mitsujuk | kussikuashu | kpitni'sewet | they sew


The act of threading a needle and stitching is important to many traditions in craft; these threads span generations, and are connections that the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit of this province have distinct cultural relationships to. mitsujuk | kussikuashu | kpitni'sewet | they sew presents the work of Alex Antle, Vanessa Flowers, Flora May, and Melissa Tremblett -- four emerging artists with practices grounded in craft. The intimate works in this exhibition demonstrate how these women exercise their political and creative sovereignties by caring for their histories and kinships through radical acts of stitching. While braiding together reclaimed materials, Indigenous temporalities, and labour of their bodies, Antle, Flowers, May and Tremblett show us the nuances of craft specific to these lands. The artists in this exhibition acknowledge the enduring craft traditions of their ancestors and other Indigenous craftspeople throughout Ktaqamkuk, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut, and Nitassinan.

This exhibition has been made possible through generous funding from Arts NL, the City of St. John's, the government of Canada, and the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Curatorial Essay

I remember opening up the Femme Summer issue of Canadian Art, and immediately turning to the essay The CurrentComes From There by Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator, Lindsay Nixon. Nixon begins their essay by speaking to the experience of what it’s like working with Indigenous women and kin: “Their faces were flush with a feeling I know well:the rosy glow created when surrounded by iskwewak (Indigenous women) who support you, lift you up and know how to make you laugh.”[1] I know that feeling too.

mitsujuk | kussikuashu | kpitni'sewet | they sew is the gathering of work by Alex Antle, Vanessa Flowers, Flora May, and Melissa Tremblett – four emerging artists with practices grounded in craft from what is now colonially known as Newfoundland and Labrador. In navigating the history of sewing specific to these lands, the intimate works in this exhibition demonstrate how these women exercise their political and creative sovereignties by caring for their histories and kinships through radical acts of stitching. The works embody intergenerational knowledges that have been shared and passed down through their families. 

What drew me to the work of Vanessa Flowers was her close relationship with her grandmother, Andrea Flowers, and how her craft practice is so entwined with her kin. For her, sewing and creating is about that connection and spending time with her family from Hopedale, Nunatsiavut. As a skilled seamstress and maker, she creates many things including seal skin boots, mittens, keychains and dolls. However, her favourite thing to make is slippers: her gathering of stories is mirrored in the knowledge she demonstrates while gathering and stitching the hide to create the rounded foot of a slipper. She hosts slipper-making workshops with her sister Veronica, teaching others and sharing the knowledge they have learned.For many people, sewing is an activity done as a collective, with one-another.It was at a local sewing group with her grandmother and friend Sarah Jenson where she learned how to make her first pair of slippers. These sewing groups are cyclical, and often correspond with the seasons. Winter is a time for burrowing, sipping cups of tea, and sitting around the table sewing and sharing stories.

A large part of Flora May’s practice as an artist is the research she has done with medicinal plants. Embroideries of these plants adorn her handmade quilts, often using natural dyes and hide. The seasonal gathering and harvesting of these materials requires patience, skill, and an intimate knowledge of the land; the embroidery in her creations acknowledge the medicines used by her ancestors and are specific to her territory of NunatuKavut.  

The geometric patterns embedded within Ukiak (Autumn) Quilt reference creations in Inuit Dolls: Reminders of Heritage, a text by Eva Strickler and Anaoyok Alookee that compiles the expertise of dollmakers from Northern Canada. Despite their coverage of dolls from one end of the country to the other, they neglect to include any dollmakers from Labrador. Unfortunately, this absence is not uncommon. Dr. Heather Igloliorte, Inuit Art Historian and the curator of SakKijâjuk:Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, has identified throughout her research that in “publications on modern Canadian Inuit Art, Labrador Inuit artists and craftspeople are almost completely absent.”[2] With this in mind, exhibitions like mitsujuk | kussikuashu | kpitni'sewet | they sew have a responsibility in bringing to the forefront the practices of artists and craftspeople from Labrador.

The doll that informs the colour palette of Ukiak (Autumn) Quilt was created by Arnauyok Tuluralik, a woman from Taloyoak, Nunavut (formerly known as SpenceBay).  The doll is wearing an ukutaliq, a men’s parka from the Inuvialuit Region.[3] The geometric patterns are informed by the piece work on a traditional caribou parka of a doll made byMary Algona from Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly known as Coppermine).[4] Piece work refers to“decoration done on traditional fur parkas by piecing different shades of fur together.”[5] Flora combines hand embroidered patterns and designs from these dolls with work done with sewing machines. These designs are translated and transformed into new objects that hold these traditions and stories in the form of a tied quilt, a style that Flora associates with quiltmakers from her home in Labrador. 

A common thread throughout the conversations had with the artists was that sewing and stitching was a way for them to feel connected to their cultures, to close the geographical distance when they were working or living away from their home territory. Feeling grounded while working away from Elmastukwek (the Bay of Islands) is something I struggle with as well. Alex Antle began sewing and beading asa way to connect to her home in Grand Falls-Windsor while she was living in St.John’s for her post-secondary education. She uses several techniques of beadwork with precision and skill, from applique to brick stitch to loomwork. The driftwood loom that was created with help from her father holds Na’ku’setlike a bridge between past, present, and future for all our relations in Mi’kma’ki. Her favourite craft that she produces and what she is most known for through her business, “Bunchberry Beadwork”, are her earrings. The colour of the beads and designs are influenced by the land and water of Ktaqamkuk. Her Kmtn Earrings capture the layers of ice and snow that coat the land in the winter time, as kmtn is the mi’kmaq word for ‘mountain’. 

Melissa Tremblett has told me that not many people know how to make traditional Innu tea dolls anymore. For her, the act of making these teadolls is a deeply personal and familial way of her learning more about her Innu heritage and the transmission of knowledge. Traditionally, each doll had a seam where the body was filled with loose tea. The doll was intended for the children so they could help their families transport supplies – teaching them the importance of responsibilities and helping their community. 

Melissa can recognize the maker of the tea doll based on the stitches of the mouth and eyes, for each maker has a distinct style.She told me about how the dark teal and purple fabric of the dress used in the making of one of her dolls in this exhibition reminded her of her grandmother, Madeline Michelin. Madeline was a renowned self-taught craftsperson who began making teadolls when she was twelve. I am honoured that the work of Madeline is shown alongside of Melissa’s tea dolls, and fills my heart to see Melissa carrying on the legacy of her grandmother and ancestors in her art practice. She often considers how many Indigenous cultural objects and teachings remain in the hands of institutions instead of in their communities where they belong. Her work is about creating spaces of vulnerability and entry so her family and others can access their own knowledge and histories. That’s why it is so important that these artists create the work that they do – they keep traditions alive and hold space for all of the stitches their cousins, aunties, grandmothers, and kin have ever sewn. 

The bundle of customary stitching practices in this exhibition acknowledge the enduring traditions of Indigenous craftspeople throughout Ktaqamkuk, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut, and Nitassinan. Whether it is a tea doll, a pair of moccasins, or a medicine bag, these objects hold spirits and teachings from our ancestors and are tied to our land and water; they are connections that the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit of this land have distinct cultural relationships to. These artists show contemporary ways of making that braid together reclaimed materials, Indigenous temporalities, and labour using their bodies — mitsujuk | kussikuashu | kpitni'sewet | they sew is an act of collective gratitude to honour our histories, stories, and Indigenous communities of this province.

-Emily Critch, Curator

[1]  Lindsay Nixon, “The Current Comes from There” Canadian Art, Summer 2019, 60-63.

[2]  Heather Igloliorte, “Tending the Kudlik: Four Generations ofTradition and Innovation on the Labrador Coast,” in SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, eds. Meg Taylor and Ruth Gaskill(Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions and The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundlandand Labrador, 2017), 7.

[3] Anaoyok Alookee and Eva Strickler, Inuit Dolls: Reminders of a Heritage, eds. Patricia Michael (Toronto, ON: Canadian Stage and Arts PublicationsLimited, 1988), 117.

[4] Ibid, 149.

[5] Ibid, 7.

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