Held in the Hand: Beading and Family History as art practice in the work of Jobena Petonoquot and Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé

Jobena Petonoquot & Teresa Vander Meer-Chasse Curated by Lori Beavis

Mar 5 - Apr 17, 2021

Text by Lori Beavis
February 15, 2021

This digital exhibition1, Held in the Hand: Beading and Family History,  brings together work by two emerging artists, Jobena Petonoquot and Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé. Jobena Petonoquot is an Algonquin artist from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec.  Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé is an Upper Tanana member of the White River First Nation, Yukon and Alaska. Vander Meer -Chassé has been beading since childhood, while Petonoquot taught herself beading in her mid-20s.  

 

Title of artwork: 'My land is precious' (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Velvet, tea stained lace trim, beads, bell jar, spruce branches

‘My land is precious’ (2018) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Velvet, tea stained lace trim, beads, bell jar, spruce branches

For Jobena Petonoquot, the beads she places and sews into patterns are a way for her to sew down the memories and stories of family that she has heard throughout her life, and now holds within herself. As a non-Algonquin speaker, she explains that while she only knows a few words of Anishinaabemowin, through the beads and her art practice she can speak her language. And Petonoquot’s work resonates with the stories her maternal grandfather told, about his mixed heritage, his rejection of Euro-Canadian society, and the life that he made for himself and his family living on the land. Family stories told by her grandfather and her mother resonate across her work in such work as My Grandfather Trapped the Rabbit (2018).

Artwork title: 'My Grandfather trapped the rabbit' (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Velvet, beads, lace, Victorian bubble glass frame

‘My Grandfather trapped the rabbit’ (2018) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Velvet, beads, lace, Victorian bubble glass frame

Artwork title: 'Ode to my Grandfather' (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Deer hide, beads, satin ribbon and velvet.

‘Ode to my Grandfather’ (2018) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Deer hide, beads, satin ribbon and velvet.

Artwork title: 'I helped my mother as my feet touched the earth' (2021) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Deer hide, beads, velvet, embellished with floral work

‘I helped my mother as my feet touched the earth’ (2021) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Deer hide, beads, velvet, embellished with floral work

Likewise,  the beaded moccasins, Ode to My Grandfather (2018) and I helped My Mother as my Feet touched the Earth (2021) are evidence of the artist’s careful and patient work but also speak to her family’s, and in particular her grandfather’s ability to make his living and provide for his family through his knowledge of the land.  As footwear, moccasins symbolize connection to the earth—the floral beadwork reinforces the cyclical patterns of the natural world. In indigenous cultures, the making of moccasins is a way of sharing history.  The skills are passed down through the generations, and the beadwork tells a story.  In this way, moccasins bring together personal experience, family, community, and cultural survival.    

Artwork title: 'Reservation Bonnet' (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Beads, nylon thread, leather, teabag filled with dirt

‘Reservation Bonnet’ (2018) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Beads, nylon thread, leather, teabag filled with dirt

Artwork title: 'Resilient Repugnance' (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: fabric, beads, stained with earth, birch branch. Comprised of: Four baptism dresses suspended from a cedar branch

‘Resilient Repugnance’ (2018) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: fabric, beads, stained with earth, birch branch. Comprised of: Four baptism dresses suspended from a cedar branch

The Reservation Bonnet (2018), and the four vintage christening dresses in the Resilient Repugnance series (2018), are embellished with beads to both indigenize and reference the use of Christianity as a tool of colonization.  The beading on the bonnet and the dresses make connection to both a religious cross and the four directions.  The cross represents the way religion was used as a mechanism to justify atrocities upon her ancestors—the bonnet was dyed scarlet red to evoke the wrapping of wounds.  In contrast, the four directions symbolized in the bead patterns and the four dresses themselves are an Indigenous emblem and representation of all peoples of the world.  

Artwork Title: 'Deliverance' (photo series) (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Image 1) Buried dress Image 2) Dead bird Image 3) Sunrise Medium: Digital photographs Artwork Title: 'Deliverance' (photo series) (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Image 1) Buried dress Image 2) Dead bird Image 3) Sunrise Medium: Digital photographs
Artwork Title: 'Deliverance' (photo series) (2018) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Image 1) Buried dress Image 2) Dead bird Image 3) Sunrise Medium: Digital photographs

‘Deliverance’ (photo series) (2018) Jobena Petonoquot 1) Buried dress 2) Dead bird 3) Sunrise Medium: Digital photographs

 

Petonoquot wanted the four vintage gowns to be intricately beaded and very pretty. Herein lies the dichotomy of this work, as they were then soiled with dirt when she ritually buried and then dug them back up as a symbol of not forgetting and recognizing that we are still in a colonized situation. The three photographs, Deliverance (2018) document this performative exercise. Similarly, the sculptural Bringer of Death (2018) is an action of remembrance that unites memories of her father with the multi-faceted effects of religion and dogma on her family – positive and negative. 

‘Bringer of Death’ (2018) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Beads, lace & deer hide, wooden dowel rods, (found objects: teacups), cedar branches

The four intaglio prints, We All Drank Tea with the Queen (2012) were created at Concordia University, where Petonoquot experienced the dichotomy of identities between rural and urban, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and what it means to be an Indigenous woman.  She created the series after visiting one of Montreal’s many souvenir shops. Using the doll, teacup, beaver, and the iconic Group of Seven image of a jack pine, these prints draw a line between what is known and what is expected—as stereotypes and symbols of colonial presence and indicators that we continue to live in a colonized space. 

Artwork Ttitle: 'We all Drank Tea with the Queen' (series): 1) Good Little Indian 2) beaver pelt 3) teacup. Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Intaglio prints on rag paper, ink, glass beads.

‘We all Drank Tea with the Queen’ (series): 1) Good Little Indian 2) beaver pelt 3) teacup. Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Intaglio prints on rag paper, ink, glass beads.

Artwork Title: 'Ode to Thom Tomson' (2011) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Intaglio prints on rag paper, ink, glass beads

‘Ode to Thom Tomson’ (2011) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Intaglio prints on rag paper, ink, glass beads

With Colonial Souvenir (2019Petonoquot revisits the doll constructed to represent all Indigenous girls. The dolldressed in beaded clothing, has continued to be a marker from which she questions the meaning of identity -in this case the image is always out of alignment because identity can never be singular or straightforward. It is also a difficult image to read because the artist is asking non-Indigenous people to look further – to see her as a human. She often speaks of this need to be fully seen and recognized for who she is. She also wanted to be a little disruptive.

Atrwork title: 'Colonial Souvenir' (2019) Artwork by: Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Intaglio prints on rag paper, ink, glass beads

‘Colonial Souvenir’ (2019) Jobena Petonoquot Medium: Intaglio prints on rag paper, ink, glass beads

In the work presented here, Teresa Vander MeerChassé cites the strong women in her life – her mother, aunts, and grandmothers as her inspiration.  For the women in Vander MeerChassé’s life European-Canadian contact, colonization and the residential School system had an impact and has caused the need to re-learn and teach these skills to the next generation. In this way teaching and learning the skills of amongst others harvesting, sewing and beading, has been a return to heritage and expertise that is now being embraced by Teresa 

The first images in this digital exhibition give the viewer a close-up view of the materials – porcupine quills and backstrap sinew, Vander MeerChassé’s is harvesting and processing.2  

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

As this writer has learned from the internet, the backstrap is located on either side of the moose’s spine.3 Backstrap sinew has a wide, flat, splayed-out structure.  Animal sinew (from the tendon of an animal) is the whitish fibrous layer that covers the muscle or meat. It is removed and then dried in a smokehouse or by laying it in the sun. Once processed and dried, sinew is one of the strongest natural fibers known.  To use the sinew, fibres need to be separated, one blogger suggests using a “comb” technique to create thread-like strips, and finally the sinew threads are rehydrated – all of which means working in small batches. In contrast, Vander MeerChassé employed her own body in a more physical way – using her arms, hands,  fingers and teeth to separate the backstrap sinews. 

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

Vander MeerChassé holds her own and her family’s processes closely but writes of the confidence she has in herself as she works to pull apart the fibres – and in this process she is reminded of home and family. She feels proud of her work of awakening and rejuvenating materials and processes that she speaks of as sleeping.  For Teresa the more that she works with the “sleeping materials” the more connected she is with the ancestors. She also connects learning these new-to-her skills with her language learning – as she is revitalizing her own Nee’aaneek (Upper Tanana, Scottie Creek Dialect) language.  

With this new work-in-progress, Teresa is celebrating her maternal line as holders of knowledge In creating the – now three but eventually eight –  pillows Vander MeerChassé is envisioning a circle of women. In this circle, the women are gathering and working together – they are sewing and beading. In the centre of the ring there will be a mound of the backstrap sinews – the threads they will use to create their beadwork patterns.  

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

 

She has begun with her grandmother Stsǎy Ch’idzǜü (Grandpa’s Little Dancer); her other name is Marilyn John. The second is her mother’s name Tthì’ elgąy (White Head); her other name is Janet Vander Meer. The third pillow top is Teresa’s Upper Tanana name Ddhälh kït Nelnah. 

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

The next pieces to be completed will recognize her grandma’s namesake, Gàan dànihtl’įǫ (Arm Tied Up). Other pillows will be dedicated to Teresa’s great-aunt (also referred  as grandma) Nelnah (Strong Woman), her other name is Bessie Johngreat-grandma Nii’ii Jaiy (Hide Scraper); her other name is Cecily (Sicillia) Johnny and great-great grandma Laats’iih’ol which translates to the movement your hand makes cleaning moose guts; her other name is Skookum Lucy. The series ends with Teresa’s great-great-great grandma’s name Gàan dànihtl’įǫwho did not have another name. 

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

The pillows evoke the creation of a domestic or comfortable space though this would not always have been the case as the women worked and sat on the ground. The beadwork on the pillows represents another reclamation for Teresa as she has made the decision to stitch the mosses, lichen and rocks of the Yukon rather than create floral motifs. Nevertheless, even in the most challenging conditions there would be comfort and conviviality as the women worked and talked. Teresa has spoken of her earliest memories that bring beads and women’s voices together; when she sat at her grandmother’s kitchen table picking through colourful beads while her mother, aunt and grandmothers talk and laugh in an adjoining room.  

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé Image Credit: Christopher Walton

Another memory is one of sorting through a tin of loose beads or a “bead soup” and receiving her first sewing kit –one that had belonged to her great-grandmother. In her memory, the kit was similar to old-style wall pockets and held needles, some thread, a small roll of sinew, and scissors. Teresa recounted, “With my threaded needle, my grandma told me to pick out each red bead from the bead soup, then the yellow ones, then the white ones, and so forth. It was a slow process, and it would take me several years to understand why she made me pick each individual bead at a time. It was a lesson that took time, patience, determination and would ultimately lead to new and interesting ways of learning, teaching, and understanding the world and who I am as an Upper Tanana woman. 

 For both of these artists, their practice is a strong marker of their connections to family history and narratives. Beading’s intrinsic relationship with story-telling activates wholistic knowing and provides an outlet to collect, understand and convey knowledges in many meaningful and relevant ways within an Indigenous worldview – Algonquin and Upper Tanana, in the case of these two artists.  For Jobena and Teresa, the beads and related materials help express the stories that they need to tell.  

Every family has stories that are known and remembered across the generations and these stories stay with us, making us the people we are. In the case of this exhibition the stories and the beadwork create a bridge between the past, present and the future, thus inscribing in Petonoquot and Vander MeerChassé’s work an on-going presence and acknowledgement of the distinctive shifts of Indigenous culture. 

Footnotes

[1] The digital exhibition is acting as a placeholder for a physical exhibition at Artspace that will take place in September, 2022. The artists and I felt that in the midst of this pandemic with so many arts-related events postponed or cancelled that taking the exhibition to the web would be a positive way to look and plan forward.

[2] The first step in making quillwork was to acquire quills, whether directly from the porcupine or other means. The next step was to clean the quills and dye them using natural colourants from flower petals, roots and plants. Before sewing or weaving, women often moistened and flattened the quills by drawing them between the teeth or over the thumbnail, making them more pliable. Sewing and weaving patterns depended on the nation. .

[3] As you read this, if you reach back and roll your hands to either side of your spine you will feel the rounded muscle and that akin to the animal’s backstrap tendon.

In Conversation with Jobena Petonoquot, Teresa Vander MeerChassé. Jobena & Lori Beavis

Bios

Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé (b. 1992), known affectionately as Ddhälh kït Nelnah, is a proud member of the White River First Nation of Beaver Creek, Yukon and Alaska. She is an Upper Tanana visual artist, emerging curator, and MFA student at Concordia University.

Teresa was taught to bead by her Grandma Marilyn John, an Upper Tanana Elder and residential school Survivor, at the young age of eight. When Teresa’s grandma taught her to bead, she used the “watch and learn” method of teaching which allowed Teresa the space to explore and learn for herself. All the skills and techniques she developed were through self-taught methods of trial and error.

Teresa’s beadwork is inspired by the people in her life and those that came before. Her artworks often relate to the reclamation of oppressed voice, upcycling of the discarded, and ongoing preservation of Upper Tanana beliefs. The mentorship with her grandma now involves language revitalization, Traditional Knowledge sharing, and teachings around the processing of, what Teresa refers to as, sleeping materials.

Teresa strives to continue to make her family and community proud with the work she creates and to be a representative of Upper Tanana people wherever her artworks are shown.

Jobena Petonoquot was born in 1980 in Kitigan Zibi, Quebec. She has a bachelors in Fine Art majoring in Art History & minor in Photography from Concordia University (2012). Jobena’s art work flows mainly from her maternal grandfather of Anishnabe and Irish descent. Her art practice emphasizes resilience and pride in her aboriginal identitiy, as well as the defence of traditional values. Through beadwork technique and photography, she creates narrative works that are a critical and sensitive look at Canada’s colonial history, as well as highlighting the beauty of her culture and her love of the land. She was also co-collaborator of The Native Arts & Craft Initiative (2013-2014) with the Naskapi Community center, she also acted as an art instructor for this pilot project. She has contributed her work most notably to Walking With Our Sisters (2013-2019) curated and created by Christie Belcourt. Her work Drinking Tea with the Queen and My Grandfather Trapped the Rabbit has been featured in Kanata McGill Undergraduate Journal of Indigenous Studies at McGill University in Volume 6 & 7. Jobena is the first Indigenous winner of the Impressions artist residency (2018) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art with the support of Conseil des arts de Montréal (CAM) which is a two months-long research residency, followed by a solo exhibition with of work by the artist. Rebellion of my Ancestors has also been exhibited at the Warren G Flowers gallery in (2019). In (2020) her artwork has been featured in the BACA Bienale at Art Mur in Montreal, Quebec, and her work has been exhibited in the Bead by Bead group exhibition at Gallery Meteque in Montreal, Qc. Her work is also collected by the Indigenous Art Centre in Gatineau, Quebec. Currently she is part of a project called Artroduction (2021) created by Galerie 3 in Quebec city, and her artwork will be featured in a duo exhibition online at Artspace Gallery in Peterborough, Ontario.

Lori Beavis is a curator, art educator and art historian living and working in Tiohtià:ke/ Montreal. Identifying as being of Michi Sagiig (Mississauga) Anishinaabe and Irish-Welsh descent, she is a citizen of Hiawatha First Nation at Rice Lake, Ontario. Her PhD (Concordia, Art Education 2016) investigated the intersections between life-long art experiences and cultural identity in the lives of four contemporary Indigenous women artists. Her curatorial work, art practice and research, articulates narrative and memory in the context of family and cultural history, and reflects on cultural identity, art education and self-representation. Her curatorial project, co-curated with Rhonda L. Meier, The Rebel Yells; Dress and Political Re-dress in Contemporary Indigenous Art (2015) brought eleven artists from across Canada to Montreal to further the conversation on art, identity and self-representation. In 2016, she curated recent work by Shelley Niro at The Northern Front Studio, Whitehorse, YK. In 2019, Beavis curated solo exhibitions with Shelley Niro (Haudenosaunee) at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, Jobena Petonoquot (Algonquin) at the Flowers Gallery, Dawson College, Montreal and with Barry Ace (Odawa) at FOFA Gallery, Montreal, and a group exhibition, In/Visible: the body as Reflective Site, a co-curatorial project with Maria Ezcurra and Natasha Reid at the McClure Gallery, Westmount. Since March 2020, Beavis has worked as the director of Centre d’art daphne, Tiohtià:ke’s first Indigenous artist-run centre. She serves on the Executive of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective/ Collectif des Commissaires Autochtones (ACC-CCA) Board of Directors.