To begin, I hope that I will be forgiven for saying that I have followed KC Adams’ practice with great interest for quite a while now. In fact it’s been almost two decades since I first saw her work in the 2001 exhibition Cyborgs at Gallery 1C03 in Winnipeg. By 2006, I was working as the curator at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba where she was exhibiting her solo show, Transcendence. At the same time I was also finishing my graduate work with a thesis that used the historical trading post as a model for exploring cultural convergence in contemporary Canadian art. One of the artists whose work I examined was KC Adams and I’ve been invested in the progression of her artwork ever since.
Adams is a Cree and Ojibway artist based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba working in a variety of media. Back in 2006, her work was primarily focused on her “Cyborg Hybrid” series, an ongoing collection of slick photographic portraits depicting Indigenous arts and cultural workers comfortable in their use of technology. The images are photoshopped to remove any blemishes, the skin darkened, and the contrast to their stark white background made to pop. Each participant wears a white t-shirt beaded with a difficult racial slur: “Savage,” “Scalping Is In My Blood,” “Dirty Little Indian”. Viewers are caught between the attractiveness of the image and the discomfort of apprehending the words.
What moved me at the time of my graduate research was Adams’ use of technology in her artwork to explore ideas of identity and kinship. As I examined the model of the historical trading post in Canada, technology seemed especially relevant in this meeting point where trade, peoples, and rivers often converged. I employed Harold Innis’ text, “The Fur Trade in Canada,” as a guide and was particularly interested in the role played by water systems for transportation and trade within these structures. While we can see the role of river systems in helping to build up Canada as a nation, it remains clear that water had an important role for Indigenous people on Turtle Island long before the arrival of colonization.
Much like a river, Adams’ practice has continued to flow and in 2020 Adams has proven herself to be a trailblazing artist. Over the years she has led the way in experimentation with new media and discourse. Adams’ latest solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba curated by Alyssa Fearon is entitled Gage’gajiiwaan meaning, “water flowing eternally brings people together,” in Aniishaabemowin. While the show may seem miles away from her earlier work, Gage’gajiwaan marks the trajectory of a mid-career creator who is assured in herself as an artist and a valued member of her community.
At the centre of Gage-gajiiwaan are Adams’ “Birch Bark Technologies,” a series of multimedia interactions set on a birchbark backdrop that is subtly patterned with the outline of computer circuit boards. In “Birch Bark Technology: Gage'gajiiwaan,” Adams uses blue glass beads to create what looks at first glance to be an abstract shape of connected lines and circles. There is something familiar about the shape, even without apprehending that what is depicted here is a map of lakes and waterways. According to Adams, this piece is the inspiration for the meaning of the exhibition’s name. The map is based on a drawing made by Chief Chachayhaywati (Cha chay way wa ti) in 1806 and covers parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Northern Ontario, and North Dakota. Communities throughout these regions have been connected in the drawing by the Chief’s depiction of the riverways that operated as highways and the lakes representing sites of settlement. The Chief’s knowledge of these waterways and communities was not one informed by technologies of satellite mapping; instead, the technologies of the birchbark canoe serve as a means of navigation and transportation. Adams’ use of the birchbark in her artwork points to that relationship while the incorporation of the circuit board recognizes links of knowledge, innovation, and adaptability of changing times.
Adams’ piece “Birch Bark Technology: Copper Thunderbird” brings together the birch bark background and computer circuit board with a geometric design that is reminiscent of traditional parfleche styles of many Plains groups. Using this as her canvas, Adams has overlaid pieces of thin copper wire that trace along the geometric angles with a linear patterning. By closely following the lines of the copper, we see that it takes the shape of the traditional thunderbird, a supernatural being of great strength. This is Adams’ copper thunderbird, a sacred and powerful being whose image represents the natural world and beyond. The copper wire and inherent power of the thunderbird also lead one to consider the modern relationship between hydroelectricity, technology, water, and Indigenous land rights. While Adams’ voice may remain oblique in reference to the latter, her work does not shy away from the intersections of art and activism.
“Birch Bark Technology: Morning Star” takes its inspiration from the Assiniboine design of the morning star, closely resembling a star blanket quilted from pieces of birch bark. Adams also looks to the words of Oglala Lakota holy man and healer Black Elk who she quotes as speaking to the morning star as follows:
“Morning Star, there at the place where the sun comes up, you who have the wisdom which we seek, help us in cleansing ourselves and all the people, that our generations to come will have light as they walk the sacred path. You lead the dawn as it walks forth, and also the day which follows with its light which is knowledge. This you do for us and for all the people of the world, that they may see clearly in walking the wakan - holy - path, that they may know all that is holy, and that they may increase in a sacred manner ..." (KC Adams, email communication, March 19, 2020).
I wrote earlier that Adams’ current work may seem miles away from her older art pieces and yet the differences are not so stark. We still see her exploring issues related to the relationships between technology and nature. But as her practice has progressed she has gone deeper with considerations of the role of the ancestors, the role of the sacred, and the role of elements such as cedar, copper, and of course water. As “water flowing eternally brings people together,” so too will Adams’ practice continue to build upon itself as it flows like a river connecting the past and present, the sacred and the everyday, the natural and the technological.
-- Jenny Western, 2020
Gage’gajiiwaan (Water flowing eternally brings people together), a solo exhibition by Cree-Ojibway artist KC Adams, reflects on the relationships between ancestral knowledge, memory and the sacredness of water. Using a variety of media, including copper, pottery and “birch bark technology,” the exhibition is a visual reminder of the knowledge bundles (traditional teachings) that are passed onto the next generation of life givers and water protectors. Mazes of digital circuit boards along swaths of birch bark reveal the dynamic relationship between nature and technology; copper and clay pottery, created using ancestral methods, reflect traditions of caring for water. The exhibition asks: How can traditional ways of being in relation with water guide relationships to water in the future? Can ancestral knowledge systems inform new technologies of caring for water in Indigenous communities? In the context of limited access to safe drinking water in too many First Nations communities, calling attention to the inherent sacredness of water is critically important. In this exhibition, KC Adams shares her ongoing personal endeavor to recall lasting pathways of blood memory and transmit knowledge of traditional relationships with water for future generations.
KC Adams (Cree, Ojibway) is a Winnipeg-based artist who graduated from Concordia University with a BFA in studio arts. Adams has had several solo exhibitions, group exhibitions and been in three biennales including the PHOTOQUAI: Biennale des images du monde in Paris, France. Adams participated in residencies at the Banff Centre, the Confederation Art Centre in Charlottetown, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Parramatta Arts Gallery in Australia. Her work is in many permanent collections nationally and internationally. Twenty pieces from the Cyborg Hybrid series are in the permanent collection of the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and four trees from Birch Bark Ltd, are in the collection of the Canadian Consulate of Australia, NSW.
Grandmother Sherry Copenace - Niizhoosake, Saagimaakwe, Atik n’dodem (Elk Clan), Midewewin. Born and raised in the community of Ojibways of Onigaming, which is located in Northwestern Ontario and on the east side of Lake of the Woods. Sherry is firm in her ways of knowing and being Anishinaabe. Sherry speaks her original language—Ojibway—and has a great love for the Land and Waters. Since 2011, Sherry has led a renewal of Makoosekawin- Anishinaabe young women coming of age teachings and ceremonies. She is part of a Knowledge Keepers Circle at Nanadawegamig (FNHSSM). Sherry helps at Anishinaabe Teaching and Sacred Lodges. Sherry has her MSW degree and is associated with several institutions and organizations who continually engage her for her knowledge and lived experience.
Alyssa Fearon is a Jamaican-Canadian curator, educator, and arts worker. She currently holds the position of Curator at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba and is based on Treaty 2 territory (Brandon, Manitoba). She has held positions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the New York-based Independent Curators International, and has taught at the University of Toronto Scarborough, York University, and Brandon University. In 2018, she was Curator for the inaugural Scarborough zone of Nuit Blanche Toronto. She holds an MBA from the Schulich School of Business and an MA in Art History from York University. She is also a Salzburg Global Fellow.
Jenny Western is an independent curator, writer, and educator based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She holds an undergraduate degree in History from the University of Winnipeg and a Masters in Art History and Curatorial Practice from York University in Toronto. While completing her graduate studies, she accepted a position at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon where she held the position of Curator of Contemporary / Aboriginal Art and later became the AGSM’s Adjunct Curator. Western has curated exhibitions and programs across Canada and she makes up one-third of the Sobey Award nominated art collective the Ephemerals. Western is of European, Oneida, and Stockbridge-Musee ancestry as well as a member of the Brothertown Nation of Wisconsin.