isn’t about making a spectacle of Indigenous people because it’s Canada’s 150th anniversary, this is about doing something substantial to bring awareness to something that disturbs me,” said Hamed.
Jamieson connected the two artists to Elders in the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, where they got feedback on Jamieson-Eckle’s idea of weaving a contemporary Wampum belt. Jamieson designed the belt based on her research on the history of colonization from 1967 to present day, while Hamed weaved it.
The contemporary design references traditional Haudenosaunee Wampum belts, which were used as recorders of agreements, whereas the 150 Years of Resilience Wampum belt depicts Indigenous history, struggle and land loss.
Hamed learned the Indigenous skill of Wampum weaving and dedicated over 200 hours to weave Jamieson’s design. The belt is not perfect, and the beads don’t always line up straight, but it’s symbolic of her improving skills.
“They took pride in everything they did, even in creating these [Wampum belts] for their treaties, think about how much they cared about what was actually being recorded… it made me care about what we were doing so much more,” explained Hamed.
The Wampum is “read” using symbols that are made up of coloured beads woven through leather. Hamed used white beads to separate the Wampum by significant dates. Black beads were used to represent the last attempts to restore peace before conflicts. Satin finish purple beads depict the darkest days in Indigenous history, while metallic beads represent Indigenous acts of resilience.
The Wampum belt is accompanied by an online component curated by Jamieson-Eckle, called @Wampum150 on Facebook. Jamieson-Eckle had been posting historical photographs and accompanying stories since January leading up to the exhibit this week. The stories are used to accompany the symbolism of the belt.
“With government policies [there] is racism embedded in Canadian conscious… Everything that we are doing right now, people dragging their feet, it allows that perpetuation of racism to the next generation. That’s something we as Indigenous people are not too fond off – letting our problems go to the next generation.”
“This art installation presents [the injustices and trauma Indigenous people faced] in a way that’s an alternative to the protests but acknowledges all the things that have happened. It’s one step towards getting people to understand why Indigenous people and their allies are mad, way they are willing to block roads… why the Oka [Crisis] happened,” explained Jamieson-Eckle.
This project posed many challenges to Jamieson-Eckle and Hamed, who at times were overwhelmed by the emotional toll the project placed on them, but rather than quitting, they grew closer and supported one another throughout the process.
“One picture [in the exhibit] was of children dressed up in European style [outside of a residential school]… and they were holding big wooden letters spelling ‘goodbye’…They took their identities away… it was heart wrenching to see.”
“It’s hard for me to see why [people] are not angry about these issues and why they don’t want to make a difference, and you’ll have people who will come up to you and deny genocide, and deny that you have any right to speak up [about this], it hurts,” explained Jamieson-Eckle.
For Hamed and Jameison-Eckle, they want their McMaster community to know that the issues Indigenous people have faced in the recent past, are still very much going on today. The exhibit only scratches the surface, and history is still very much untold. Only when the past is confronted, can true reconciliation be achieved.
150 Years of Resilience: An Untold History is part of Making Connections Week and will be on display until October 6th, 2017 at the Dr. Robert and Andrée Rhéaume Fitzhenry Studios and Atrium in McMaster University. The exhibit also features the work of Indigenous artists Ric Langlois and Teyewennarakwas.
Making Connection week is an initiative by OPRIG McMaster. MISCA will be hosting several events Wednesday through Friday, including a Blanket Exercise, Cultural Gathering, and Indigenous Social Justice Forum.