Victoria beadwork exhibit speaks to evolving, enduring nature of Indigenous art

A new exhibit at the University of Victoria’s Legacy Art Gallery is showcasing the evolution of intricate Indigenous beadwork as West Coast artists work to modernize and reclaim the practice.

On Beaded Ground challenges viewers not to see beading as “women’s work” or a retired practice, but as “an active and generative part of contemporary Indigenous cultural knowledge.” Beadwork, curator Lorilee Wastasecoot said, is a site of personal, cultural, spiritual and political resurgence.

‘Nindanikoobijiganag: We are Star People’ by Mississauga Nishnaabe Lucbanin artist Estrella Whetung. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)

Upon colonization, the art form quickly became something that was monetized and pieces that held important stories became products that were disconnected from their meticulous creators. Wastasecoot’s grandmother was a beader and tufter who used her skills to support her family, but because she sold her creations through a company her name was always erased.

Part of Wastasecoot’s exhibit is featuring the work of artists whose names were never properly associated with their pieces and have long since been lost. Those pieces had been in storage at UVic for decades with next to no one getting to view or appreciate them.

“These things are precious to us, so I think it’s really important that we celebrate them,” Wastasecoot said.

She has a small hope people will come in and recognize the beadwork of some of the historical pieces and the beaders behind them. Wastasecoot said this has happened in the past with a basketry exhibit.

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‘Beading Towards Futures’ is the creation of Cedar Circle, a leadership group for Indigenous youth and their allies at Cedar Hill Middle School. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)

But, more importantly, she hopes when people enter they recognize themselves – their culture and their stories. The contemporary pieces are a crucial part of that.

“It’s important for people to know Indigenous people are still here,” Wastasecoot said. “We’re still producing art.”

One of those modern art pieces is the work of Cedar Circle, a leadership group for Indigenous youth and their allies at Cedar Hill Middle School. Beading, teacher and group organizer Tasha Henry said, was Cedar Circle’s focus for this school year, but it was total chance that it lined up with Wastasecoot’s exhibit.

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Henry thought beading would be the perfect activity for students to tackle while having to meet virtually. She coordinated lessons with a local Indigenous artist and informed fellow teachers that Cedar Circle students may be bringing out their beading in class if they finished an assignment early or needed something to keep their hands busy.

“It was something that gave them hope to get them through a difficult year,” Henry said.

Wastasecoot said she was thrilled when Henry reached out to her.

“It’s important to have the youth involved and to have their work shown to let them know they’re valued,” she said.

She hopes when people enter the gallery it is a place of comfort, warmth and safety.

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Do you have a story tip? Email: jane.skrypnek@blackpress.ca.

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