The Land Remembers

Anshinabe artist Celeste Pedri-Spade is bringing her vision of strong women in community to The American Museum & Gardens, using fashion to explore how stories and experiences of Indigenous and European women both connect and disconnect, and using her work to remedy the past.

Dress to Redress is an exhibition of the work of contemporary Anishinabe artist Celeste Pedri-Spade. Featuring a series of spectacular wearable-art pieces, personal artefacts and photography, alongside historical items, the exhibition will demonstrate the continuing legacy and profound importance of visual and material culture.

‘Ashinabe’ describes a collective group of First Nations peoples belonging to that particular cultural and linguistic family. Celeste, from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation in Northwestern Ontario – who has a PhD in visual anthropology and is an Associate Professor at Queen’s University – is committed to honouring the women in her life through her art practice and exploring the tactile and sensuous meanings made possible through creative entanglements with our material environments. The exhibition focuses on the role of strong women in community, using fashion to explore how stories and experiences of Indigenous and European women both connect and disconnect. Exhibition curator Kate Hebert says, “The honouring of strong and powerful women is one one of the things that really attracted me to the work and that’s why they are all outfits for women – in this form Celeste combines traditional indigenous techniques from indigenous nations across North America.”

Reversing historical narratives
Inspired by designs and materials, Celeste uses her work to remedy the past, revising male-dominated historical narratives that fail to recognise the powerful role that women have played in their respective communities. Five fashion art pieces from Celeste’s ‘Material Kwe’ series – ‘Kwe’ being Anishinabeg slang for woman or girl – were launched at the Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto in 2020, and these form a centrepiece for the exhibition. Also featured are photography and personal objects from Celeste’s collection, and a selection of items from the American Museum & Gardens’ permanent collections. These are designed to provide historical context and will showcase the breadth and beauty of Native American culture and heritage. These objects demonstrate ‘traditional’ materials and techniques that were used by those who walked this earth before Celeste, and that she continues to combine with modern techniques as a way of honouring her community and addressing the past. There will also be interactive components in the exhibition encouraging visitor participation. Kate Hebert explains that it was necessary to sensitively translate the themes within this work into an exhibition. “Celeste’s work addresses issues of decolonisation, which is always going to present a challenge to me as a European white woman, and we had to bring that to a Bath audience. So getting that balance between ensuring that our visitors understood and were able to engage with the work but not take away the artist’s voice was an interesting process.”

Long Live the Matriarch
The power and nobility of women is reflected with the beaded top hat and eagle claw stick in this outfit, both reminiscent of the crown and sceptre worn by European queens. The heavy necklace of many strands of horn pipe beads and meegus shells reminds the wearer that with this wealth comes a weight of responsibility.

Biboon Na Kwe (Winter Woman)
Biboon na kwe acknowledges the close relationship Anishinabe women have with the land they live on. Wiigwas (birch bark) is a material that is central to the Anishinabe ways of life. By combining this material with Colonial European fashions, Celeste questions how contact between these cultures may have been different if Indigenous culture had been privileged.

A visual history
The exhibition makes the point that written history is often used to impose colonial views of past events, ignoring and overwriting Indigenous teachings. Through her Material Kwe outfits Celeste introduces us to the act of making as a way of telling and understanding history, just as the Anishinabeg use material culture
to record and share their history. This way of communicating was unfamiliar to colonial settlers and was consequently dismissed and often violently destroyed. Through her work, Celeste invites us to reconsider how we document and convey stories of the past and share our values and our culture.

Surrounding lands
Another key theme in the exhibition is the importance of the lands around communities. Throughout Anishinabeg history women have served as stewards and protectors of their ancestral lands. The land offers up materials, such as the birchbark within the exhibition. Women then make those materials into objects that carry with them a rich visual and material culture of the land itself. It is impossible to ignore the link between land and people because it is right there, on the bodice of a dress or in the wood of a club.

Kate Hebert says: “As part of the exhibition we’re playing some footage from the models on the catwalk from the Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. It’s really wonderful to see them being worn and lived in and moved in. I was struck by how Celeste had chosen the backdrops in the photographs, positioning them outside, with a strong relationship between the landscape and the garment. We’ve tried to recreate that in the gallery, creating backdrops that mirror the ways the models are looking, almost like vignettes, so each outfit is given breathing space, as if they have been reunited with their environment.”

This exhibition offers a visual language through which both Anishinabeg and settler women can see themselves in relation to each other. It is a call to see the Anishinabeg women as stewards of their people and their land.

Dress to Redress is at the American Museum & Gardens until 3 July. Celeste Pedri-Spade will be visiting the museum at the end of May.

First displayed photograph: Anti-Pipeline Society Kwe | The ribbon skirt is worn by indigenous women from several different nations and gives the wearer strength by reminding her of women’s collective voice, courage, and the resurgence of the matriarch. Here Celeste has adapted her ribbon skirt by adopting the wide skirt shape common in mid-17th-century European dress.