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Thursday, 24 May 2018 10:10

Exhibition reflects on importance of language to cultural identity

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Audrey Drever speaks to an artist's talk at the gallery. Audrey Drever speaks to an artist's talk at the gallery. Matthew Liebenberg

How important is your language to your cultural identity and your sense of self?

Saskatchewan artist Audrey Dreaver explores this question in her exhibition “NO. I do not speak Cree” that is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Swift Current.
The exhibition is at the same time a very personal reflection on her own language loss and a broader statement on the connection between language and identity.
The paintings are a result of her research into her family's history to understand why her parents, who were fluent Cree speakers, only spoke English to her.
“It was really difficult,” she said about the project. “I’m 61 years old and I’ve been dealing with this since I was about 10, about Grade 5. So I have a lot of stories and experiences, and trying to figure out which ones I could focus on, which ones were important or impactful.”
During that process she thought about her own experiences at different times of her life when she felt disconnected from her community or when she felt a sense of frustration because she could not speak the language.
“There was me as a young woman, as a teenager in school, as a young working professional, and then as a parent,” she said. “There was the issue of me and my kids. I couldn’t teach my kids. ... There’s a piece over there that’s about me not being able to help my granddaughter. So all these different places that I am and things that I’ve experienced have a little bit of a different experience.”
Sometimes her thoughts about events in her life made it difficult for her to focus on her art and to continue working on the paintings.
“It was very emotional and there were a few pieces that I had to step away from until I could compose myself,” she recalled. “I’d be painting and just crying, or I’d be really mad and it’s hard to paint when you’re mad. It’s hard to paint when you’re not focused.”
She presents the subjects in her paintings in silhouette. This was done on purpose to allow viewers to project themselves in these images.
“When I first started the work I had actually painted myself into the figure,” she said. “I painted the details of my face and my hair and everything, and it just didn’t feel right, because I wanted the work to be like a social realism approach to looking at language loss, and I knew that I was not the only one that had this experience. So I wanted something that was going to help people to connect with it.”
These works have already been exhibited at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, where the response from viewers indicated that they were able to connect with the artworks.
“Pretty much every one who came through who was First Nation or Métis talked to me about some aspect of the exhibit that they have experienced too, and that seeing the exhibit was really helpful for them, which is what I wanted,” she said. “I wanted it to be helpful for others so that they knew that they weren’t alone, that it wasn’t an experience that just happened to them. It was happening to others too, and I’m one of them. So that’s been my sense of success of the work that it has helped other people and they’ve come and talked to me.”
Dreaver grew up in Prince Albert, where she and her siblings went to public school. Through this project she developed a better understanding about the actions of her parents. They were motivated by what happened with Dreaver's older sister at school. She was strapped for not speaking English and a note was sent to her parents to inform them that their daughter was disciplined for speaking Cree.
“That put them in a situation where they had to decide what do we do,” she said. “They thought that they were preparing their kids by teaching them to speak both English and Cree fluently, but then the Cree was a problem for their daughter. They felt they had caused her harm because they taught her to speak their language.”
Her parents have already decided not to speak Cree to their children by the time Dreaver was born because they wanted to keep their children safe from any harm.
“So when I thought about it from that perspective I understood that it wasn’t about them being embarrassed or ashamed,” she said. “It was about them protecting the child, and so they made a decision. ...  They had no choice. Their authority as parents was taken away from them by the school system.”
This realization helped Dreaver to come to terms with her own feelings of frustration and anguish about not being able to speak Cree.
“Then I wasn’t angry and embarrassed and ashamed and I was very comfortable with what they did and what they sacrificed,” she said. “I felt if I had been in their position as a Cree parent and I had the choice to do one or the other back then, I probably would have made the same decision because it was about keeping the kids safe.”
As a result of her research about the Canadian government's language policies in the past and her discussions with friends about the project, she discovered that many Canadians from settler descent had similar stories about language loss in their families when they came to Canada from countries such as Germany, the Ukraine and Russia.
“They talked about how either their parents or their grandparents were reprimanded the same way in small town Saskatchewan schools and some of them were strapped like my sister for speaking their language,” she mentioned. “They were harassed, humiliated, shamed and disciplined into not speaking their language, speaking only English. They ended up working really hard to even get rid of the accent that they had as immigrants to learn how to speak or get their kids to learn how to speak English properly so that they wouldn’t be abused. So it wasn’t just us. It was immigrant cultures that were experiencing the same thing too.”
For Dreaver this common experience that are shared by people from different backgrounds and cultures can help to build a bridge between people.
“It will open the door for us to talk more about being in Canada and being a part of the growth of this particular country,” she said. “If we have something that we can see and look at critically together like how we all lost our language, then maybe we can talk about other things too.”
This exhibition is showing at the Art Gallery of Swift Current until June 24. The gallery is open Monday to Thursday from 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and Friday to Sunday from 1-5 p.m.

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Matthew Liebenberg