My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
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I first saw Ruth Cuthand’s painting Treaty Dress (1984) at the Remai Modern in Saskatchewan as part of an installation of Indigenous art from the Mendel Art Gallery Collection. Treaty Dress belongs to a series portraying ghostly articles of clothing, expressively brushed, scratched, and stamped with marks of colonial history. Cuthand’s early work deliberately rejects the aesthetics of Western “high” art as well as traditional Native design, instead employing, in her words, “stylistic crudeness to counter the stereotype of Canada as the great polite nation.” Her work is unapologetic in its anger and dark humor, but flush with empathy. Her searing pencil drawings in Misuse Is Abuse (1990), depict looming witchlike figures—white liberals—barking sign-stenciled commands at faceless Indigenous dolls. She cuts through the facade of kindness and concern that masks forms of racism and condescension, as well as expectations that Indigenous people assimilate and serve as ambassadors for a sanitized version of their culture.
When I visited Cuthand’s studio in Saskatoon, it was brimming with her recent beading. In contrast to the rough-hewn bluntness of her drawings and paintings, these beadworks—some flat, some sculptural—are methodical and pretty. She employs techniques often relegated to the realm of craft or “women’s work.” Using attractive design to depict deadly diseases and contaminants, from smallpox-spreading blankets to bacteria found in the water supplies of dozens of reserves, she traces the colonial legacy of chemical violence against this continent’s First Peoples, which persists to this day.
Chantal McStayYou’re currently the artist in residence at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan. How’s that been?
Ruth CuthandWell, in the fall and winter things were pretty quiet, and then in May and June schoolchildren came, and now we have tourists from all over the world. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked in a place where you have to smile and be friendly. (laughter)
CMAh, it’s very outward facing.
RCYes. But this summer is also strange. There have been forest fires in British Columbia, and the smoke is drifting over Alberta and here in Saskatchewan, so there’s not much sunshine. We’re told to keep the doors and windows closed so we don’t inhale particles.
CMThat sounds rather gloomy. It also connects to your recent work, which responds to air and water pollution. Let’s talk about your installation Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink (2016). This project has traveled, most recently to the Art Gallery of Ontario. How did it begin?
RCI wanted to talk about housing on Indigenous reserves. And get people to understand how substandard the housing in these communities often is, especially in isolated areas. Supplies have to be barged or trucked in to build houses, so they purchase the cheapest materials they can, like wallboard instead of drywall, which is really bad for fire because it’s made of sawdust and different glues, so it burns up fast. The ceilings are also some kind of flammable pressed sawdust. The way these homes are built, they’re hard to maintain. Many develop black mold. One contributor is the boil-water advisories found on reserves where the water is unsafe to drink: boiling all this water puts a lot of moisture into your home. There are no extraction vents to get rid of the excess. You also have extended family, sometimes fifteen to twenty people, living in one house—there’s very little furniture, mostly mattresses on floors. People are crowded and they breathe in and out, putting more moisture into the air. I watch these home renovation shows on TV, and every time there’s black mold, it’s a big deal. Everybody has to get out of the house. They block off the rooms with plastic, and a remediator goes in to remove the mold. On reserves, many Indigenous people are living with this hazard long term, which causes respiratory diseases.
I started working on a tablecloth made of a blue plastic tarp, beading microscopic views of the mold stalks with black spores coming off of them. It was really boring beading all these little black circles, and I got to thinking about other things—about water and how in Canada, when I was working on this project, there were ninety-four Indigenous communities that couldn’t drink their water. How could I visually get that across to people? Maybe I could find a way to do it three-dimensionally with the different shapes of the bacteria and parasites found in contaminated water. So I started experimenting. I beaded the six most commonly found in water on Indigenous reserves: Giardia, E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and Typhoid fever. Some have flagella coming off of them; some are like lozenges. I used different colors to distinguish them. I wanted to put them in drinking glasses, not brand-new ones that all match but domestic, mismatched, scratched ones. I went to garage sales and secondhand stores, picking out different sizes to suggest a family. I looked for glass baby bottles and found a mother selling them on Kijiji.
Then an artist friend, Cindy Baker, and I started mixing resin to pour into the glasses. We had a lot of testing to do; we were getting bubbles in the resin and inside the beaded bacteria. Finally we used a pressurizer. Working out of the University of Lethbridge art department, we would fill the glasses halfway, put them in the pressurizer for four hours, and then put a beaded bacterium into the resin—it couldn’t sink into it; it had to rest—and leave it for two hours, and then go back and fill the glasses up and put them back in the pressurizer. It was taking us ten hours to do one load of eight to twelve glasses. And some would break. It was this totally arduous thing; I kept wondering why I was doing it.
In 2015, I showed the work in progress at the Mann Art Gallery in Prince Albert to get feedback. There were several women from a nearby First Nation. Prince Albert had recently gone through a complete “do not drink” advisory because they had Giardia in their water system, and it took four months to flush the parasites from the water system. My work resonated with them.
I finished the project with ninety-two glasses and twelve baby bottles in 2016. I showed at DC3 Art Projects in Edmonton, and then the Art Toronto fair, where the response was incredible. People were taking photographs. I was talking to them about water.
CM How was it installed?
RC At DC3 Art Projects, we opened a wall, and on the other side was this small room with old wood paneling. I said, “Can we just leave this room like it is? Because that wood paneling is really important to the housing that I’m talking about.” We put one of those cheap plastic banquet tables in there, and I placed the tablecloth and glasses on it, and also some glasses on wall shelving. So you walk into this intimate space. People were picking up the glasses and turning them over. They thought they were filled with real water. I wanted it to be domestic and familiar to the viewer, but it was too much. They kept touching everything. And I’m like, Don’t!
CM The human scale and household setting of the installation creates the impulse to walk right up to it. With the bugs or pathogens in the water, you’re taking something microscopic and scaling it up to fit in your palm—how did you pick that size?
RC I wanted to make the microscopic visible. I have no idea about the literal scale. Like one to two million? When the piece was in Toronto, people thought they were Siamese fighting fish.
CM Well, these are deadly bacteria being depicted, but the colors are very fun and attractive.
RC Beads are shiny, seductive things. I did a series of two-dimensional beaded diseases [Surviving, 2011], and people go, “Oh my, isn’t that beautiful?” And then they realize they’re looking at smallpox or bubonic plague.
CM Putting something microscopic on a scale that’s visible to the naked eye allows us to see the impact of human actions. These works illustrate what the Canadian government, which holds the purse strings to water systems on reserves, is asking First Nations people to live with.
Beading is a relatively recent development in your practice—for many years you were primarily a painter. How did you take up beading?
RC One of the classes I was required to teach at First Nations University of Canada was beading. I put it off for years because I couldn’t think of anything craftier. As a method to get students interacting with the material, I had them translate paintings into beadwork. And I got into it as well.
CM Had you beaded three-dimensional forms before Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink?
RC I knew how to do peyote stitch, used in lanyards and keychains, and I adapted it for this project.
CM What kind of research did you do to develop the models you eventually beaded?
RC First I went to online government pages and looked up the boil-water advisories they have on different reserves and the types of bacteria they contained. After figuring out which were most prevalent, I did a Google image search and discovered all these shapes and started beading those. There was one I wanted to do, cryptosporidium, which is round and has these two claws coming out that hang onto your intestine.
CM Oh! They’re very complicated three-dimensional structures. It must have been a challenge to translate these intricate forms into beadwork.
RC Giardia was hard. I had to make a rounded shape with the top filled in. The sides slope inward and there are two legs that hang down.
CM The black mold on the tarp is arranged like a coat of arms.
RC Yeah, I wanted it to have a floral look. The black mold with the stalks is like an arch with a bunch of flowers.
CM I recently read this article about Brother Nut, a Chinese artist who filled bottles of a popular brand of bottled water with contaminated groundwater from a village in central China, displaying them in an exhibition set up like a market. The show got shut down, but it had real impact: Chinese authorities had to open an investigation into the polluted water, which previously they had never even acknowledged. It’s amazing how an artist can generate attention differently than a journalist. What do you think a work of art can communicate that a news story can’t?
RC Artists can take the news and put it in a context where people are able to understand it at a deeper level.
The news is actually where I get my inspiration. Watching a news story about the housing crisis in Northern Ontario, I was like, “Holy smokes.” These people are desperate. They’re building houses out of plastic tarps. That’s where I got the idea to take a cheap plastic tarp and bead it as a tablecloth. Beading is often seen as decorative or precious. I wanted to mix those two materials: cheap, convenient plastic and beaded handwork. Why would somebody embellish a tarp?
CM Craft is not thought of as the to-go-to medium for cutting commentary.
RC It’s considered women’s work. Beads are also an Indigenous stereotype. I don’t make moccasins. (laughter) And yet I think these assumptions are also why I’m drawn to beading. I like taking beads from a stereotype to something that can make people pause and think.
CM Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink is one of several works in which you deal with health, the transfer of disease, infection… How did you first get interested in this topic for artmaking?
RC One day I got these beads I had ordered from the United States. They come on hanks, already threaded. Looking at them, ugh, they were so beautiful! When Indigenous women first saw these brought over from Europe, they must have just thought, Wow. They used porcupine quills before glass beads came in the sixteenth century. The preparation and dying of the quills is a long process. The brightness, colors, and shine of beads led to a revolution in beading as an artform. I started thinking about trade—the upsides like iron pots for boiling water and food safety. And the downsides, like guns and germs. You always hear about germs coming from the Old World to the New World. I wondered how many and what types? Looking up the images, I thought the germs were just gorgeous. Robert Houle did a billboard in Saskatoon on the spread of smallpox among Indigenous people, and I was disappointed that the virus itself appeared all gray, like a microscope image. Why didn’t he use color? I started beading these diseases, making them circles, so it was like you were peering through a microscope. I’m usually my own best collector, but these things sold like hot cakes.
CM The causes of the water contamination on Indigenous reserves are complex, right? From inadequate water treatment infrastructure and staffing to wastewater management problems to the raw water itself being polluted.
RC And you get all kinds of things—harmful bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals—leaching into the water due to rampant resource development. The attitude of developers is that you can go in, extract the resources you want, and leave without cleaning anything up.
CM And these communities are up against a lot of red tape to obtain funding to fix these problems.
Are there still ninety-four Indigenous communities in Canada without clean drinking water?
RC When I was in Toronto, it went down to ninety-two, but it later went up. The numbers fluctuate.
CM And Prime Minister Trudeau’s plan was to be down to zero in five years?
RC Eight years from when he was elected. By 2021.
CM Your project seems to be doing something other than educating. It shows truths that people know on a factual level, but when they see the installation, it’s a more visceral experience.
RC It’s the visual immediacy of all those glasses and each one representing a person in a community. Water is a basic human right. In Canada we have all this water. Surely we can get some to the people who need it. I find it so mind boggling.
CM Canada exports water, right? And they let corporations extract millions of liters of groundwater for free or almost free.
RC Nestlé Canada…bah! (laughter) Bottled water is a horrible trend. When I see people buying it at the grocery store, I want to yell at them. We have safe drinking water and shouldn’t waste resources bottling it, and bottled water should be free for those who have unsafe drinking water. If Canada can sell water for cheap to companies that turn around and sell it for a huge profit, it should be able to provide clean water for every Canadian.
CM If educational isn’t a term to apply to your work, I wonder how you feel about another loaded term: activism. Does using this word go too far, or imply a demand for specific reforms? Does the artist put things out there hoping for change, or just put things out there, period?
RC I don’t like the word activist attached to my work. An activist is someone who dedicates their life to a cause and puts all their energy into it. I hop around from project to project. The art gallery is seen as a place for a rarefied audience and I still persist in making art. I wish everyone would feel comfortable enough to visit art galleries.
CMI was reading that some of your first art materials were chest x-ray papers.
RCYeah, when I was a kid, they did frequent chest x-rays on Indigenous people because there was lots of TB. Doctors would come up every fall, and I’d go for an x-ray, and it came out on this yellow-orange soft paper. That was the first thing I drew on. I’ll always remember the texture and smell of the paper.
CMThere’s this film work of yours, Location/Dislocation, from 1993.
RCYeah, my reserve didn’t receive the land agreed upon in their original Treaty Land Entitlement agreement, so in 1992 we were given funds to buy land. For Location/Dislocation, I was talking about being from Little Pine First Nation but not actually living there. It’s also about the kind of land we should buy—land with a lake, land with berry bushes, land with rivers.
CMAnd what kind of land was purchased?
RCWell, we bought farmland scattered all over Saskatchewan. Sometimes the farmer will sell the land and ask for it to be leased back to them until they die. This helps them to supplement their income so they can stay on “their” land. So we do that. And then we’ve bought ceremonial land, which we won’t build on.
CMWhen I visited your studio, you were collecting army blankets for a new project.
RCThat project’s opening at DC3 in Edmonton—it’s called Extirpate this Execrable Race (2018). I have a hundred Canadian army blankets from the local surplus, some dating back to the Second World War—wool ones, other fibers, some torn, each with a history marked on it.
CMIs the number 100 significant?
RCI like the repetitiveness and accumulation in my work. The sheer volume confronts the viewer. I’m folding the blankets and sewing beaded smallpox viruses onto them. And my sister made me fifty handkerchiefs because they also handed those out. I’m wrapping them with big red satin bows, like gifts, which is how they were given out, like, “Here! Have these!” When I’m done, I’ll have fifty bundles. I finished one bundle earlier and kept it in the trunk of my car because I wanted to photograph it in a forest.
CMHow did you pick the woods where you photographed it?
RCI was looking for boreal forest and specific plants. I found a big spread of kinnikinnick, which Indigenous people used for smoking and making tea. And I came across some juniper and moss that I wanted to put the bundle on, stuff like that.
CMThis ties in with the diseases Indigenous people are being exposed to today and traces the historical context, showing how this has been going on for a long time.
RCIt’s kind of a one-off. I’m more interested in the lives we’re living and what’s happening now than historical events. I’m a diabetic. Many Indigenous people become diabetics in their late forties and early fifties. For my next project, I bought smoked elk hide, and I’m making a bundle, like an Indigenous medicine bundle. I’ll bead all the paraphernalia a diabetic needs. It’s that play of the old and new realities we face.
CMIt sounds like beading spurs new ideas through doing this repetitive act—
RCYeah, I find beading meditative. It opens the creative part of my mind. This is the first time in my career that I know what’s next. Usually I do a series and when I’m done, I go, Oh no. What’s going to happen? But through beading, the next idea comes and then the one after that.
CMDo you think about the viewer’s experience of your work?
RCWhen I was in art school, I was the only Indigenous student; the white art teachers really didn’t know what to do with me…they just didn’t know! And so mostly they ignored me, but one time I was asked, “If you keep doing this work about Indians, where are you going to show it?” And I said, “Well, in galleries.” And they were like, “Wouldn’t it be better if you showed in band offices?” To explain to white people, to educate them, would be too hard, it would take really long, and it’s not what I want to do. I’m not here to educate anybody; I’m just here to talk about things that affect me. And you can look—or not.
Chantal McStay is BOMB’s associate editor.
Originally published in
Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.
Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.