Having been obliterated by a fire over fifty years ago, a Mi’kmaw collective of artists is finding new admirers with recent archival work.
A short documentary film called Wabanaki Modern: The Artistic Legacy of the 1960’s ‘MicMac Indian Craftsmen’ premieres on Saturday at the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, to coincide with the extraordinary expo by the same name.
The documentary and expo are concerned with bringing to light an innovative artistic movement that existed in Elspipogtog in the sixties: the “Micmac Indian Craftsmen.”
This collective of Mi’kmaw artisans, led by Michael Francis and Stephen Dedham, was formed in 1962 and, at the height of their fame, was featured at Expo 67 in Montreal. Through a lack of funding, the collective slowly died out and it was, sadly, literally erased from existence when the building burnt down in the early seventies.
Michael Francis (1923-95) was a Mi’kmaw artist who contributed designs and stories gleaned from his parents and grandparents to the project. The stories, centuries old, were enshrined on the back of some cards and travelled the world.
Francis’ collaborator, Stephen Dedham — now 82 years old — still lives in Elsipogtog. Although, regrettably, he is not featured in the film, he continues to produce art, especially prints reminiscent in style to the great Norval Morrisseau.
The film also features a “Craftswoman”: Jane Alice Dedam. Dedam worked at the collective, notably as a screenprinter, and shares her impressions of the experience. A grandmother, in 2004 Dedam contributed stories to the book project called As It Was Told: Mi’kmaq Legends and More, edited by her grandchild and five classmates.
The “Micmac Indian Craftsmen” made fantastic designs that were printed onto different supports such as prints, cards, teacups and wall hangings to be sold and displayed all over the world. Acquired through archives, private collections and on eBay, much of the collective’s artwork is featured in the documentary and is on display at the Beaverbrook Gallery.
Central to the archival work are two employees at the Beaverbrook Gallery who narrate the sequence of events leading to the expo and are responsible for the research leading to the acquisition of pieces to include in the expo: Emma Hassencahl-Perley, a curator, and John Leroux, the Manager of Collections and Exhibitions.
Emma Hassencahl-Perley, herself a Wolastoqiyik artist from Neqotkuk (Tobique) is pursuing a MA in Art History at Concordia University. Her artistic practice is mostly painting and beadwork; her more recent murals can be seen on the Fredericton waterfront and in various schools.
The film and expo both feature work by a younger generation of artists.
Mi’kmaw writer, photographer and quill artist Starlit Simon, also from Elsipogtog, appears in the film. Simon had worked for years under a beautiful Indigenous tapestry at the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre at UNB Fredericton, without knowing that it had been designed by her great uncle.
Tara Francis, a Mi’kmaw contemporary artist, is also featured in the film. Tara Francis works with porcupine quills and silkscreening to make beautiful multicoloured unique pieces. In the film, Francis recognizes the importance of Dedham’s teachings to her, even though she had not known about his work with the collective.
Painter, carver and beadworker Percy Sacobie is a Wolastoqiyik multidisciplinary artist from St. Mary’s First Nation. Sacobie discusses the fusion of Indigenous and more modern elements in his artisitic practice. The artist’s most recent commission was for the new Fredericton Airport lounge.
From Newfoundland, Jordan Bennett is a Mi’kmaw visual artist whose very abstract geometric patterned paintings are featured in the exhibition and film. Bennett was shortlisted for the Sobey Art award in 2018.
The stunning film is directed by Clem McIntosh, an actor and filmmaker who grew up in New Brunswick. McIntosh’s work as director of photography is also superb, showcasing beautiful shots of the intimate details of the artwork. Besides Wabanaki Modern, McIntosh is credited with making seven other short films as well as working on numerous films, TV series, and video games as an actor since 2007.
The documentary will be shown on Saturday at 3 p.m. at a special event at the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, and the expo can be seen there until February 26, 2023.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.