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Reclaiming Space through Public Art

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In Downtown Canmore, a remarkable wall of colour emerges on the side of a building on 7th Avenue. Vibrant oranges, blues, reds, and purples come together to form three women under a full moon looking towards the Three Sisters mountains. It’s a work of art that’s as stunning as it is meaningful; Canmore’s first public piece by Indigenous artists. 

“This is all native land,” says visual artist Kayla Bellerose (bb iskwew) of Slave Lake Treaty 8 Territory, who created the mural with artist Cheyenne Bearspaw (Chey Ozinja-Thiha) from Bearspaw First Nation, Stoney Nakoda. “It’s a reclaiming of space and supporting that Indigenous presence.”

The mural brings to life the presence of the Îyârhe Nakoda (Stoney Nakoda) First Nations in the area, but at the same time represents so much more. Shades of orange speak to the Indian Residential School history in Canada while red accents pay respect to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 

“We both use a lot of vibrant colours,” says Bellerose. “Chey’s palette is a lot of cobalt blue, red, portraits, geometric shapes, [while] I use a lot of bright colours: blues, pinks, purples, feminine florals. I’m inspired by my grandmother’s beadwork and maternal line.” 

The mural covers a faded piece of art that paid homage to Canmore’s coal mining industry, which adds another layer of significance to the work. “Extractive industries across Canada have a direct connection to violence on missing and murdered Indigenous women,” says Bellerose. 

Resource extraction has been linked to an exacerbation of violence against Indigenous women and girls, according to the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The report contains five calls for justice for extractive and development industries, and the Standing Committee on the Status of Women released a follow up study on the issue calling for more accountability in the resource industry. 

“This mural is beautiful, bright, vibrant, and brings us to another place,” says Bellerose. “But it also is a statement to have public work in a space that has a colonial history of extractive industry or justifies the forcible removal of people from an area.”

The seed of inspiration for the mural came several years back when Bellerose facilitated an art workshop in Mînî Thnî (Morley), Treaty 7 territory. She was painting three women in front of the three mountains when a student asked her if she knew the story, and said one of the three sisters was their ancestor. Bellerose was surprised to learn about an untold Stoney Nakoda story of the mountains, the details of which, as is custom in Indigenous history and storytelling, are passed down orally. 

After Canmore put out a call for Indigenous artists to submit their work, Bellerose was contemplating the context of Canmore, and what people see. “Those mountains inspire a lot of people in the area.”

Bellerose and Bearspaw were inspired by the Stoney Nakoda people and the opportunity to “[honour] the land in the area, [by] looking at the Indigenous roots and presence within the mountains,” says Bellerose, who also has adoptive connections to the Stoney Nakoda people. 

“What I love about art is that when you look at it, it welcomes you into conversation. It doesn’t turn you away,” explains Bellerose.

“Our culture is beautiful and art is part of our culture, it’s so deeply rooted in so many parts of our culture through our ceremonies, our language—art is weaved into everything,” says Bellerose.

To Bellerose, having the piece of art so prominently displayed and being the first Indigenous artists to create a public piece for Canmore is both meaningful as well as, hopefully, a gateway to more opportunities for Indigenous artists.  

“It’s a privilege to be able to be an artist because I know my grandmother went to residential school and never had the kinds of opportunities that I have today. I don’t take them for granted,” says Bellerose. “My ancestors had to go through a lot, so just making work in the public sphere, I feel a really big responsibility to share these stories in a good way.” 

To learn more about Canmore and Kananaskis’s colonial history, visit this link


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