Michif artist Christi Belcourt’s most recent project was a birch-bark canoe, which she helped stitch up with spruce roots this week at Chippewa of the Thames First Nation in southwestern Ontario. Spruce root is about as far as you can get from the fine threads used at the Italian fashion house of Valentino, which recently revealed a line of haute couture designs based on a Belcourt painting owned by the National Gallery of Canada.
The canoe, a project of the Onaman Collective, is right in line with Belcourt’s work in community-based social arts, which are meant to help indigenous youth recover traditional cultural practices. Collaborating with Valentino was so far out of her usual range of activity that she deleted the company’s first e-mails to her, thinking they were spam.
“The subject line was ‘We’re contacting you from Milan, Italy,’ so I didn’t respond,” she said, laughing down the phone line from her mother’s house near Picton, Ont. “It took them several tries to get me to pay attention.”
Belcourt, who lives just north of Manitoulin Island, became an artist pretty much within her Ontario indigenous community, staying away from art colleges and even galleries when she was getting started. Her art has always had a strong spirit of indigenous identity and activism, which she shares with her father Tony Belcourt, a Michif leader and former head of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
Somehow, Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli became aware of Belcourt’s paintings, which are based on Michif beading traditions and floral patterns. Those must have appealed to the designers’ demonstrated taste for vibrant floral patterns.
After some long-distance discussion about paintings and fabrics, Valentino fabric designer Francesco Bova flew from Milan to Toronto with cloth samples based on Belcourt’s painting, Water Song. She took him to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where her painting The Wisdom of the Universe recently placed No. 1 in a People’s Choice poll, ahead of works by Alex Colville, Emily Carr and Paterson Ewen. Over tea, Bova showed Belcourt his samples, which included one printed fabric and two that were fully embroidered.
“My reponse was, ‘I would like several yards of these materials right away, so I can begin sewing with them,’” she said. “They were simply gorgeous.”
Water Song is a four-metre-long work painted in many small dots of colour on a black background. That made for some technical challenges when the scale of the design was reduced to something that would work on a skirt or a jacket. Some dots in the printed sample had a tendency to vanish into the black, she said, not through a fault in the transfer but in the act of perception. Bova was very receptive to her notes, she said, but she would never have met with him if his company had not stood up to her scrutiny of its social and environmental practices.
“I needed to know if they had ever been accused of cultural appropriation, if they had ever had models walk down the runway in feathers or headdresses,” she said. “I needed to find out what their environmental track record was. Water Song is all about the sacredness of water, and our responsibility to the water and the earth. It would go against everything I believe in to be involved with a company that was abusive to the environment and to the human beings from whom they source materials.”
Valentino used a range of fabrics for its Belcourt outfits, some solid and some sheer, with her dazzling bead-like florals arrayed across full-length dresses, jackets, mid-length and shorts skirts and even a halter top. The collection is serious yet playful, and undoubtedly glamorous.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better,” she said. “There was nothing for me to say but that I loved them.” Her experience with Valentino was a model of respectful collaboration, she said, quite unlike the insensitive rip-off of indigenous cultures perpetrated last spring by Canadian designers Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared2, whose “dsquaw” line earned them a drubbing in social and mainstream media.
Another set of Belcourt designs have been seen numerous times on television during the recent Pan Am games, as athletes accepted medals designed by her for the Royal Canadian Mint. That project included many visual elements required by the games medal committee, though a watery alloy effect in the coins’ production echoes a painting she did years ago – “of the surface of water, when you’re sitting a boat and looking at the reflections.”
Belcourt’s biggest and longest collaboration, however, remains the ongoing touring exhibition Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS), which she initiated in 2013 as a way of honouring missing and murdered indigenous women. She put out a call for pairs of decorated moccasin vamps, with the ambition of presenting one for each of the women known to have disappeared in recent decades. The collection now numbers 1,820 pairs, including some that people have brought to the 11 iterations the exhibition has had so far.
“It’s not really an art exhibit, it’s a memorial,” she said. “Communities are holding a ceremony at each stop for the purpose of honouring the women’s lives and acknowledging what the families are going through. The response has been overwhelming, and it just keeps going.”
Each presentation requires a year of planning and fundraising by a local organizing committee, which also recruits up to 400 volunteers and is responsible for personally transporting the vamps and a growing number of sacred objects to the next location on the route. After the exhibition’s next stop at the K’omoks Band Hall in Comox, B.C. (July 31 to Aug. 15), for example, someone from the local committee will drive the whole collection to Ottawa in a large van for a display at Gallery 101 that begins Sept. 25. Eleven more stops are on the schedule before the tour ends in Sept. 2019 in Batoche, Sask.
If WWOS is about treating a wound that will not heal, the Chippewa canoe-building project is more about planting new seeds for the regrowth of cultural practices that were lost or suppressed. That’s how Belcourt describes all the projects of the Onaman Collective, which also include collaborative mural paintings and Anishinaabe language immersion weekends.
“I don’t think that Canadians are quite aware that there’s a really big movement of resurgence and reclamation all across the country,” she said. “It’s beautiful to witness and be part of, to see people practice the ceremonies and put the pieces back together.”
There are a lot of pieces, for all the indigenous nations in this country. And sometimes what you need most to put a few of those pieces together is a length of spruce root.
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