Backstitches


“Colonialism broke us, and we’re still figuring out how to love and be broken at the same time.”

-Billy-Ray Belcourt


One of the lessons you are first taught when learning how to operate a sewing machine is the importance of using a backstitch to finish a seam. Forward, then back. The backstitch locks everything in place, going back to where you once began is a necessity or else, in time, the garment will fall apart.

This powerful and repetitive action provides the framework for reprise by Melissa Tremblett. The word “reprise” means to return to an earlier passage in a piece of music. In the context of this exhibition, it refers to Tremblett learning from her lived experiences as an Innu woman and from her ancestors. As she sifts through the movements of her life while sitting at her sewing machine, she transcends colonial notions of time and space by mirroring and embodying the creative practices of her grandmother, Madeline Michelin. 

reprise is a resilient and vulnerable declaration of selfhood that is grounded in her personal growth and healing. This space is charged with agency as Tremblett presents to the viewer the ways in which colonial trauma has impacted her life, territory and community. In the wake of the suicide crisis in Sheshatshiu, Labrador, this exhibition arrives at a time of absolute urgency and acknowledges how deeply Indigenous people feel the internal, ongoing and lasting effects of colonization on the body and spirit. 

In navigating these conditions and their influence on her life, Tremblett looks to her past while engaging in methods of art-making that are intuitive, ancestral and therapeutic. A pair of long exposure film photos harken to a series of self-portraits Tremblett created in 2013 in which she playfully used props to create dynamic sources of light and intimately work through her relationship to her own body. Between these portraits is a cascade of birch bark fragments. This constellation of self-portraiture recognizes intimate parallels between her body and the bodies of trees. Tremblett calls attention to bark as protective (s)kin, a living relation acknowledging the interconnectedness between the artist and the land that shapes her.

It is important to recognize that, like the land, the Indigenous belongings at The Rooms can also be considered living relations. For Tremblett to bring these ancestral objects into the public is an act of reclamation, and a way to tell Innu stories. Although conversations surrounding collections are changing and there are efforts to decolonize museum and gallery spaces across Canada and internationally, too often Indigenous people cannot access their own objects and cultural teachings from the vaults of historically colonial institutions. 

Tremblett braided inspiration from caribou jackets and her own mental health journey in the creation of the two coats on display in reprise. The dark and fraying strait jacket symbolizes her experiences with past traumas of an eating disorder and addiction, and the light grey jacket focuses on honouring her body and spirit in the present. Not only is garment-making an act of remembering and connecting with her grandmother, Madeline, it is a reactivation of traditional practices and rematriating the embodied knowledge of Tremblett’s ancestors. 

As Indigenous researcher Dr. Lois Edge discusses: “In beadwork, there are often two pieces of beadwork that are replicated as a reciprocal or mirror image of the other… these two halves of a beadwork design when viewed side by side as positioned on the right and left sides of the human body come together in the form of a symmetrical whole.” 

This concept of mirroring resonates within Tremblett’s exhibition. She learned to make tea dolls from holding and recreating the dolls made by her grandmother. Displaying the dolls of Tremblett and Michelin together shows a continuum of Innu knowledge that draws connections between past and present, while also procuring a future. 

Revisiting and repetition is embedded within the ancestral fibres of our bodies. We go back because we know that means moving forward and creating a future for the next generation. We live in a world where Indigenous existence and lands have been threatened with eradication, healing ourselves is one of the most radical acts we can do to help our communities. It is in this vulnerable space created by Tremblett that as Indigenous people, we find love between each other and do the best we can to fill in the cracks. 


This essay was commissioned and published by The Rooms to accompany the exhibition melissa tremblett: reprise from Feb 28 2020 - April 26 2020. 


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