Faye HeavyShield at the Winnipeg Art Gallery – Qaumajuq

By Jenny Western

Faye HeavyShield is one of those artists whose work is so tasty and precise, yet whose practice has been befuddlingly under-recognized by the gatekeepers of the art world. Case in point: this is perhaps her first full solo retrospective exhibition in a nearly forty-year-long career that has included being exhibited at The Power Plant, The National Gallery of Canada, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. HeavyShield is a woman of the Blackfoot (Blood) tribe in the Kainai territory who began her art career at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary in 1983. Over the decades she has honed her signature style – one that is both minimalist and deeply considered when it comes to content, form, and materials.

Faye Heavyshield, Survive, 1985, mixed media on canvas (Indigenous Art Collection, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada; photo: Lawrence Cook)

This exhibition, originally mounted by the McKenzie Gallery, is a much-needed opportunity to view the progression of her practice as it has transformed from mixed media works on canvas to installation pieces incorporating sculpture, photography, and more. The work is subtle, often repetitive in concept, but refreshingly new in execution each time. The oldest work in the show, Survive from 1985, is a mixed media work on canvas that provides clues to where HeavyShield’s practice would take her; the subtlety and minimalism are clearly apparent from the get-go.

Faye HeavyShield, Aapaskaiyaawa (They are Dancing), 2002, acrylic on canvas, acrylic paint, beads, plastic filament (collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery)

Untitled from 1992 and Aapaskaiyaawa from 2002 are standout showstoppers and placed accordingly at each of the gallery entrances for full effect. Their scale is human-sized, which serves to draw audiences into engagement. The former invokes the layout of the Sundance lodge while the latter recalls the dancing of the ancestors. Aapaskaiyaawa is simple – just folded painted canvases suspended from the ceiling – but it’s also everything: hoods, cradleboards, spectral figures moved by the movement of viewers walking past, the suspended canvases casting shadows as they sway and dance in the breeze of the air conditioning.

Faye HeavyShield, Red Dress, 2008, nylon, cotton, metal and paper tags, glass beads (collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts)

Red Dress from 2008 is the most colourful and least abstract piece in the show: a soft sculpture reimagining of a historic plains’ woman’s dress. But here HeavyShield has replaced the customary elk teeth with paper archival tags. The accompanying wall text tells us how the artist, when she visits Indigenous artifacts in museums, speaks Blackfoot to them because it has likely been a while since they have heard that language. As exhibition curator Felicia Gay explains: shifting the gaze from artifact to art rightly affirms Indigenous culture as vibrant, living, and animate.

Gay contextualizes these works as a form of storytelling, and, as with any story, it can “grow, or ebb away, it can hide itself or seek you out.” HeavyShield’s work is so sparse in some ways; it can’t be easy to place these pieces in a cavernous gallery space and keep people’s attention. But people stay, they sit and look, kids take photos with their iPhones, folks linger just a bit longer, coming back to their favourites. These quiet works make viewers lean in a little closer and really consider the gift that HeavyShield has been offering them all these years.

The Art of Faye HeavyShield continues until August 27.
Winnipeg Art Gallery – Qaumajuq: https://www.wag.ca/
The gallery is accessible.

Jenny Western is a curator, writer, and educator who lives in Winnipeg.