By Adriana Añon
“I think it’s becoming more and more clear to people that we really need to look at the natural world and protect it,” says Mairi Brascoupé, who this year was named the first Indigenous artist-in-residence at the Diefenbunker Museum. “It isn’t new knowledge,” she says, “but sometimes it takes a shift in perspective and a moment of reflection to see what has always been there.”
You may remember reading about Brascoupé back in September 2020; she was one of three winners chosen to design Glebe Report and OSCAR newspaper boxes. As an Ottawa-raised Algonquin artist and designer, she draws inspiration from the natural world, blending traditional artforms with contemporary ones, as a means of sharing her peoples’ stories and ideologies while combining them with her own personal perspective.
One recurring theme in her work is the concept of place and our relationship to it. When she began her research at the Diefenbunker Museum, she was drawn to a collection of canvas floor maps which had never been unrolled or displayed. “They were huge,” she says, “and felt immersive because they were so big you couldn’t look at the whole thing at once.” Brascoupé was also inspired by the muted, dusty colours of the museum spaces and its environment, which resembled the tones of the maps. They made her think of vintage beads.
“I love things to be beautiful,” she says. “I reference the natural world a lot and I think the natural world is beautiful.” She hopes that the layering of beadwork on top of something as practical as the maps will not only emphasize their beauty, but also help us to rethink our concept of maps so that we understand them in a different way.
Brascoupé, who has a bachelor in fashion and costume-making from Ryerson as well as a masters in graphic communications design from Central Saint Martins University of the Arts in London, did her master’s thesis on the role of beadwork in Indigenous culture. In England her artistic path and career really took a turning point. Far away from home, she focused on what it meant to be an Indigenous artist. Until then, she had never been encouraged to delve into her Indigenous identity or bring that perspective into her work, even though she could see parallels between Indigenous creations and the fashion world of designers like Chanel, for example, who have a long tradition of highly revered hand-beaded work.
Brascoupé begins her beadwork designs with a sketch and then starts the patient, meticulous threading of four to eight beads at a time, depending on the design, after which she goes back with her needle and thread between the beads so that they are carefully tacked on. Her hope for the museum’s map project is to use a similar process and bead directly onto the canvas. It will mean having to scale up the work, but she hopes it will have the impact and effect of traditional beadwork. When working, she keeps in mind the Indigenous idea that beadwork must be done when the artist is in a happy mood, otherwise negative energy will be carried into the work. “I want to bring good energy into the work that I do. And when I have that good mood and that good energy it goes by quickly,” she says. “Time kind of disappears.”
Brascoupé is thankful to the Diefenbunker Museum for giving her the opportunity to do this work and play this role. “Growing up in Ottawa, we didn’t talk about Ottawa being Algonquin territory,” she says. “I never really saw Ottawa as the land of my family or my community. I think that’s shifting because people are acknowledging that relationship, and it’s given me an opportunity to acknowledge that relationship too.”
She hopes to unveil her finished piece some time this fall, when it will go on display at the Diefenbunker Museum. Until then, she will be busy working on this and other artistic pieces that are thematically connected, like the painting of a mural on Queen Street West near Spadina, which will examine the history of the name Toronto.
“A lot of the Indigenous folks around the world paved the way for environmental protection and really understanding the place that we live in, our relationship and our responsibility to those places,” says Brascoupé, “and I think that’s something that we should all reflect on.” Her work at the museum may be the invitation we all need to do just that.
Adriana Añon is a writer, teacher and Glebe enthusiast.