Judy Anderson: Honouring Indigenous Young People and Family
Spring is a time of year that carries a sense of awakening – when the sun and warmth return, and the land feels tender, brimming with new life. In this new seasonal shift, it seems like a fitting moment for me to reflect on one of the most significant transformations to the rhythms of my own life: the recent birth of my baby girl. Nestling in with my cherished little bundle, I am reminded of the importance of children and young people in Indigenous communities more broadly, and the many ways in which these beloved persons have for centuries been honoured, treasured and cared for. Ceremonies are held to welcome them earthside, and generations of skilled and devoted hands prepare garments and other gifts and belongings to celebrate their arrival and growth. One work of art that lovingly tugs at these long-held traditions of honouring children is Judy Anderson’s Exploit Robe (Toying Around), acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2022.
Judy Anderson is a nêhiyaw artist from Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan, and is well-known for her work in beads. She created Exploit Robe (Toying Around) as an honouring piece for her son, Cruz. Made of brain-tanned and smoked moose hide, backed with red stroud, the work features a large, beaded rendering of his first “burner” (a large and elaborate graffiti piece), which he designed at the age of twelve.
Created in reference to hide robes historically painted and worn on the Plains, Exploit Robe (Toying Around) pays homage to a longstanding tradition of honouring kin. In the custom of many Plains Indigenous communities, men created and wore ceremonial biographical robes – exploit robes – of smoked animal skin, painted with narrative and figurative scenes, which recorded and proudly displayed great stories of their exploits in war and hunting. Historically, the social and political structure of the communities in this region was intimately tied to the military prowess of individuals, and the status of leaders was based on their accomplishments.
In Exploit Robe (Toying Around), Anderson adapts and recontextualizes this tradition in a contemporary mode in order to serve a distinct, yet similar and renewed purpose. The careful process of beading in fan-patterned infill on thick moose hide is indeed painstaking and meticulous work, which requires a tremendous amount of skill and expertise. It took the artist many months to fully complete the work. With each attentive stitch in this monumental piece, she sought to recognize the significant deeds and accomplishments of her young son, who was beginning his own journey as a nêhiyaw man and graffiti artist.
Beadwork in Indigenous practice has an intimate association with the body, land, memory and the work of women, as scholars and curators such as Carmen Robertson and Sherry Farrell Racette have written. In combining the skills of sewing and beading with contemporary graffiti in the customarily masculine art form of the exploit robe, this work exemplifies a rich collaboration between mother and son in the traditions of both gender balance, as noted by Robertson in her 2017 article “Land and Beaded Identity: Shaping Art Histories of Indigenous Women of the Flatland," and intergenerational exchange, thus continuing longstanding approaches to artmaking that have been practiced on the Plains for centuries. Anderson also traces continuities between her son's graffiti and deeply cherished ancient narrative- and land-based art forms – namely, pictographs and petroglyphs – markings made on stone that seem fittingly kindred to his body of work. “I think of the Exploit Robe as an extension of the land, of rocks, of storytelling,” she says, connecting the art forms of graffiti and narrative robes to long-held Indigenous processes of inscribing and imbuing story on and within the landscape. In celebrating her son’s accomplishments as a graffiti artist, Anderson also underscores the power of graffiti and street art. Graffiti artists play a critical role in reclaiming cityscapes and constructed spaces of colonialism through image, text and story. Anderson’s monumental translation of his image through the care-full practice of beadwork highlights the potency of this art form.
The words for beads in Indigenous languages often refer to them as “little spirits” or “little spirit berries” – animate objects that offer nourishment and embody protection and care. When applied to belongings made for loved ones through the repetitive gesture of the stitch, beads imbue handmade articles and regalia with the blessings they retain. At its heart, the creation of this robe flows out of immense care and articulates what Métis artist Katherine Boyer once described when referring to a beaded piece she had made for a dear family member: “This is what my love looks like.”
In drawing from histories of Plains Indigenous art practices, together with contemporary modes of making, Exploit Robe (Toying Around), centres continuity, kin and relationship. More broadly, it articulates and carries forward a deeply meaningful tradition of honouring family – and, in particular, Indigenous children and young people – as highly valued, imaginative and respected persons. The work poignantly makes visible the presence and importance of Indigenous love and family and, as I sit next to my beloved baby girl at the emergence of springtime, I think about the kinds of ways that my relatives and I – like Anderson in Exploit Robe - may renew our traditions and honour this little one.
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