Aboriginal Street Art
I met the Aboriginal artist, Ryan Jason Allen Willert HeavyShield a few weeks ago on Main Street, just across from the Tim Hortons coffee shop. He was painting his way around the telephone box pinned to the wall. Not on a regular street, mind, but the one that runs through the Mount Royal University (MRU) campus in Calgary, Canada,
A warmer, maybe safer place than some of the streets he used to work on. He was telling me how, after growing up in Red Deer and Innisfail, Alberta, he made his way as a teenager to Calgary to sell the indigenous artwork of his family. He put in time as a gorilla artist and then, as his own artistic talent developed, he gained the desire and confidence to create and sell his own work, increasingly reconnecting with his Aboriginal roots. Now aged 32, HeavyShield is deeply inspired by Naato’si, the sun god of the Niitsitapi People (Blackfoot) and their cultural way of life.
Blackfoot Territory and Indigenization
HeavyShield was a great choice when MRU went looking for an indigenous artist to create a work that recognized Treaty 7, signed on September 22, 1877, by the Government of Canada and five First Nations: the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee). The university campus is located on traditional Blackfoot territory and MRU has committed to a program of indigenization that includes fulfilling the education promises of Treaty 7 and meeting the educational needs of indigenous peoples and their allies. An indigenous celebration, marking the start of the academic year, was recorded at MRU in an earlier NixonsCan blog.
HeavyShield’s work comprises a number of wall paintings, including a Prairie scene; Blackfoot medicine wheel; Sundancer; and Buffalo. The Prairie Scene shows the sun setting over the Rockies and across the territory of the original Plains Peoples. According to the artist, it symbolizes the beauty of Alberta and our responsibility as humans to care for this land. The black and white circle of life image is the Blackfoot Medicine Wheel. This brings together our experiences of the physical world, events, our emotions, thoughts, and relationships.
Sundance represents our abilities to see, hear, speak, smell, walk and work with our hands: the tools that allow us to complete our tasks, bring our gifts to the world and learn the things we need in order to grow in life. On the right-hand side is the Buffalo, a key spiritual symbol of the Blackfoot People. As the buffalo always runs towards a storm and never away from it, it inspires them (and all of us) to take on life’s challenges and not run away from them. A fifth painting (not shown here) describes the spirit and intent of Treaty 7.
For more on Ryan Jason Allen Willert’s work, go to Stonegrowth.
Photography: visit J. Ashley Nixon