Past, Present and Future Come Alive


Exhibit explores the remarkable 40-year career of Indigenous artist Faye HeavyShield


The crowds’ tone at the exhibition opening celebration might be reverent, only Faye HeavyShield is so down to earth. She addresses the assembly of family, friends, collaborators, and art goers. The spirit in the room is one of respect, support, and optimistic vision.

She offers thanks to family, inspirations and contributors. Although HeavyShield says that she regrets certain close relations are not present, she is “surrounded by family.” 

At the entrance, gallery text prepared by curator Felicia Gay reads, “Faye once told me that when a Blackfoot person travels far away and returns home, people will say, ‘Did you make any relatives?’” 

I can only imagine an answer.

The Art of Faye HeavyShield at the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary, presents artworks that span 40 years of her practice in a touring exhibit organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery of Regina.

The Nickle Galleries website informs us: “Faye’s work grows out of her experience as a Blood woman and cultural matriarch, resulting in a potent minimalist aesthetic that differentiates her from other senior artists of her territory.”

The MacKenzie Gallery states: “Faye HeavyShield entered the Canadian contemporary art scene during her third year at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Alberta in 1983 and has since inspired several generations through her work as an artist, mentor, and writer.”

The Exhibition

High ceilings and wide-open spaces are austere yet inviting. Dim lighting sets a sombre tone, like a stage set waiting for a story to play out.

The work is presented through the curatorial lens of Gay. Her practice brings forward Indigenous worldviews. She educates through the exhibition labels, “Within an Indigenous worldview, we believe that our ancestors watch over us and that time is fluid. What does it mean for Indigenous people that time is in flux? In some ways, it means that past, present, and future are intertwined. Our ancestors are not just in the past, they are here now, and they are in the future.”

This quote references the work of art titled aapaskaiyaawa (they are dancing), 2002. The cluster of 12 suspended sculptures, reminiscent of abstract moss bags or cradle boards, floats and gently shifts in response to the air current. Their animation lends to the effect that the spirits are present.

Through an Indigenous worldview, many things are animate and can interact; with effects that slip through time. From this viewpoint, objects in this exhibition, like objects in the natural world such as grass and water, can be animated. Suspend any disbelief; the objects on display are entities. They may call to you, and you may converse with them. Consider as well, that many of these object-entities are stored in museum collections across the country.

HeavyShield tells us, referring to Indigenous artworks in museums, “I speak Blackfoot to them so they can listen because they probably have not heard Blackfoot in a long time and are housed far away from their communities.”

The work Red Dress, 2008, continues this conversation. The garment appears akin to ceremonial Blackfoot dress, but museum tags hang from the collar instead of elk teeth.

HeavyShield, a living artist from a living community, created this multi-layered, artifact-like sculpture.

The exhibit text discusses further, “When museums acquire and integrate Indigenous art into their collections as ‘artifacts,’ it places Indigenous people outside social reality and suggests their culture is no longer alive. 

“I recall listening to my young son tell me what he was learning in his Grade 3 class about Indigenous people and culture. My son talked to me as if we no longer existed, he did not recognize himself in the narrative he was being taught.”

Following this line of thought, body of land, 2002-2022 is a living work of art that resides in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Aapaskaiyaawa (They are Dancing), 2002, acrylic on canvas ACRYLIC PAINT, BEADS, PLASTIC FILAMENT, 178X366X183 CM.

HeavyShield established a fluid agreement with the National Gallery to maintain this as a living artwork. She has access allowing her to add, detract, change, and repair the artwork overtime.

The label reads: “Body of Land is more than a body of work owned by an institution; it is a living culture, an embodiment of knowledge connected to place encapsulated in each conical structure thoughtfully placed on the wall.

“The cones are abstracted tipis stretched out onto the land. They represent the skin of our bodies, each line a story, a voice, a thought. I have heard it described what the tipis represented for individuals, but what I saw was the powerful, evolving, and inclusive nature of the encampment.”

HeavyShield herself says, “My environment includes family, language/narrative, the land. Each portrait is a body … of knowledge, histories, and stories both real and imagined.”

Photography restrictions of the National Gallery Collection limit us from sharing images of this artwork, you will have to investigate for yourself.

Internationally, many museums continue to develop policies of repatriation as part of reconciliation. The process by which museum artifacts are repatriated to communities is difficult and laborious; often there is no clear path. These artworks foster healthy engagement and discussion regarding power, display and use of these “artifacts.”

The forward-looking exhibit text reflects: “Causing narratives to shift from artifact to art, history to living culture, inanimate to animate and linear time to fluidity in time would reframe in healthy ways how we speak about and understand Indigenous nations on Turtle Island.”


While addressing a university community, curator Felicia Gay noted, “not every person can be a storyteller; it is often communities or loved ones that recognize and nurture this role in us.” 

No doubt, the community and loved ones that support Faye HeavyShield have recognized and nurtured her role.

We thank Faye HeavyShield; her family and inspirations. We thank the staff of the MacKenzie Art Gallery and Nickle Galleries. We thank MacKenzie curator Felicia Gay and in-house Nickle Galleries curator Michelle Hardy. We thank the land. Join the audience; contemplate the narratives, be grounded and share space with the art.

The Art of Faye HeavyShield at the Nickle Galleries at the Taylor Family Digital Library, University of Calgary runs September 21 – December 9. Free to the public. Open 9-4 weekdays, 11-4 Saturdays.