Barry Ace exhibit on now until September 15 at OCF

Visual artist Barry Ace is seen with the bandolier he is gifting to the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation. Samples of Mr. Ace’s art are on display at the foundation until September 15 and show the combining of traditional and contemporary culture. photo by Betty Bardswich

by Betty Bardswich

M’CHIGEENG—Visitors to the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng are in for a special experience as the works of visual artist Barry Ace are on display until September 15.

Mr. Ace is a band member of M’Chigeeng First Nation and currently lives in Ottawa where some of his art is on display at the Ottawa Art Gallery and The Canada Council Art Bank. Other works can be seen at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto and the Nordamerika Native Museum in Zurich, Switzerland. He is represented by the Kinsman Robinson Galleries of Toronto.

Mr. Ace has five large blankets on display at the OCF with each one representing one of the five Great Lakes and the Anishinabek’s relationship to the lakes. He explained that each blanket speaks of something different but all are about the importance of water. He spoke of the travels of Louis and Josette McGregor, whose history he had followed, and told how Josette, who is 100, talked about rowing punts to get to the Island and how they put up blankets to facilitate movement. 

“I wanted to use blankets to honour my great grandmother and travel,” Mr. Ace explained.

Each blanket has a material strip that Mr. Ace adorns with beads, but also, surprisingly, with electrical items such as resistors, diodes and capacitors. These components are based on Mr. Ace’s own experience. He explained that his uncle, who worked up north in a logging camp, was taken for all of his money. In return, he was given books on electricity which he wanted Mr. Ace’s father to have to use to learn to be an electrician. His father did not want them, but Mr. Ace did attend Cambrian College for that field, but soon switched from electricity to graphic arts. In speaking of his art that binds the traditional with the present day contemporary, Mr. Ace said, “My father was so proud. I did realize his electrical dream.”

Mr. Ace talked of the continual up cycle and reinvention of First Nation traditions. ”Culture is always changing,” he explained. We did not work with beads before. Beads were a trade item. I think it is important to know our culture, to know that it is always changing. It is a beautiful metaphor to work with the modern items.”

Each strip on the blankets has a different meaning. The blanket for Lake Huron represents the Anishinabek on Manitoulin, while the Lake Ontario blanket stands for the alliances that various First Nations made and Lake Erie is a friendship blanket. The strip on the Lake Michigan blanket shows the Three Fathers Confederacy while the green on the last covering represents Lake Superior.

“On September 1,” Mr. Ace told his audience, “I did a workshop with the kids from the Ojibwe immersion school. It was great. I had 20 students. We talked about clans and their relationship. It was really good to work with them. It is important for the kids to know about our history.” The material strips the children did are now also on display at the OCF.

Mr. Ace also had a bandolier that he is gifting to the OCF to show his audience. He explained that this bag was worn across the shoulder and at one time would hold medicine or gun powder or such. His bandolier was embellished with traditional beadwork as well as the electrical components. “It is a friendship bag,” Mr. Ace noted. “It has to be the best work you can do.” The bag also has a motion detector and shows a film of a powwow. The film was made on Wikwemikong in 1925 and Mr. Ace acknowledged the generosity of the Wiki people to do this film as dancing off the reserve had been banned in 1924.

In speaking of Mr. Ace’s exhibit, OCF Art Director Anong Beam says, “Acts of caring and tenderness are so important to the human soul that when they are witnessed or shared, even if not directly intended for the viewer, they land deep in the lasting recollections of the heart. In Anishinaabe culture the gift of a blanket is one such gesture. It intends a caring for the recipient that goes beyond the tangible, a wish for physical comfort, hope for safety and a protection from the elements. The blankets Barry Ace has created for the Great Lakes are just such a gesture.”