Neebing Indigenous art fair using new technology to tell old stories

By Isabel Buckmaster

While Thomas Sinclair believes his brushstrokes were stronger in his youth, it’s the Ojibway artist’s vast knowledge of creation stories that brings his work to life.

The Sault St. Marie-based artist can be found alongside five other Ontario-based Indigenous artists at the Neebing Indigenous Art Fair this month. A first for Waterloo Region, the event opened to the public at Bingemans in Kitchener last weekend. 

“This is like the biggest dream that I've ever had and it's all coming true right now,” said Sinclair.  “So many people my whole life told me, ‘you’re just gonna waste your time being a native artist,’ and now there’s six of us proving them wrong.” 

Sinclair’s career took off when he walked into the Canvas Gallery and found representation exactly two years ago. After a few months at the Toronto-based gallery, Sinclair’s work found another home at Butter Gallery in Collingwood. 

While Sinclair never thought he could be a working artist, he’s the only artist at Neebing with gallery representation, which allows him to work full-time. However, he says this is because most galleries don’t consider Indigenous artists or feature native artwork and that when they do, he’s the one that gets tapped on the shoulder. He's hoping events like Neebing will change the game. 

“They look at us as like, I just sometimes feel like I'm less than because I'm a native artist and it's like I have to fight harder to get equal notice or equal share,” said Sinclair.  “I'm hoping especially for the Indigenous artists that galleries, not just in Canada, start looking at us as real artists.” 

Neebing features “a high calibre” of artists like Alanah Jewel Morningstar, who is Bear Clan from Oneida Nation of the Thames, and designed one of the Google widgets to honour a deceased Indigenous comedian. Chief Lady Bird, a Chippewa and Potawatomi artist from Rama First Nation and Moosedeer Point First Nation, has illustrated for organizations like Flare Magazine, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Scholastic, Audible and Vice News. The exhibition also features work from artists Blake Angeconeb, Autumn Smith, and Kitchener's Luke Swinson. 

“It's really hard to find people who are working artists and who only do art for their career and they don't have a side job so it’s difficult to find other Indigenous people that are artists,” said Sinclair. “But you know, it's happening and I’m not the anomaly as much anymore.” 

The last thing visitors will see as they leave is a giant canvas prospector's tent painted into a celebration of water, specifically the Grand River.  Water spirits line the bottom portions of the canvas while the roof sports a wolf, bear, eagle and moose paddling a canoe to celebrate the different ways Indigenous people interact with water. Water plays a crucial role in Indigenous legends.

Another aspect of the exhibit uses augmented reality to help people understand the meaning behind the paintings. Using video, photos and audio, the artists layered their own voices to share the stories behind their work. 

“I'm kind of basing every single thing that I do on those stories. To me it's like instructions on how to live in this environment and how my ancestors lived,” said Sinclair. “We're using the most recent technology to tell the oldest stories.” 

The Neebing Indigenous Art Fair will run from August 6-21 from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.00 online and $25.00 at the door. 


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