Rounding the center of the rOUGE gallery were five pilot whale rib bones naturally curving their space and outlining the shape of their original form. From Whale Cove, Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) these rib bones came into the hands of poet and artist Michelle Sylliboy when her older brother John helped bring them home from the shore. An opportunity to continue the life of this whale through a contemplative and collaborative process came from the creativity of Sylliboy’s practice. Having been working with her ancestral Mi’kmaq komqwej’wikasikl language, Sylliboy brought together messages to the whale from community of gratitude, respect, apology, and sorrow. Their sacred messages were carved into the bones by Michelle Sylliboy and thematically became a dialogue on the intensifying damage being done to our oceans and their shores. Remembering a shared language with the natural environment that has become silenced and distant with the violent separation caused by contemporary colonial societies.
Covering the surrounding walls were a series of photographs taken by the artist in observation of environmental elements at an intimate closeness combined with poetic komqwej’wikasikl hand-written in the foreground. These photos circling the carved messages held by the whale rib bones placed you amidst a conversation between the artist and the whale ancestor. An ode to the renewed life of a whale and continued opportunity to communicate with our natural environments. Sylliboy hopes to inspire genuine care towards our shared environments with emphasis on the astounding potential of a community in conversation. Oral histories and traditional knowledge are so much more than a process– they are a practice, a way of life, and opportunity for continuous learning. Michelle Sylliboy has a way of knowing that grows from her experiences with indigenous communities and an awareness that is ever present in her practice. In conversation with her medium, community, and audience the outward reach for collaborative process is key to the impact of this body of work.
Another gesture for connection and move towards a closeness to our physical and spiritual world was a performative poetry reading. In collaboration with three musicians, Michelle Sylliboy read her most recent publication of komqwej’wikasikl poetry titled I Am Ready. This performance was done within the rOUGE Gallery space to a packed audience surrounding the artist as she read the words from her book, photographic series, and whale bones. Based on an improvised response to the poems, sounds were imagined by the musicians that related to our ocean environments. Manipulated through electroacoustic pedals and microphones the resulting performance suggested both ancient and futuristic motifs for the audience – crafting an experience that was bending our perception of the present time. A coming together of artistic expression and exploration of how one medium can resonate with another, created new ways of seeing process and practice.
A shared experience and gifted moments of connection flowed throughout the space when filled with Michelle Sylliboy’s work and words. The suckerfish writing – Komqwej’wikasikl – is a language that comes from this land, Turtle Island, and speaks through the resulting poetic work of this truly dedicated artist. Touring across Canada with her new book and bringing together experiences from a wide range of both indigenous and settler communities, Michelle Sylliboy will be returning to St. John’s to perform the komqweij’wikasikl poetry at Memorial University in February 2020! We hope you can join us to see and hear the power behind the writings of the suckerfish.
– Hannah Morgan
Hannah Morgan is of mixed settler descent living and working in Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland). Growing up in rural Atlantic Canada her practice is centered around projects and initiatives that give agency to artists and communities often left out by the problematic colonial and western ideals for the art world.
Additional text from Exhibition:
Komqwejwi’kasikl – Michelle Sylliboy
Emerge carefully alongside (Mi’kmaq) L’nu artist Michelle Sylliboy with her interdisciplinary body of work as she brings to life the voices of her ancestors from these Komqwejwi’kasikl (suckerfish writings). Sylliboy allows for us to engage in dialogue with this land and our consciousness in hopes that we listen to the teachings offered. She has been sharing with her communities across the seven districts of the Mi’kmaq Nation to reclaim the Komqwejwi’kasikl language. Throughout her research and conversations she was gifted a pilot whale found by her older brother in Whale Cove, Cape Breton. Even though the whale had passed physically, it wanted a renewed purpose. Sylliboy received collaborated messages from her Cape Breton communities and carved them in her Komqwejwi’kasikl language onto the whale’s rib bones. As an act of respect for the whale ancestor, the carved language had themes of forgiveness and guidance against the environmental impact towards the whale’s home.