Amber Smith-Quail: Nawemaa / To be related

“I don’t paint pretty pictures anymore” states Amber Smith-Quail. An Indigenous artist and educator, she has more important things to say than her previous work that consisted primarily of peaceful but captivating nature scenes.

In her exhibition Nawemaa / To be related Smith-Quail cracks open the hidden history of our First Nations peoples, addressing the missing and murdered women, children and two-spirit people in Canada. This story—the story of her aunt who went missing—is the story she has to live with.

The Thief (2021), is a mixed-media sculpture installation covering the entire back wall. The scene depicts a wolf cutting through a clothesline of red garments, one of which is in its mouth. When asked about this work, Smith-Quail says “I think about the clothesline as a connection, and the wolf has broken the connection.” She explains how communities are working hard to build those connections, the ones being taken from Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have fought, and continue to fight, to not let their histories be erased, in more ways than one, and this exhibition is an opportunity to learn the facts of what happened, and continues to happen, to our Indigenous peoples.

Installation views of The Thief, 2021, paper bag, paint, synthetic sinew, miniature wooden clothespins with Amber Smith-Quail

A series of Amber Smith-Quail’s paintings are drawn on LCBO bags, a happenstance activist statement. Each LCBO bag is decorated with flowers and animals, rectifying the stereotype associated with Indigenous alcohol abuse. Smith-Quail explains how she decided to cover the alcohol symbol with art, which she considers to be a tool for healing. “Now when people look at the LCBO bag, people will see the beauty and elegance of Indigenous culture.”

And Your Bird Is Green, (top) and Mister Pink, (bottom) both 2023, archival pigment print

Dakiimii (to have land), (2017-2023), is an imagined monopoly board depicting the land ownership, Oka Crisis and five white gifts (to name a few) that the Indigenous endured. As viewers walk around the board, they will notice motifs around the room reflected.

Dakiimii (to have land), 2017-2023, acrylic paint on panel

The educational properties of this work also extend to Smith-Quail’s beadwork in the show. The beaded Land Back, (2022-2023)is a reminder that in Canada beadwork was outlawed at a point in time so Indigenous peoples had to hold onto the knowledge they had in secret. As a result, many Indigenous people do not know how to bead because it was schooled out of them.

Land Back, 2022-2023, vintage and contemporary glass beads, porcupine quills, beading foundation, pipe bones, commercially tanned deer hide

Nawemaa / To be related” is an effort to get viewers to see and appreciate the beauty and elegance of Indigenous art and culture, recognize the appropriation of its uniqueness within our commercialized world, and the ways we have all been indoctrinated to have certain incorrect beliefs about our First Nation peoples.

Georgia Gardner

*Exhibition information: Amber Smith-Quail Nawemaa / To be related, September 7 – 26, 2023, Dignam Gallery, Women’s Art Association of Canada, 23 Prince Arthur Ave, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat 11 am – 5pm.

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