Arts North East executive director Haley Bassett has been keeping in touch with her roots, and debuted a new exhibit this month at the Ceremonial Art Gallery in Vancouver.
Titled Peace Maker, the exhibit showcases a series of traditional Métis fire bags - all themed with plants found in Northeast BC.
Bassett says the title works thematically on several levels - being born and raised in the Peace Region, and creating art which reflects the natural flora found there.
“My work is about how time and place and history inform our identities and current circumstances,” said Bassett. “And so for me, the Peace Country is a large part of that and it’s a very strong theme in my work.”
“The name Peace Maker is sort of like a double entendre, sort of a pun. The Peace made me and I’m a maker in the Peace, and it’s sort of like a reciprocal relationship,” she added.
"A lot of my work has to do with Métis identity and the complications in claiming that now, so many years after the colonization of Canada," said Bassett in 2022. "Some people feel awkward about claiming Métis identity now. With my work I'm trying to untie those knots."
Fire bags were a common piece of kit for those who lived in the homeland, said Bassett, carrying tools and goods such as flint, steel, pipes, and tobacco, or ammunition. Also known as ‘octopus bags’ due to their shape, the bags are often used as indigenous regalia today.
“They’re an important part item for surviving out in the wilderness,” said Bassett, who learned to make the fire bags through a workshop led by Gregory Scofield, a Métis master bead-worker.
Designs of using wild rose, wolf willow, and silver berry were carefully embroidered onto five bags, which took a year to complete - using the actual plant materials as the beads. Four were created specifically for the show.
“They’re called the Four Sisters and each one celebrates local flora from the Peace Region, some of them actually use materials from the region, from native plants,” Bassett said. Métis often incorporated native plants as materials in fire bags, using seeds and rose hips as beads, making her designs in the same spirit.
The wolf willow inspired bag looks a little like sage, admits Bassett, but is very happy with the results. Coincidentally, wild sage is another plant endemic to the Peace.
Bassett handcrafted each piece and feels that using a sewing machine would have been taking a shortcut, the beauty and value was in taking her time. Some items from previous shows have also made an appearance at the exhibit, building on the theme of exploring her Métis identity and reconciling it with her settler identity.
“This is my first commercial show, and it’s also my first solo show in Vancouver, so it’s a big milestone for me,” said Bassett. “These are works that the curator selected, so it’s drawing on past series, but it’s also interesting to kind of see the through lines of all my work - at the end of the day, that major through line is the Peace Country, the Métis homeland, Treaty 8.”
Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative. Have a story idea or opinion? Email email@example.com