From the Heart: An Interview with Christi Belcourt
Christi Belcourt. © Christi Belcourt
For Canadian artist Christi Belcourt, politics, people, art and Mother Earth are as inextricably interwoven as the decades-old First Nations and Métis beading patterns she carefully replicates in her paintings. Depicting water, birds, leaves — the cycle of life — her works can be seen in numerous art galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada, in her published books and on the haute couture runways of Milan.
Belcourt was born in Scarborough, Ontario, in 1966. Her father is respected Métis leader and Aboriginal rights activist Tony Belcourt, who was also the founding president of the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples).
Belcourt recalls a dark period in her life, during which she quit school, worked at menial jobs, took drugs and drank. Then she was befriended by Odawa Elder Wilfrid Peltier. “I think he felt it was a personal mission of his to bring me back to my roots, and I’m grateful he did,” she said in an interview with NGC Magazine. But it was Peltier’s sister, Yvonne McRae, who sparked Belcourt’s fascination with traditional First Nations and Métis beadwork, by giving Belcourt a pair of beaded mukluks as a gift. Belcourt wanted to paint the beaded pattern, but quickly discovered she didn’t know enough about the plants in the pattern or the beadwork to do them justice.
Belcourt embarked on a voyage of intense learning and discovery, and has since had works commissioned by the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatoon, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Centre for Traditional Knowledge and the Canadian Museum of Nature. Her work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of History. Belcourt is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, and is the author of three books. Most recently, she designed the medals for the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
In this interview, she talks about her ongoing commitment to her heritage, her art and the environment, and how we are all connected.
NGC Magazine: The National Gallery’s 2013 Sakahàn exhibition brought together Aboriginal artists from around the world. What was it like to be a part of that?
Christi Belcourt: It was a great honour to be included in such a massive international event — one which was groundbreaking for the National Gallery in terms of the amount and scope of contemporary Indigenous art it presented from around the world. It was amazing. Plus, I just really enjoyed seeing other people’s art and what they were doing, and seeing so many common themes running throughout the exhibition.
Christi Belcourt, Water Song (2010–2011), acrylic on canvas, 20.5 x 389 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC
NGCM: Your painting, Water Song — which is in the National Collection — was used by the Italian fashion house Valentino as inspiration in its 2016 spring collection. How did that collaboration come about?
CB: When they contacted me, the subject line of their email said something like, “emailing you from Milan, Italy.” I thought it was spam, so I deleted it. Then I deleted a second one and they finally got me on Facebook and said, “This is not spam. Please don’t delete this and reply.” So I asked them to send the email to me again, then I got on the phone with someone from the company.
But I needed to know a couple things before proceeding, such as their environmental track record, because the textile industry is known around the world for devastating waters and lands. Many companies source their textiles from countries that don’t pay people a living wage. Valentino sources most of its materials in Italy, and has been rated number one by Greenpeace out of all the best-known fashion houses, because they are committed to going green by 2020. I also had to know whether they had ever had models wearing headdresses going down the runway or been accused of cultural appropriation.NGCM: What was it like to see pictures of models wearing your work on the runway?
CB: I was really blown away. The designs were so beautiful.
NGCM: You have said that you see your paintings as a continuation of beading among Aboriginal people, particularly the Métis. Why is it important for you to connect with that traditional skill?
CB: All Indigenous art traditions come from an understanding of, and connection with, the land and its spirits. So that knowledge is encoded in the work or art. When you look at Indigenous art around the world, there is always that direct connection to the land. That understanding of how we’re supposed to live on the land is encoded into the design, the symbols and the things that we see.
It’s no different with beadwork. So when I’m creating my art, it’s not a simple transferring of the beadwork patterns onto the canvas; it has to have the meaning behind it. So there will be certain plants or symbols in the painting that have a specific reason or coding behind them. It’s always a message about the respect for lands and waters: the respect we need to have for the earth and everything that is around us. As human beings, we are mistaken if we think we are superior to other species.
Photo: Moccasin vamps by Jaime Koebel, photographed by Christi Belcourt
NGCM: In your research you also discovered that traditional skills such as beading were an artistic legacy and a proud economic legacy of the Métis grandmothers.
CB: As things got harder for our people, women’s beadwork was being sold and traded, and that supported the economy for a time. This was after the buffalo had been annihilated, and the beavers had almost been trapped out, and things were in a bad way. The economy was changing, so there was a time when we weren’t able to support our communities as we traditionally had. At the same time, disease was being spread and treaties were being signed to remove people from the land and onto reserves. So everyone was being squeezed and starving. Beading and trading are things the women have done for many years, and they really supported the economy. A mother might bead something all night long just so she could sell it and maybe buy a little sugar and flour to bring home. And it still works that way. I have a friend here, and she is busy beading away. Right now, this is her economy.
NGCM: Your work has a very strong environmental theme, which you say has a correlation to how Indigenous people are treated.
CB: An incredible amount of violence is being perpetrated against the land. We see it through the oil pipelines, the corporations coming in to do fracking, train derailments. Industry is running amok over the entire country. So the violence that we’ve experienced as a people is in parallel to what is happening on the land.
Photo: Moccasin vamps by Angela Albert, photographed by Christi Belcourt
NGCM: The exhibition, Walking With Our Sisters is on a seven-year tour of Canada and the United States. Describe this massive commemorative art installation that you initiated.
CB: At first, we were calling this an art exhibit, but it really isn’t that. It’s a memorial to the hundreds of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. I put the call out on Facebook, and within a week we had 2,000 people who said they would send in vamps, which are the tops of moccasins. The vamps are intentionally not sewn into the moccasins to represent the unfinished lives of these women and children.
NGCM: Who or what have been your most important creative influences?
CB: Nature really influences me. Plants influence me. That would be number one, then species around the world. Then there are Elders I’ve spent time with who have shaped the way I see and understand things. And then there are visual artists who have paved the way such as Daphne Odjig. As a First Nations woman she is really inspirational and has opened doors for visual artists.
NGCM: What advice would you give to emerging artists?
CB: Jump in with both feet. That’s the advice Daphne Odjig gave. Don’t hold anything back; give it everything you have; put 100 per cent into it. And do everything from your heart.
Christi Belcourt is one of the lead coordinators of the Walking With Our Sisters initiative, a commemorative art installation that is a memorial ceremony to honour murdered and missing Indigenous women and families. The exhibition is at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa until October 16, 2015. What’s more, the exhibition will be touring across Canada until 2019. Consult the schedule available on the Walking With Our Sisters website for details.