The Winnipeg Foundation is seeking to establish three new art installations at The Forks National Historic Site designed to promote reconciliation and to restore the prominence of the region's Indigenous roots.
"We all know that public art speaks to what's important in a city," Foundation chief executive officer Rick Frost said at a press conference Thursday to an audience that included the three Indigenous artists commissioned to create the pieces.
"You go to Washington, D.C., and you see the public art there and you have a sense of where you are. When you come to Winnipeg and you see the public art we're going to have, it's starting to tell the story of who we are."
The Winnipeg Foundation will have the three pieces installed at a cost of $500,000 over the next two years to mark the province's 150th birthday in 2020, and the 150th anniversary of the first federal treaty with Indigenous people in southern Manitoba (Treaty 1) in 2021.
The choice of the setting was equally significant: Niizhoziibean, formerly known as South Point, across from The Forks, is a forested peninsula known for its Indigenous history.
Ojibwa elder Mary Courchene (also the grandmother of one of the selected artists, Jaimie Isaac) invited people to close their eyes as she painted a picture in words of what the peninsula looked like before European contact.
"This place was here. It was vibrant and, this time of year, was always vibrant. All humanity that belonged here were here, all Indigenous people before what it looks like today. It was a place of gathering," Courchene said.
Artists KC Adams, Val Vint and Isaac are connected to the location, having collaborated on a recent $1.2-million sculpture to honour its Indigenous heritage. Unveiled last fall, Niimaamaa was also supported in part by The Winnipeg Foundation.
The first of the three new pieces will be installed next year on the central Niizhoziibean pathway. Education is the New Buffalo, created by Vint, is a bison that will rise three-metres high and be constructed from metal replicas that resemble books and videos.
"This is a piece that I believe will affect folks in a positive way and assist in setting the course for a small part of the understanding of the truth that leads us all toward reconciliation," Vint said.
The second piece of is a concrete sculpture by Adams, to be placed near the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2021. Friendship depicts the Cree spirit Wesakechak. A deliberately ambiguous piece of art, it portrays first contact and it reflects the mixed history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in the region.
"We are currently experiencing an exciting and positive resurgence of Indigenous culture, however, it is not without painful reminders of the obstacles we all face," Adams said.
The third piece of art — The Eight and Final Fire, by Isaac — will rest near the monument to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the Oodena Circle. It will feature eight spherical globes lit internally by solar panels of various colours.
"The Seven Fires prophesies of the Anishinaabe was conceived a very long time ago, and poignantly foretells the coming of the settlers to Turtle Island (North America) and the complexity of the relationships throughout history," Isaac said.
The installation will tell the stories of the seven fires and the prophesy about the eighth that will shape the future, she said.
"What the unveiling of these three pieces today does is continue the history beyond Niizhoziibean," The Forks Foundation executive director Clare MacKay said.
"The public pieces that you shall see here will connect all the way through (The Forks) site to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights... amazing public art created by amazing, kick-ass Indigenous female artists who deserve all the superlatives they've been given."
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.