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Shelby Lisk’s project focuses on the women in her life who have cared for her in various ways. The photo series and beadwork are an act of appreciation and a way of affirming community

Cindy Lisk is the mother (ake’nihsténha in the Mohawk language) of photographer Shelby Lisk, whose new exhibit highlights women who have shown her what it means to care for others. Photography by Shelby Lisk

For Shelby Lisk, the intention of her latest work is simple: “I want people to know that they’re loved while they’re here.”

Exhibited at the Woodland Cultural Centre, in Six Nations, Shé:kon se’onhwentsyà:ke ratinékere tsi nihá:ti nè:ne yesanorónhkhwa, focuses on the women in Lisk’s life who have cared for her in various ways. The photo series and beadwork are an act of appreciation and a way of affirming community.

Amid Ontario’s third lockdown, in the spring of 2021, the multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and photographer began beading earrings for the significant women in her life. Inspired by her roots in Kenhtè:ke (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory), Lisk took comfort in her custom creations as she went through a difficult time.

“I found that as I was struggling, I was making these earrings for somebody else and thinking about our relationship or thinking about the care that she has given me over the decades,” Lisk said. “As I was doing that, it was reminding me that I have these people in my life. [Beading] was making these relationships visible to me again.”

Both a title and mantra, which was at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in May, translates to “there are still people in the world that love you” in Kanyen’kéha, Mohawk. It’s a reminder that lands close to home for Lisk, who, after losing a close friend to suicide, reflected on her relationship to him and those she loved still here.

“We have a responsibility to one another to tell people how we feel about them – to make those relationships known,” she said.

Friends Dianne Sedore (known to Lisk as Mama Sedore) and Amanda Kerr are two of the women featured.

For Lisk, showing gratitude for those closest to her manifested itself as a process of care by which she created the special earrings one by one, tailored to each woman’s preferences or the role she saw her play in her life.

The act of spending time with her loved ones discussing the earring designs, picking out the beads and telling stories was fundamental to the process.

Lisk said she wanted to make the women feel represented, beautiful and loved, making sure they knew they were valued. Giving them the earrings was also central to the artist, rooted in the practices of various Indigenous cultures – an acknowledgement that “you are worthy of me taking the time to do this for you.”

The exhibit documents her beaded creations with portraiture of the women wearing their custom jewelry. The portraits of her mother and sister – ake’nihsténha and akhtsìa, as she calls them in Mohawk – stood tall at the entrance of her exhibit during its run at Kingston’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre, which concluded last month. On the left, visitors were greeted by Ashley Bensoussan, Lisk’s sibling; on the right, her mother, Cindy Lisk, radiating confidence in her photograph.

“I really felt like they were these pillars. And my sister is like my guardian in a way – she sort of protects me. And so, I felt like when you entered the space, she’s there welcoming you but she’s also protective in a lot of ways,” Lisk explained.

Lisk chose some bold jewelry for Ashley Bensoussan, her sister (akhtsìa).

Lisk wanted to encapsulate her sister’s larger-than-life personality, presenting her with the biggest earrings from the collection. Looking back on it, she said the bold jewelry reminded her of her mother’s handmade patchwork quilts, which were always strewn about her childhood home. The portrait half of the diptych was taken in that very home’s backyard – a place significant to Lisk and her subject.

In another portrait, Sarah and Willow, Lisk captures the mother and daughter mid-breastfeeding session, with both faces equally present in the composition. While Lisk did her artist residency at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre last September, her friend Sarah Johnston opened her home to her for a week. During her stay, they collaborated on Johnston’s purple earrings, spreading out the beads on her living room floor and selecting her favourite stones to add to the ends, later photographing the project on Johnston’s farm with Willow, who calls Lisk ístah, a term many Mohawk people use to refer to their aunties. The resulting visual is a representation of women and girls caring for one another and extending that care across generations, which the artist said is a principle of the portrait series.

For Lisk, Shé:kon se’onhwentsyà:ke ratinékere tsi nihá:ti nè:ne yesanorónhkhwa is a process, not a result. It is a reminder of the communal obligation to extend care to one another. “Responsibility in relationships is so important,” she said. “And art that connects people and makes people go tell their loved ones how much they care about them – that’s what we need more of in the world.”

At the Woodland Cultural Centre until Aug. 13, along with Lisk’s beadwork and a video installation as part of an exhibit titled “Sense of Belonging”.

Sarah Johnston breastfeeds daughter Willow in a portrait that, to Lisk, helped capture the theme of generations caring for one another.

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