Visual art of Canada’s troubling history speaks louder than words or stats

Christi Belcourts Aabaakawad Anishinaabewin

When the graves of 215 children were unearthed at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, the world was forced to stop and reckon with emerging facts of the cultural genocide and violence of settler-colonialism in Canada. The number of unmarked graves continues to climb alongside protests against the Canadian government and the Catholic church.

As many have reflected on the atrocities that led to hundreds of unmarked graves, artist Whitney Gould reminds us to understand the experiences from the perspective of the children themselves.

Gould, a substitute teacher from We’koqma’q First Nation, crafted her piece “They Found Us” (2021) in response to the news at Kamloops Indian Residential School. The piece, which immediately went viral, introduces a largely overlooked narrative: the profiles of two children are depicted, assumed to be running from a residential school — compelling the viewer to sit with the children in their moments of escape and unease from being found.

Christi Belcourt, a Michif (Métis) visual artist from northern Ontario, uses her work to ask us to engage the transcendence of Indigenous ways of life, languages, and cultures and to confront the failures of Canada’s attempts at reconciliation.

In 2015, she unveiled “Aabaakawad Anishinaabewin” (Reviving Everything Anishinaabe), a painting that explores intergenerational effects of residential schools and evokes a feeling of hope and revival of Indigenous life, languages, and connections to the land. She spent seven years creating “Walking With Our Sisters,” an installation tour that commemorates missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her artwork has also inspired the Valentino fashion line, and she was named the 2016 winner of the Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts.

In her 2016 keynote for the Maamwizing Conference, titled “The Revolution Has Begun,” Belcourt addressed the colonial heist of Canada and the government’s failure at reconciliation, while urging listeners to shift their thinking away from centering the individual and collective rights and instead toward centering our responsibilities. “Without creative thought, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes,” she says. “Artists have more to offer than just art. To regulate artists to the realm of art only and not political leadership or discourse does the world a disservice.”

Elicer Elliotts Giants of the Danforth

The sentiment is similar for Shantel Miller, who believes visual arts can reveal overlooked realities: “I am interested in using the visual arts as a tool of communication,” she tells me. The esteemed painter, whose work has been exhibited in Boston’s Commonwealth Gallery and Toronto’s Xpace Cultural Centre, explores race, gender, and religion to make sense of our social and political world. Her work evokes a vulnerability of Black people and spaces, the contours and layers of Black womanhood, and leaves you pondering about the inner worlds of her subjects. “I have several sketchbooks that I treat as journals. They are quite private and [I] often have drawings that are quite revealing for how I process the world around me.”

“As a visual artist, I am interested in representing important aspects of our various realities and points of existence that would otherwise go unnoticed or taken for granted,” says Miller. “It is through gestures of noticing, remembering, touching, documenting, preserving and creating where disparate forms of knowledge are brought together to help contextualize and communicate alternative ways of looking and seeing throughout history.”

Despite the history of criminalizing graffiti, the art form is now regularly used by building and condo developers to craft an “urban” aesthetic of their “revitalized” neighbourhoods.