Exhibition honors Wabanaki history

Arts & Culture Featured

By: Jordyn Tibbetts, Guest Writer

The Maine Historical Society’s, “Holding up the Sky”, artwork captures a cross-cultural view of Wabanaki Art. Wabanaki people have been in what is now Maine and Canada for at least 13,000 years. the tribes that are considered Wabanaki are Wolastoqewi (Maliseet), Mi’gmaw (Micmac), Panawahpskewtəkw (Penobscot) and Peskotomuhkatiyik (Passamaquoddy). The word Wabanaki brings these tribes together as “The people of the dawn.” They make new crafts and create new adaptations to their changing environment. This exhibit explores the importance of keeping cultural artwork alive and distinguishes the diversity of all the artwork created within the Wabanaki community —including both modern artists and historical objects.

There are countless historic baskets in this exhibit, coming from many different Wabanaki people. One of the first eye-catching historical objects is the decorative basket made in 1940 named “Wabanaki Basket”. The basket is beautified by a combination of ash, dyes, and sweetgrass. Another historic item included is a “fancy porcupine-weave” basket made in 1862 by Penobscot’s Molly Molasses—also known as Mary Pealgie Nicola.–and contributed by the Abbe Museum. While most baskets made in this era were considered souvenirs for tourists, Molasses’ pieces were considered art. This was because of the finite details she worked into her weaving technique. She folds porcupine quills in half, and points them facing upwards, making them appear as if they are coming out of the sides of the basket. These quills were expertly woven together with tiny strands of ash. These are only two of the many items that embody the history of Wabanaki artwork.

There are also empowering modern artists in this exhibit who capture the Wabanaki story. For example, Fred Tomah is one of the modern basket makers who has strived to capture the beauty in basketry. Tomah was a highly respected basket maker in the Wabanaki community, coming from the Wolastoqiyik tribe in Houlton, Maine. Some of his most famous baskets are displayed in this exhibit, including his “Katahdin Series Basket” created in Houlton, 2010. This basket is made with wood specially cut from an ash tree, and pigmented in dyes. It is a black and white basket woven with a circular opening at the top, but square at the bottom. The bottom four corners are meant to symbolize the four Wabanaki tribes.

Gina Brooks, another artist featured in the exhibit, is a member of the Wolastoqiyik community in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In 2018, she created what she refers to as an “Indian” jacket, made from an American Eagle leather jacket, painted with acrylic. Through this jacket and much of her other artwork, Brooks strives to express the historic meaning of her people. She believes a Native person still identifies as an “Indian”. She bravely changes the insult to an empowering word which can be claimed back from ignorance with honor.

This jacket is painted with a large, abstract portrait of Indigenous people surrounded by symbols. Above them are numbers offensive terms used by the Canadian Government to distinguish people only by being either half (50) or full (01) Native decent. She also emphasizes the two words “Indian” and “scared.” This all represents the journey of hardships and reconnections Indigenous people face. Brooks personally prefers abstract painting and using acrylic paint, saying that it better catches viewers’ eyes and allows artists to express their message and emotions in a limitlessly creative style. The modernist influence of Brooks’ work can be seen in her ability to find new meaning in derogatory words with a disgraceful past. She also creates emphasis on the journey Native Americans faced to become what modern society deems acceptable.

Other art by Gina Brooks includes acrylic on canvas board. Her artwork creates a way to express stories of Indigenous people, as well as expressing their connection to Mother Nature and their ancestry. One of Brooks’ abstract canvas paintings that is displayed in this exhibit includes “The Journey Home”. This canvas board is painted with acrylics and oil pastel and shows blue people on a canoe, with crows nostalgically watching over them—maybe even following them. This is one of the few paintings in this exhibition inspired by cubism. The position of the men’s arms and the direction of the boat conveys movement within the painting. It expresses her journey through her own life, and how she learned her identity as an “Indian” women.

The displays in this exhibit offer viewers a look inside the story of Wabanaki people, Maine’s history, adaptation to environmental changes and personal views. Other than Brooks’ paintings, much of this exhibit shows both a modernist and realist influence. Contemporary basket makers have shifted from making utilitarian pieces to creating more decorative baskets.

Realism is also very common in many of the displays within this exhibition. For example, Fred Tomah created baskets with a realist influence by including representation of a butterfly or an eagle with simplicity.
The cross-cultural exhibit “Holding Up The Sky” is a stylistic demonstration of the social hardships and extreme lifestyle changes that Native Americans were forced to overcome due to white people migrating and stealing their homeland.

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