Eruoma Awashish takes T-shirt art on Quebec powwow trail
First Nations artist uses T-shirts as her canvas, speaks out about indigenous issues
By Caroline Nepton, CBC News, Sept 3, 2015
Powwow fans in Quebec were surprised and intrigued this summer by the original T-shirt design sold at a tiny kiosk by visual artist Eruoma Awashish.
“I want one,” said a man with a crooked smile, at the powwow in the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, Quebec. He was looking at a T-shirt with an original design made by the Atikamekw First Nations artist. It is an iconic image of a Mohawk warrior and a Canadian soldier during the Kanienkehaka resistance in Kanehsatake, or Oka crisis, in 1990.
The “face to face” is satirically framed within the Quebec licence plate with the province’s slogan Je me souviens (I remember).
Awashish, in her mid-thirties, clearly remembers the Oka crisis as a 10 year old. “I was seeing violence against our people on television. Even in our community we felt discrimination from that crisis,” said Awashish.
As an artist, Awashish is inspired by dialogue and encounters between aboriginal people and non-aboriginal Canadians.
She knows not everyone can buy a painting or one of her many installations. Now she creates T-shirts that emphasize identity and give a sense of belonging to Indigenous Peoples, and offers up her original designs on the powwow trail.
“I was going to powwows and saw many T-shirts with wolves, a river and an Indian face, but I wanted more so I used my art and … [I] share it in a way that anyone could have access to some of my messages.”
‘What I am, I owe to my family’
Awashish grew up in the Atikamekw community of Opitciwan, deep in the woods on the shores of the Gouin reservoir, about 300 kilometres from the closest city, Chibougamau, in northern Quebec.
She has a Quebecois mother and Atikamekw father. She had to build a strong sense of identity to live with these two distinct cultures.
The history of her community is similar to that of many other aboriginal communities in Northern Quebec: flooding due to hydroelectric development; dislocation; residential school.
But the Atikamekw people have a strong bond to the land. Their language is struggling but alive. There is pride in the traditions and knowledge of the ancestral culture.
“What I am, I owe to my family. My Kokom (my grandmother) is the one who taught me through her silences. This is being an Atikamekw.”
Awashish has a Master’s degree in art from the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Her first solo exhibition, Reliques et passages, was presented at the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal this year.
It is about cross-cultural issues and metamorphosis. Suffering and injury are themes she often addresses because she believes that suffering can become a passage to transformation and transcendence. Her work is full of symbolism and spiritual juxtaposition. She likes to play with contrasts, duality and the concept of transculturation (exchanging elements of different cultures) to create a hybrid work where identity and memory are predominant.
But not many artists can make a living from their artwork.
“I had to find a solution, and selling T-shirts that meant something to me and to the people wearing them came to mind.”
Awashish admits it has been hard work. “Starting a business is not easy.”
She feels lucky to be supported by her parents, the band council and other organizations in her community of Opitciwan.
“This summer at the powwows was good,” says Awashish
“I will also put up my internet page this fall to sell on line and have contracts with locations like Galerie Ashukan in Montreal, for sales.”
She was able to stay even with her investment this year, but still has work to do to make sure she has enough for the winter months. Next stop: Akwesasne, Quebec, on Mohawk territory.