qaʔ yəxʷ - water honours us: womxn and waterways
At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until October 2
This small yet powerful group exhibition is titled qaʔ yəxʷ, a hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ term meaning “water honours us”. Subtitled "womxn and waterways", the show celebrates the relationship between Indigenous women and that most fundamentally life-giving element, the one that is in and of us all, the one we cannot survive without. And, yes, the one that is under huge environmental threat, along with the creatures that dwell within it.
Recently opened at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, the show spotlights works by emerging artists affiliated with different First Nations groups across British Columbia and beyond: Richelle Bear Hat (Blackfoot/Cree), Krystle Coughlin (Selkirk), Lindsay Katsitsakataste Delaronde (Mohawk), Alison Marks (Tlingit), Dionne Paul (Nuxalk/Sechelt), Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena), Marika Echachis Swan (Nuu-cha-nulth), Carrielynn Victor (Sto:lo), and Veronica Waechter (Gitxsan). It is curated by four members of the ReMatriate Collective, which honours the role of Indigenous women as knowledge holders and is, the exhibition brochure states, “dedicated to strengthening future generations through positive self-representation, image sovereignty and agency”.
Mostly modest in scale, works range from photography to beadwork and from performance to woodblock printing. Among the most moving pieces here are two tintype-based portraits of Musqueam activist Audrey Siegl, photographed by Spitzer. The images represent an emotionally charged collaboration between the two women, in recognition of Siegl’s place in the show as “Water Keeper” and in honour of her recently deceased sister Maria. The sorrow-tinged images also commemorate thousands of “stolen” Indigenous women and, reaching outward, stolen Indigenous land, water, and human rights.
Coughlin has employed iridescent blue beads, long strands of white thread, and thin lines of copper wire, all worked on shaped canvas, to create ta ts’echo (Big Waves). The abstract patterns joyfully evoke sunlight glinting off water, the round shapes and dangling threads conjure up jellyfish, and the wire alludes to the cultural significance of copper among Northwest Coast cultures. In dialogue with this beautiful work is Coughlin’s tu dzen elin (Cloudy Waters), a grey-hued painting with conspicuously nonsparkling beading and a tangle of oil-dark threads, grimly alluding to the growing environmental dangers of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea.
Reflections, a mask carved and painted by Waechter, Mother, a necklace created by Marks, and A Woman’s Moon, a mixed-media work with an evocatively painted skin drum by Victor, all honour women and water in persuasive ways. At the same time, they remind us that carving and painting, typically thought of as “men’s work” on the Northwest Coast, can be confidently claimed by women too.
Also on view here are four water-themed image-text works by members of the ReMatriate Collective, selected from their online and social-media campaign. They feature young Indigenous women—“role models to look up to and be inspired by”—powerfully posed in glorious natural settings, on ocean, lake, and river. Among those portrayed here is Autumn Peltier, the 14-year-old Anishinaabekwe environmental activist, internationally recognized for her clean-water advocacy. With head bowed, she raises a water-filled copper vessel toward the sky, her gesture symbolizing not only thanksgiving but also hope for a socially and environmentally just future. Water honours us all.