Cheyenne Henry at Third Shift, Saint John

By Jon Claytor

As rain fell steadily on the city, Third Shift Festival of Public Contemporary Artworks artist-in-residence Cheyenne Henry led a small group of Indigenous women in a procession through the Saint John City Market. Each was wearing a ribbon skirt she had created with Henry’s guidance. Henry sang and played a drum. The audience was invited to follow. We were silent, captivated by Henry’s powerful voice. When the procession ended, we could ask questions. “There are no stupid questions!” Henry said with a smile. We heard about the cultural and personal significance of making a ribbon skirt. How each skirt tells a unique story. The participants shared their stories of the skirts they had made and a common theme emerged. Each one told a story of family, community, and connection, of mothers, fathers and grandparents. There was an atmosphere of openness and sharing that I have never felt before at an art event. The piece was called Seeking Mino-bimaadiziwin (The Good Life), and that title might be the clue to unlock the work’s meaning. Where is the good life? How do we seek it? There was a lot more to this than could be experienced that night.

Cheyenne Henry, Ann LaBillois, Kaitlin Cullen, Tara Van Lunen, Jasmine Hawkes-Solomon (photo: Cheyenne Henry)

Henry explained to me that the work for Third Shift began long before that night. She said the idea came to her immediately when she was asked to be the artist-in-residence. She knew she wanted to make ribbon skirts and to make them with other Indigenous women. Henry is an Anishinaabe woman originally from Winnipeg, Treaty #1 territory, who had been living in Mi’kma’ki, Kjipuktuk (Halifax) for many years, but had recently relocated to Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). She told me that the search for collaborators was really the beginning of this project. Fate led her to meet Keilidh Corkill, who is an organizer of the No More Stolen Sisters group in Halifax (a group dedicated to raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada). Corkill shared with Henry that she had never made a ribbon skirt, but really wanted to. Henry asked Corkill if she knew of any other women who might also want to make skirts. Soon Henry was introduced to a group of about twelve local Mi’kmaq women all eager to make ribbon skirts. They started meeting online and in person, and worked away at their designs and plans. Their enthusiasm was palpable. Henry said they did a lot of talking and planning and getting to know each other. She said that was a huge part of what the project is about, that this project was primarily about the women involved and their bonding with each other.

(photo: Cheyenne Henry)

Henry’s ability to be open, honest, and inclusive spread throughout the audience the night of the procession, drawing them into a unique experience with the artists and the work. She communicates through the tool of community organization. Her artistic practice has always been based in community. Her piece Trans Regalia (Winnipeg, 2007) invited Pow Wow dancers to ride the transit system of Winnipeg in full regalia and to engage with commuters, answering questions, and having conversations. She, in her words, “creates acts of disruption, reclamation, restructuring, and evolutions of space/place and the relational, in reference to social, political, and cultural barriers and expectations that confide Indigenous artistic practices.” In a similar way her Third Shift project also aimed to engage community on several levels. She does this by creating space, reclaiming space, and activating space with her ideas for unabashed intervention. Not surprisingly the theme of the festival, which Henry chose, was reclamation. And that’s exactly what her project does. It reclaims as it creates.

(photo: Cheyenne Henry)

Artists often state that the process is more important than the results. That’s true for this project. It’s all about the artists’ time spent together talking, laughing, and creating. But somehow, some of the magic of those work sessions was felt during the procession. It resulted in a visceral feeling that the audience was in the presence of something much bigger than the present moment, that what had come before and what was to come for these creators was of more importance than that small moment in time when we were standing there. You might think that that feeling would take away from the experience, but it truly made it all the more powerful.

Third Shift Festival of Public Contemporary Artworks:

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick.