Art exhibit uses archetypes to portray history.
Several large 'persons' haunt Neal McLeod's large-scale paintings. These ghostly and snarling figures swim amongst a sea of chaotic colours, words, and forms. The viewer cannot help but be swamped by a claustrophobic sense of anxiety and fear.
These are images of the wihtikow who lives amongst us.
Extracting from his experiences living in Saskatchewan and his own exposure to Cree narratives, McLeod's exhibition of paintings draws inspiration and investigates the many dimensions of the wihtikow.
Wihtikow is a Cree word (pronounced wee-tuh-gow) that describes an evil spirit-being that greedily consumes everything and everyone surrounding it to satisfy its bottomless selfishness and selfabsorption.
According to McLeod, this entity restlessly consumes without restraint and has no regard for the future. Its only concern is to satisfy its shortterm longings. The wihtikow operates in direct contrast to traditional Cree teachings, which stress generosity as a strength of character.
Growing up on James Smith Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan, a very young McLeod was exposed to traditional Cree stories. His artwork explores the stories and investigates the values that motivated Cree and Metis men in the distant past.
"It was my own attempt, my own effort, and my own journey to become a better man," explained McLeod in a phone interview with Sage from his office in Peterborough, Ontario, where he is currently an associate professor in the Native Studies Department of Trent University.
"Sons of a Lost River" is the title of McLeod's current exhibition curated by the Mendel Art Gallery, and on display at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery until May 24th. Wihtikow is a recurring figure in McLeod's latest paintings and is used as a symbol of the hardships faced by Cree and Metis people in the aftermath of the 1885 NorthWest Rebellion.
According to McLeod, the Rebellion is "where it all went wrong." The results of the brief and unsuccessful uprising led Cree and Metis men to lose their place in the world when they could no longer hunt buffalo and furthermore, when children were forced to go to residential schools.
"So, a lot of the way in which men could function in their society and provide for their people seems to be lost," said McLeod "[This exhibition] is called 'Sons of a Lost River' because it's trying to recover some of the old stories and the old values that people had."
He added that the "Lost River" mentioned in the exhibition's title refers to the Saskatchewan River, the surrounding area where the conflict of the Rebellion took place.
McLeod started painting at the age of four. Years later he attended post-secondary school in Sweden, which is the homeland of his mother.
While studying in Sweden, McLeod was heavily influenced by urban-based graffiti artists like New York City artist Basquiat, who was popular in the 1980s. His work is also inspired by drip-painter Jackson Pollack, who was conscious of the physicality of making images.
McLeod's latest collection of epic-scale paintings gives the viewer a sense of the chaos and gritty underbelly of modern urban life. The weighted presence of wihtikow's spirit looms heavily within the borders of these images.
The influences for his paintings also come from living in an urban centre and the chaos that occurs from the transition of moving to the city from a rural area, said McLeod.
Cities are often places where the ancestors of the Cree and Metis people lived in the past. Moving back into the city seems to be a way of reclaiming their traditional homelands, he said.
"Sometimes it's a chaotic process, but I think one of the powers of art is to try to make sense of it," explained McLeod. "How can we take the values that exist in the old stories? How can we take the insights of those great stories and make sense of them in a very new landscape of the city?"
In his own view, one of the ways to make sense of a chaotic world is to be honest about the darkness and the challenges that exist within it. "If we don't name or articulate it then there's no way we could move beyond it," he said.
Although his artwork depicts the destruction and the devouring done by the wihtikow, McLeod's paintings also illustrate the possibility of redemption and rebirth that can rise from the chaos.
"The purpose of art for me is to wrestle with the great darkness that lingers in all things. It has helped me work through some of my own challenges in my life," said McLeod.
He added that art could have a great transformative power in people's lives and he hopes young people would be inspired to channel their own creative energies into recording their own narratives.
"To me art has a social function. It documents collective experiences, but it also points pathways to the future," he said.
BY SHAUNA GRANDISH