Cree artist Mackenzie Brown can’t remember a time when she wasn’t making art. For her, any surface she could find became a canvas.
“We had a little area underneath the stairs that was tucked away, and my mom one day found me underneath there,” said Brown. “And I had painted this whole mural with my fingers and acrylic paint all over the staircase.”
Painting the walls was just the beginning. Brown now uses her art as a way to interact and connect with people, while sharing traditional Indigenous mediums in innovative ways.
According to the City of Calgary, less than three per cent of the city’s public art collection contains pieces by Indigenous artists. This means that of the roughly 1,300 pieces in the collection, only about 39 were produced by Indigenous creators.
But both the city and artists like Brown are hoping to change this narrative, while creating and curating pieces highlighting Indigenous experiences and their contemporary orientations.
“Inherently innovative, Indigenous” art
Growing up in the small town of Edson, Alta., Brown says having artists for parents helped to nurture her creativity and love of art.
“I was always really influenced by art and always had art around.”
Brown didn’t go to school to become an artist, instead pursued a degree in child and youth care at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. Her hope was to enter into music and art therapy, while assisting and giving back to her community.
But when the opportunity to work with Indigenous Tourism Alberta (ITA) appeared, Brown decided to take it and now works as the ITA’s director of industry development. There she gets to combine her knowledge of art and music with supporting emerging Indigenous artists and entrepreneurs.
“It’s made me a better worker, even though my degree wasn’t traditionally in business development or anything like that, but because I’m an Indigenous artist and I’m relational, that has helped me to succeed.”
In addition to being an acrylic artist, muralist and traditional beader, Brown is also a storyteller, singer and drummer. She says this multidisciplinary approach reflects the ways Indigenous people have always used whatever was available to them to create art.
“Taking these mediums and mashing them together is kind of an inherently innovative, Indigenous thing to do.”
Judy Anderson, associate professor of Canadian Indigenous Studio Art at the University of Calgary, agrees. She says fluency in multiple mediums can create a “more holistic” approach to telling a particular story or conveying a specific message.
“There’s always this involvement of multidisciplinary in there somehow. I really see Indigenous people as embodying performance and installation quite a lot in their work.”
For Brown, her art and music are constantly informed by her Cree heritage, serving as a way to express her experiences as both a traditional and contemporary Indigenous woman.
“I have these two worlds that I balance, but I like to dance in between them,” said Brown. “I like to honour my traditions and traditional ideologies and motifs and florals … But then I like to represent them in a very modern kind of way with bright colours and interesting shapes.”
A contemporary art form
Julie Yepishina-Geller, public art liaison for the City of Calgary’s Public Art Program, says the city is “actively” working to address the gap in Indigenous artistic representation.
“We’re really looking at ways to strategically grow the collection to include more Indigenous artwork and to also enable more Indigenous, people of colour and newcomers to Canada to see themselves reflected in the art that we have around the city,” said Yepishina-Geller.
Six years ago, the city started the Moh’kinstsis Public Art Guiding Circle which involves Indigenous artists representing all of Treaty 7 working to guide and advise the public art program.
Building a more diverse collection is a process, she adds, relying on fostering trust with Indigenous artists and communities while working towards commissioning larger pieces of art.
Yepishina-Geller says currently the city has put out a call for artwork by Indigenous artists in the hopes of digitizing it, while also initiating an Indigenous placekeeping program to create spaces for Indigenous artists and performers within municipal buildings.
Anderson says similar programs not only help artists discover spaces for their work, but also show others the intrinsic cultural value of their work.
“When we look at old art, we see the value in it because … it embodies culture. When we think about how we treat contemporary artists — not just Indigenous artists, but artists, period — it is not like that.”
Brown explains how on the surface Indigenous culture and art is seemingly traditional and historical — rooted in the past more than the present. But it’s more than that.
“We’re a living, breathing culture, and being innovative has always been a part of who we are as people.”
While Brown has traded staircase finger-paintings for canvases and buildings, her art continues to grow and change with her — a fluid progression as dynamic as her culture.