A packed house bore witness to a powerful pair of ceremonies at the Campbell River Art Gallery on Saturday, May 7.
Guests squeezed themselves into every available nook and cranny in the gallery’s lobby and awaited the 2 p.m. start.
Reserved murmuring went silent when Shawn Decaire’s booming voice filled the small space.
He joined with Cory Cliffe and Avis O’Brien in a smudging/unveiling ceremony, setting the tone for what would be a moving afternoon for all present.
In the centre of the room was a blanketed artwork, which was revealed to be a small child’s school desk, covered with elaborate cedar weaving.
The installation is part of the Distant Relatives exhibition, which will be running at the gallery until November. It is meant to represent the desks sat in by residential school attendees, and the medicinal cedar covering is an attempt to heal the wounds still held by survivors of the institutions.
It was conceived of by Haida/ Kwakwakw’wakw artist, Avis O’Brien, and brought to fruition with the help of Liǧwiłdax̌w youth and elders from Cape Mudge on Quadra Island.
The art gallery’s executive director, Sara Lopez Assu, said the gallery received funding from the BC Arts Council to run workshops in remote indigenous communities, and this was one example of its success.
“The goal was not for the Campbell River Art Gallery to determine what those workshops were going to be,” she said. “It was really community lead, and community informed.
“Avis was our artist facilitator for Cape Mudge, and she felt in speaking with elders, and youth, and residential school survivors that they needed to process some of the feelings coming out of the discovery of the 215 in Kamloops, and Avis works in cedar ,and she knows the powerful medicine in cedar, so that’s what they decided to do there.”
Following that, the two new murals which grace the front and rear entrances to the gallery were unveiled.
The identical pieces were inspired by a recently deceased lady who was a member of the city’s unhoused population.
Her name is currently being withheld, as she is a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth community, where tradition dictates that the deceased name not be spoken or printed until a year has come and gone since their passing.
“She was well known,’ Assu said. “She would spend most of her nights on our doorsteps, and most of her days were spent at Spirit Square.
“She always had the biggest, brightest smile.”
The idea for the murals came from the mind of her partner, Charles Jules of the Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h’ First Nation. He had some difficulty creating the artwork itself, so recruited his uncle Paul John of the Ehattesaht-Chinehkints First Nation to help with the design.
Once he put those on paper, local Liǧwiłdax̌w Kwakwaka’wakw artist, Sonny Assu, took the drawings and digitized them to come up with the final product.
Assu, John, and Jules embraced, and many tears were shed at the unveiling.
A blanketing ceremony was also performed for Jules, who was joined by his brother visiting from Courtenay, as well as his community’s hereditary chief, and her daughter.
The event was filled with people from all walks of life, which Assu was very pleased by.
“It was amazing to have people here physically,” she said, noting there were politicians sitting next to unhoused people.
“Everyone was welcome, and had a reason to be here and come together.
“It was the beautiful mix of people that I found impactful, more so than the actual number of people who came.
“People were drawn and wanted to witness and raise their hands to these incredible artists and the work that they’re doing within the community.”