“I think we’re about to get started,” boomed a voice from across the room. The chatter seemed to settle. “Would everyone please stand in a circle.” The family members, friends, and those from the community complied and promptly formed into a misshapen oval amongst the art hung in the START Gallery on Lorne Street.
The night began with a smudge. Dorchester Mayor JJ Bear walked around the room carrying a smoking bowl of sweet grass. Those attending stood and watched the smoke billow across the gallery as their eyes, ears, mouths, heads and bodies were covered with the vapour. Mi’kmaq and Maliseet prayers were spoken, wishing well for the evening. Emma Hassencahl was seated on a pedestal in the middle of the room, dressed in a faux-leather Halloween costume – adorned with fringe and plastic beads – which was originally marketed using a racist and offensive term for indigenous women.
“I’ll be on display,” said Hassencahl, and the crowd chuckled.
When I spoke to Hassencahl at the gallery the next afternoon, she said the smudge ceremony was something she really wanted for her show.
“It’s supposed to bring in a positive energy because [the exhibition] is really political, and some people might not understand, or get angry, or be offended,” said Hassencahl.
Hassencahl’s show, “Indian Women of Indian Blood,” is indeed politically charged. Her pieces reference the Indian Act, Stephen Harper’s indifference to missing and murdered indigenous women, protests, and our culture’s misshapen and caricatured version of what an indigenous person looks like.
Growing up, Hassencahl was interested in politics and wanted to be a lawyer. Her grandmother, an activist, supported her dreams of studying law. Once Hassencahl was accepted into the fine arts program at Mount Allison, she knew it was the right choice. However, Hassencahl still wanted to channel her passion for politics regardless of what she decided to study.
“I’m just going to have to do this my way I guess,” she recalls thinking.
Hassencahl said that her favourite piece in the exhibition is White Flag, which comprises shredded strips of the Indian Act superimposed over the Canadian flag. The tiny bits of white paper cover the red pales and maple leaf in the center, and bits of red peek through the spaces in between.
“That’s my baby,” said Hassencahl. “I learned so much during that project, not even just about the Indian Act but about patience and what I wanted it to say. That one really pushed my art.”
The title of Hassencahl’s show was also inspired by the Indian Act. She wanted the name to demonstrate the importance of politics and indigenous women to her exhibition, as well as criticize the dated language of the government document.
“It’s stated in [the Indian Act] multiple times: ‘indian person with indian blood,’” said Hassencahl. “It says indian all the way through. There’s no ‘indigenous,’ there’s no ‘First Nations,’ and ‘indian’ is a derogatory word.”
Flags also appear in much of her work. Another piece depicts a woman from the chest up. Her body is covered with faceless Idle No More protestors, all of whom carry flags.
“Flags show pride,” said Hassencahl. “I do work with [flags] a lot because I am proud, and I want other people to be proud.”
Hassencahl was delighted that the exhibition’s opening event was well-attended by such a large and enthusiastic crowd, among them JJ Bear and Mt. A’s Indigenous Affairs Co-ordinator Doreen Richard.
“I’m still just kind of taking it all in,” said Hassencahl. “There’s [been] so many nice things said and a lot of good people were there. I’m really thankful.”
Hassencahl’s exhibition will be on display at START Gallery until Oct. 6.