Manitoba Indigenous artists’ beaded masks selected for national exhibit in Banff

By | September 8, 2020

Two Indigenous artists from Manitoba have been selected to have their beaded masks showcased at a national exhibit in Banff. 

Handcrafted masks from Cynthia Boehm, a Métis and Cree artist based in St. Andrew’s, Man., and Brenda Davidson, a Métis artist based in Thompson, will be among 45 masks featured in the Breathe. collection at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in September. 

The Breathe. project was started by two Métis artists, Lisa Shepherd and Nathalie Bertin, in Ontario and British Columbia at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through a Facebook group, Shepherd and Bertin called out to Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to create beaded face masks that are not necessarily intended to be wearable — and as a result, they received submissions from all over the world. 

Cynthia Boehm is a Cree and Métis beadwork artist, who was born and raised in Norway House, Man. 

Boehm created two beaded masks in April. For her first mask, titled Resilience, she used black wool and antique, metal-faceted beads that were commonly used in the 1800s but are rare today.

Cynthia Boehm’s Resilience mask has been curated by the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre in Scotland. (Submitted by Cynthia Boehm)

She beaded a traditional floral design that was common in Europe at the time and used fox braid cloth for the ties. 

She said beading the masks helped her cope with the pandemic. 

“I felt a sense of fear, a sense of uncertainty, not knowing what was going on with this pandemic,” Boehm said. 

Some of the antique beads Boehm used for her Resilience mask. Boehm said these beads were common in Europe in the 1800s, but today, they’re rare. Antique beads are also smaller and harder to bead. ( Jaison Empson/CBC)

Boehm said the mask represents her Cree and Scottish ancestry. On her father’s side, Boehm’s great-grandmother, Sally McLeod, was from Fort Severn First Nation in Ontario and her great-grandfather, Donald McLeod, was originally from Isle of Lewis, in Scotland. 

Boehm’s Resilience mask has been curated by the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre in Scotland for permanent collection. 

“Many more years later, this mask is going over to his homeland made by his great-granddaughter. So to me, that’s really special,” Boehm said. 

“It made me think about the past century and the pandemics the world faced. I thought of our ancestors, how resilient they were. They lived and survived through various pandemics, from the past they endured, so that gave me hope,” she said. 

Cynthia Boehm’s Optimism mask has been selected for the Breathe. exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. (Submitted by Cynthia Boehm)

Boehm’s second mask, titled Optimism, was selected for the Breathe. exhibit. Made from smoked deer hide from Norway House, Man., it has red lace, white fur pompoms and bright, bold beadwork. 

Boehm said her second mask uses a style of beading common in Norway House. It was inspired by her grandmother on her mother’s side, Jane Mary Sinclair, who is known in the community for exquisite beadwork and sewing. 

“I learned to walk in beaded mukluks and wraparounds my grandmother made, so the bead work on that mask represents a time period. It’s actually my interpretation of the mukluks that were created at home,” she said. 

Boehm spent a month working on the masks, sewing and beading for approximately seven hours a day. She said beadwork is part of her cultural roots. 

Boehm and her grandmother, Jane Mary Sinclair. Boehm said her grandmother’s work in Norway House inspired her. Jane Mary Sinclair was known for her exquisite beadwork and sewing in the community. (Submitted by Cynthia Boehm )

“It was something that was almost a lost art form,” she said. 

“To be able to do that work today, to me, that’s a beautiful part of my Indigenous culture.… It means a lot to me to keep it going and I want to tell those stories through my work.” 

Strength and hope in My Girl: Brenda Davidson 

Brenda Davidson is a Métis artist based in Thompson. Davidson said she was inspired to make her own mask after seeing Boehm’s work posted in the Breathe. Facebook group. 

At the start of the pandemic, Davidson said she began spending more time with her 19-year-old daughter Julia, who wasn’t working because of the lockdown. 

Brenda Davidson’s My Girl mask has been selected for the Breathe. exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. (Photographed by Mollie Pajic and submitted by Brenda Davidson)

“She had to stay at home for quite a while, and I could see the effect that was having on her. I think a lot of people are feeling anxious, and I know that I certainly was,” said Davidson.  

Davidson said she and her daughter would often drink tea together and share stories about their family history. That inspired Davidson to create a mask for her daughter — her mask, titled My Girl, has been selected for the Breathe. exhibit. 

Brenda Davidson is a Métis artist based in Thompson, Man. She created the My Girl mask, which was selected for the Breathe. exhibit. (Submitted by Brenda Davidson)

“I made it for my daughter because of the time that we spent together, seeing how resilient she was and how strong she was. I wanted to represent that with lots of roses,” she said. 

Davidson’s mask has two wild roses beaded on it. It’s made from bright blue melton wool and has pink and blue ribbons attached as ties. Davidson said she used a mix of beading, silk embroidery and birch bark biting, taught by Cree artist Pat Bruderer, for the mask. 

Davidson said the mask also symbolizes hope and healing, as she was thinking about families who were affected by COVID-19 and weren’t able to be with their loved ones. The rose petals and rose hips are also very medicinal, she said. 

After the mask was done, Davidson’s daughter modelled it and had her friend, Mollie Pajic, photograph it for the exhibit. Davidson said Julia wanted to wear it without makeup to symbolize the seriousness of the pandemic and what everybody was going through. 

Brenda Davidson’s daughter, Julia, models the My Girl mask. (Photographed by Mollie Pajic and submitted by Brenda Davidson)

My Girl has already been sent to Banff, but once it comes back from the exhibit, the mask will be gifted to her daughter, Davidson said. 

“It’s very touching, I think it’s important and I think it’s helped Julia just after everything we went through,” Davidson said. 

“This was a reconnecting for us both — to reconnect with our Métis heritage and our Métis culture. I think she feels the same way. I think it’s pretty powerful for both of us.” 

The Breathe. exhibit at Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies starts on Sept. 24 and runs until Jan. 17.

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