Manitobah x Belcourt x Pendleton: Q+A with Christi Belcourt

BY SELENA MILLS

This painting is a mirror.

Take a look at how I see you.

It reflects back every time you helped someone. It reflects back those moments when you were kind. Every selfless act. Every seed you planted. Every plant you watered or spoke to. Every animal you helped. Every good deed. It reflects back every time you were compassionate and cared for anything in this world.

It reflects back the beauty of your spirit.

This painting is a mirror. This is how I see you.”
~Christi Belcourt, Nov. 19th 2017 (6:50 am), posted with an image of one of her stunning paintings.

Christi sees the work that she does as a way of life, “art is a vehicle that lets me contribute to the things that inspired the art in the first place,” a responsibility she takes seriously. Currently a lead organizer for the Onaman Collective which focuses on the resurgence of language and land-based practices, she is also the lead coordinator for Walking With Our Sisters, a community-driven project that honours murdered or missing Indigenous women. Her work Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead) commemorates residential school survivors, their families and communities to mark the Prime Minister’s historic Apology in 2008 and is installed at Centre Block on Parliament Hill commissioned by the Government of Canada.

In 2015, Christi was named the Aboriginal Arts Laureate by the Ontario Arts Council and more recently, she won a Governor General’s Innovation Award and was named the winner of the 2016 Premier’s Awards in the Arts. Her pieces are permanently on display in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Gabriel Dumont Institute, the Indian and Inuit Art Collection, Parliament Hill, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and Canadian Museum of Civilization, First People’s Hall. Christi’s piece ‘The Wisdom of the Universe,’ was voted the number one “People’s Choice” favourite as seen in Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.

When I asked Christi to share a bit more about her ethos as an artist, her humbled response was refreshingly uncommon for someone of her accomplishments. She told me she didn’t really care about talking about herself or her art, that she leaves that to others, finishing with a solid assertion that everything she does, everything she creates, is for her love, deep respect for Mother Earth and the traditions and knowledge of her people.  

How did the opportunity to dig into this project transpire?

“When Manitobah reached out to me, I was like, HELL YA! We’ve worked together on a number of things in the past and they’ve always a pleasure to work with and so positive. We talked a lot about what kind of artwork would look good on a blanket and we all wanted something different than what Pendleton has done in the past. This is how adapting an existing monochromatic design of mine came about and I was happy to choose a piece that resonated with the brand in style and quality. I mean, Pendelton has been making beautiful wool blankets for generations. They’re warm, make a fine curtain at the lodge and are the go-to giveaway for ceremonies and gatherings. My working relationship with Manitobah has been nothing but a pleasure — I like it when people can meet me where I’m at because I’m very busy! Ultimately, the important thing to me in working with another company is that if we are going to rise as nations, we need to support and buy from Native for Native businesses to propel one another into the mainstream economy.”

You are SO busy! As a widely respected community-based artist, environmentalist and advocate for the environment and Indigenous peoples, how does your art practice intersect with your advocacy and youth work?

It’s not about the art. It’s about what you can do with the art to contribute to the world around you and make it better. I want my art to be put to good use and to be of service in whatever way it can be. There is a need for all of us to do something about the environment and climate change. Science is catching up with what the elders have prophesized. There is going to be major economic collapses. Coral reefs, trees cut down, Entire waters are being destroyed. The whole of the world needs to wake up to that and art is a very important medium. We need to change the way we’re doing things and get a little uncomfortable in order to make sacrifices for future generations. I think of things in terms of the work itself, so what’s important to me is the work that I’m doing. Whether that gets out to the public or not, is kind of secondary. I don’t consider success to be associated with my career, as others would see it. I see success associated with also doing good work for the land and the people.”

Why is it so important to talk about appropriation?

“There is a huge, mainstream learning curve that needs to happen especially around Indigenous “inspired” and cultural designs, which is not being respected right now. In our culture, a lot of our designs have personal, ceremonial, familial or spiritual meanings. Integrity goes adrift when copying from someone without permission, which is part of why it so important to have a respectful approach to design and art within the fashion industry, for example. There are many fashion designers who are Indigenous and would be amazing to collaborate with, but it seems that some of the bigger fashion houses are not acknowledging that.”

I was wondering about your process when in creation mode. Do you have favourite places to paint?

“In solitude is always the best. I like to be at home, where I can have something cooking. When I work I start early and end in the wee hours of the morning. I like working all day without many breaks.”

I bet you’d all L O V E to see the blanket now, yes? It’s live and ready just in time for the holidays!

About The Author

Selena creates digital content and shares stories, wrangles children and cooks delicious food. When the chaos permits, she’s a 4 seasons gardener and permaculture enthusiast. A perpetual dabbler, she has been known to freelance as a brand designer, stylist and artisan. Clearly, she doesn’t like rules, but she really likes kids and helping other women get organized, cultivate self-confidence and time to nurture themselves. If you’re into recipes, free printables and general family/maker BTS footage, find her on Facebook and Instagram.

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