Indigenous art on loan is a conversation starter at Hamilton school
By Emma Reilly, Hamilton Spectator
In Leah DeFelice’s Grade 4/5 classroom at Ray Lewis Elementary School, among the student artwork and vocabulary displays, 12 original works of art by Indigenous artists are propped up in front of the classroom window.
The art, which ranges from screen-printing to raku to acrylic to sculpture, has been the focal point of DeFelice’s lessons for the past month. The students have used them as a jumping-off point for discussions ranging from the legacy of residential schools to government to Canadian history.
“It’s just really gotten them talking,” said DeFelice. “It’s teaching us a lot and it’s really helping us to expand.”
The art is on loan from the Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA) as part of its Artists’ Connections program, one of the many outreach programs the art school operates in the community.
DVSA started the program several years ago as a way to bring more art into Hamilton classrooms. DVSA curators have purchased pieces from local artists to create the collections, which are loaned to schools on a month-long basis. DVSA also provides resources for teachers that suggest different ways to work the exhibits into the Ontario curriculum.
DVSA has five separate collections, all of which are available free of charge to elementary and secondary school classes across the public and Catholic school boards.
The Indigenous Art collection, the most recent addition to the Artists’ Connections program, was booked for the entire school year in under 24 hours.
Claire Loughheed, executive director of DVSA, said this particular exhibit is intended to bridge some of the cultural gaps that can arise between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
“Whenever there are two cultures where it’s difficult to figure out “how do we start the conversation,” there are two ways of doing it in terms of diplomacy: one is culture, and one is sport,” she said.
Loughheed also pointed out that the exhibit provides an entry point for teachers who want to begin a discussion about Indigenous art and society with their students, but may not know how to broach such culturally sensitive subject matter.
“We had heard on a number of occasions that although there are areas in the Ontario curriculum that deal with Aboriginal culture, we had a lot of teachers that were seriously uncomfortable about trying to speak to that,” she said. “It’s so easy to put a foot wrong and find yourself in a real controversy.”
In DeFelice’s class, the students interacted with the exhibit in a variety of ways. DeFelice began by asking her students questions about each piece: Which ones were they drawn to? Which one do they like the least? Which one is the happiest? Which one can you relate to the most? They also began reciting the Turtle Island Welcome, a statement that recognizes that Hamilton exists on traditional Haudenosaunee territory.
The students used the pieces as inspiration for their own art, as well as a backdrop for their discussions for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s Orange Shirt Day — a nationwide recognition of the legacy of the residential school system.
For many of these students, it was the first time they learned about the history of residential schools.
Nikhil Patel, 10, said “Reclaiming Our Voices” by Nancy King (Chief Lady Bird) was particularly engaging. The piece features a black and white image of an adult covering a child’s mouth, with a spray of colourful flowers in the foreground.
“The front is so peaceful, but the back isn’t very peaceful,” said Patel.
“It’s mind-blowing for them,” said DeFelice. “It’s hard for them to understand that there was a world before them without technology — let alone all of the conflict that happened.”
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