Wednesday, 27 November 2013 15:46

Exhibition provides new perspective on Métis history in southwest Saskatchewan

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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The latest exhibition at the Swift Current Museum combines historical research and art to present a new perspective on the region's Métis inhabitants.

An opening reception for the exhibition “Akin to the land: A history of Métis in southwest Saskatchewan” took place on Nov. 20.
Saskatoon artist George Gingras was present to talk about the 10 paintings he created for the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum until Jan. 13.
“I wanted to retell a story that might have been forgotten through that oral tradition,” he told the Prairie Post. “The art that’s shown here will hopefully bring those retelling of the stories back to the surface so all people can learn about the history of the land in the southwest Saskatchewan area.”
The first Métis came to the area around 1859 to hunt bison, but it was only after the Red River Resistance from 1869 to 1870 that families migrated in larger numbers to southwest Saskatchewan.
The exhibition is the result of a partnership between the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the Swift Current Museum. Gingras and the museum's collections officer, Rachel Wormsbecher, undertook a research trip around the region in May to speak to long-time residents.
“There’s a difference when you read a story and use your imagination but when you sit in front of an elder, someone who has experienced life a lot longer than you have, and you listen to those stories there is more of a metaphysical connection to the story,” Gingras said. “It becomes something quite a bit more. A different, a more powerful experience, a more beautiful experience.”
The journey through the landscape was an important part of the process to create the paintings.
“Even if some of these images look like they’re real, some of them are quite romanticized,” he said. “The colours exist, but they’re really expression. So hopefully that tells a different story to the viewer and they’re able to recognize that landscape and remember how they felt when they saw that landscape.”
He usually paints in a “high realism” style with a lot of detail, but these paintings are dominated by vibrant and symbolic colours.
“I used an expressionist type of form … to freely let the landscape translate itself to me,” he said. “Some of the images here do express a high realism detail, but there’s symbolic colour in them.”
Many of the paintings include white shadow figures to symbolize the migratory lifestyle of  Métis families. After the European settlement of the western prairie in the late 19th century the Métis lived on the margins of the new settler society and the homesteaders treated them with indifference and sometimes even intolerance.
Gingras also used this style in an opposite way in his painting of the Cypress Hills, where Fort Walsh is painted as a white shadow on the landscape to show that the land was previously used by First Nations and Métis.
“Sometimes you can get detail without detail,” he said about these shadowy images. “I know it’s quite a philosophical thing to think about, but it does happen. Sometimes less is more, I guess, in that sense.”
According to Wormsbecher the exhibition's use of art and historical information will give visitors a different view of the past.
“History is really nothing without empathy,” she said. “Other than that it’s just a bunch of facts, but I think what the paintings do is help increase our empathy towards the subject matter and our feeling towards the subject matter because they’re emotionally evocative.”
The research trip helped her to gather new information about the region's history that provides more detail than mere general facts about First Nations and Métis inhabitants.
“We tell stories about individual people and I think that is important,” she said. “Everybody knows that First Nations lived on this land before we did, but I don’t know if there’s a sharp distinction made between First Nations and Métis. They were very different cultures and ... to actually put names and in some cases faces to the history does make a difference.”
This exhibition represents a significant collaboration for the museum and funding grants were obtained from Canada Heritage, Sask Culture and Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation.
It is also the first time that the museum has created a touring exhibition. During 2014 it will be on display in other locations around the region, most probably in Eastend, Maple Creek, Sceptre and Shaunavon.
One of the grant requirements is that the exhibition must tour to a location outside the province during 2014 or 2015, which will be in Alberta or Manitoba.

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