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Square roots

Textile mosaic paints picture of Canada with handmade panels contributed by immigrants and First Nations groups

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It sounds like a far-fetched dream: an epic quilting project in which every immigrant or aboriginal group in Canada would be represented by one fabric block.

No matter what country or First Nation you originated from, if you went to see the quilt, you would find a beautiful handmade panel that affirmed your membership in the Canadian family.

If you wanted to participate in making the textile mosaic, you'd be welcomed and supported, whether you were a full-time artist or someone who had never made any kind of art.

That was the vision of Ontario artist Esther Bryan, herself an immigrant who was born in France to an American mother and Slovakian father. Over a period of six and a half years, with help from hundreds of Canadians, she made the dream a reality.

Quilt of Belonging consists of 263 squares, representing all of Canada's 71 First Nation, Inuit and Métis groups and 192 immigrant nationalities.

Measuring 3.5 metres high and 36 metres long, the massive collaborative artwork has just been installed in Eckhardt Hall on the main level of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

WAG director Stephen Borys notes that it will be on view through the Folklorama festival. While many would label it craft rather than art, the WAG is working to break down those distinctions.

"It's an extraordinary work of art," Borys says. "We are trying every day to engage more diverse audiences... and the workmanship is outstanding."

The vibrant tapestry, first exhibited in 2005 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is a metaphor for peaceful diversity. Each cultural identity co-exists with all the others, and all are interconnected.

"I wanted to show that there's a place for all," says Bryan, 59.

Every panel is a labour of love by an individual or group. Many incorporate treasured textiles or heirlooms brought by refugees from their home countries.

The panel for Finland includes a miniature woven birchbark basket, given to a Finnish woman when she was a child and her family had to evacuate during the Second World War.

Craft techniques range from embroidery, beading, felting and weaving to knitting, lacework, batik and appliqué.

Tiny objects sewn onto panels include a sandal (Djibouti), a fiddle (Métis), a sheathed dagger (Yemen), a carved mask (Mozambique) and a wooden bowl (Fiji).

Other materials in the quilt include abalone shells, amber from Lithuania, bobbin lace, caribou hide, porcupine quills, sealskin, 200-year-old German linen and Guatemalan worry dolls.

The extraordinary panel for the Central African Republic is made from butterfly wings.

Bryan, a warm-mannered painter, started the project in 1998. Through research she found that as of the year 2000, at least one person from every nation on Earth was living in Canada.

She and a volunteer team in her Ontario village, Williamstown, started inviting immigrants to make squares expressing their culture or story. If more than one artist or group wanted to represent a nation, the organizers asked them to co-operate.

No country got special treatment. "Very often, (immigrants from) different countries would ask us how big the American block was going to be, and how many blocks the Americans would have. We would say, 'One -- the same size as you.' They were so delighted."

Immigration records showed only one person living in Canada from several tiny countries, such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and San Marino. Their names could not be released because of privacy laws, but Bryan wouldn't give up on finding them. Over a period of years, she did interviews and named the countries for which she was seeking representatives.

Finally, the mother-in-law of Canada's lone resident from Kiribati -- an island nation in the central Pacific -- happened to hear her plea on TV. That's how Bryan found Baiaa Teangauba, who had married a Canadian teacher. Fibre artists helped him make his panel, incorporating pieces of a coconut-fibre sleeping mat, a smocked blouse and cowrie shells.

"When he saw it, he said, 'That's me. That's my home,'" Bryan says.

Many immigrant and indigenous participants -- and viewers -- have wept at seeing their people and culture recognized as part of Canada's family portrait.

"They can't believe their story is being told," the artist says.

The project has an extensive website at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2011 G3

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