Emma Hassencahl, a Maliseet artist and fourth-year fine arts student, responds to the unresolved political injustices and systemic oppression of Indigenous people in her exhibition, “A Red Girl’s Rage.” The exhibition, which opened on Sept. 23 at START Gallery, includes topics such as the Tobique First Nations land claim, oppressive stigmatization and missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Hassencahl’s exhibition opened with a traditional smudging ceremony performed by Dorchester Mayor J.J. Bear. “Since the work is politically charged and people are going to take their interpretations whichever way they would like, the smudge not only welcomes people into our culture, but it [also] brings [them] a calming energy,” Hassencahl said.
Consistently political in her art, Hassencahl derives inspiration from topics she is currently learning about. For her latest exhibition she drew inspiration from Cherokee writer Thomas King’s novel The Inconvenient Indian and the documentary A Red Girl’s Reasoning by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, which inspired the exhibition’s title. “As long as I’m reading, I’m making work,” Hassencahl said.
Wearing a red dress, Hassencahl explained the significance of the colour red in her exhibition. “[Red is] a sacred colour to Indigenous people. We buried our dead with red ochre to preserve the bodies. It’s the colour we keep our medicine in,” she said.
Designed to compensate the Tobique First Nation for stolen land, the Canadian government’s $39-million settlement was accepted last week in a vote by members of the community. The Tobique land claim was one of the oldest land claims in the Maritimes.
Responding to the outcome of the vote, Hassencahl said, “A lot of people’s decisions are influenced by greed and that is never really something I believe in. First Nations people generally don’t believe that you can sell land [since] it is not something you can own. I was disappointed, but not surprised with the way the vote went.”
In the centre of the gallery stood a piece titled “Medicine Wheel,” in which beer bottles, needles and representations of cocaine and marijuana rest on different colours of the wheel.
The work’s description read, “‘If you can pick up a bottle or a drug to forget something traumatic in your life, you’re gonna do it’ – Someone I Love.”
Addressing the presence of drugs in “Medicine Wheel,” Hassencahl said, “People are not bad people because they do drugs. It’s a decision. I had someone explain it to me that way…I don’t understand first-hand what it’s like for someone with an addiction problem. For some people, it’s medicine.”
A quote by Brianna Jonnie, a Winnipeg teennager who wrote to police and government officials about missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2015, hung at the back of the gallery in large letters:
“And if I do go missing and my body is found, please tell my mom you are sorry. Tell her I ask to be buried in my red dress, for I will have become just another native statistic.”
On the day of Hassencahl’s opening, Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River in Ottawa. Hassencahl only found out after her exhibition. Pootoogook’s death, currently not being investigated as homicide, speaks to the discriminatory handling of Indigenous murder cases.
“It makes me angry because these cases are not being treated fairly. They make it seem like they are…No one wants to call it assimilation either, or colonization…it is also not through physical killing or relocation anymore, it’s through legislation. They can still wipe us out through the law and through the Indian Act because we are still bound to it,” Hassencahl said.
Hassencahl’s politically charged art aims to heal her community and educate the public about Indigenous issues. “I understand that my community, as a whole, is sick. I try to get people to understand or defuse the situation,” she said. “Even though I lost the [land claim] vote and was angry…I am a firm believer that if you’re yelling, people won’t pay attention to you.”
Art provides Hassencahl with the tools to effectively express her outrage towards the political injustices her community faces.
“A lot of my work comes from anger. Growing up, my mom used to say that nothing good comes from anger, but I would disagree. I think a lot of good things come from anger. A lot of movements are rooted in anger.”
You can view “A Red Girl’s Rage” until Oct. 4 at the START Gallery.