A new art exhibition of 23 original works inspired by Anishinaabe stories that have been passed down through generations is on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
Connecting With Our First Family features the work of visual storyteller Nyle Miigizi Johnston from Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.
“It’s our responsibility as the next generation of Anishinaabe to add to this legacy,” said Johnston.
Johnston left his community at 15 but has remained connected to its history and cultural traditions, taking it upon himself to keep the stories of his ancestors alive.
“Coming from a storytelling background, it’s like you have to share these stories and stories need to be pushed into the next generation. There has to be some way to communicate these,” said Johnston.
The Connecting With Our First Family exhibit stems from a distance learning series with schools in remote and rural parts of Ontario that the Art Gallery of Ontario undertook with TakingITGlobal, a non-governmental organization with the goal of empowering global youth to create a more inclusive and sustainable world.
Johnston was tasked with developing an Anishinaabemowin language and education resource kit. Anishinaabemowin, also known as Ojibway, is the language spoken by the Anishinaabe.
The exhibit is a collection of 23 images of animals, birds, fish insects and other creatures based on Anishinaabe teachings. Johnston’s approach to maintaining the cultural legacy is through visual interpretations of the stories with symbolism and pictography.
He’s been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember, and he draws on his gift to teach others these stories.
The images he creates are rooted in Anishinaabemowin stories, which he says is how he was able to learn about botany, astrology, mathematics and environmental studies.
“If you understand the language, you understand the world view,” he said.
“If you understand the world view, you understand everything — the world around us, creation, each other and our place within it.”
The use of visual imagery and traditional language are at the heart of Indigenous teaching methods, he said, and are just as relevant as Western methods that have been forced upon Indigenous Peoples.
Connecting With Our First Family consists of artworks that depict animals, birds, fish, insects and other creatures in a pictographic style to tell stories of their interconnectedness through Anishinaabe creation stories.
Jennifer Corriero, co-founder and executive director of TakingItGlobal, said the project is a catalyst to help invite everyone, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to be creative and to come together to support the revitalization of Indigenous languages and cultures.
“We’re all learners…. I hope that students feel empowered to have that courage in the way that Nyle did to find his own his own creative way through his art practice,” she said.
The exhibit will be on display until September in the community gallery of the AGO.