This essay I wrote for Studio Magazine FW 2020 edition on Ruth Cuthand, an artist of Plains Cree, Irish and Scottish heritages who creates virus and bacteria-inspired beaded artifacts.
RUTH CUTHAND’S BEADING INFORMS AND ACTIVATES HISTORY: Ruth Cuthand’s beaded artifacts trace the continued health impact of colonialism and globalization on Indigenous communities.
by ASIA CLARKE
To the observer interested beyond beauty and vibrance, lies an understanding that the abhorrent and the admirable are two sides of the same bead. The beadwork — intricate, colourful and intentional — illustrates the often unseen and inadequately addressed implications of germs and viruses spread through settler colonialism, trade and globalization in Indigenous communities. The disproportionate spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities indicates a vulnerability that still persists today.
Ruth Cuthand’s introduction to beadwork started as a necessity to teach it to others. From 1983 to 2016, Cuthand developed and taught Indigenous art history at the University of Saskatchewan and studio courses in traditional Indigenous art practices like painting, sewing and beading at the First Nations University of Canada. As an exercise, she assigned pictures to her students as a reference for a new beadwork design. By basing the beadwork assignments on a painting, they would have to engage viscerally with the picture’s content. Similarly, Cuthand engages deeply in her own life experience and cultural heritage with the current topic she has chosen: viruses.
The beadwork viruses are not anti-aesthetic, I think they’re really beautiful. And I think that’s what kind of sucks people into them. They’ll look and go “Oh look at that beadwork. Oh wow, look at all those colours!” Then they realize that it’s actually viruses and they will be repulsed by it. I really like the pull and push of the work.
Scientific research and critical curiosity feed her art practice. Cuthand has always been fascinated with viruses and their impacts on society. Having grown up in communities that had experienced many viral and bacterial outbreaks, stories from her youth are bookmarked with experiences of quarantine, isolation, and survival. Stories of disease and communal experiences of resilience were passed down to her. In 1919, her father contracted influenza as a small child. She remembers being told that her great-grandfather wrapped his toddler body in a bear robe and sang a healing song over him until he got better.
Cuthand is acutely aware of how deeply her art is connected to her Plains Cree, Irish and Scottish heritages, as well as intergenerational trauma and resilience. As a child growing up in Cardston, Alberta, near the Blood Reserve, Cuthand witnessed other children at her school coming down with various illnesses. She recounts memories of isolation and solitude when she contracted measles, mumps and chickenpox. Now, based in Saskatoon, she describes herself as mostly an introvert who loves to spend time alone. The pandemic lock-down of 2020 has not produced much change in her art practice.
Since 2006, Cuthand has been creating beaded pieces that offer commentary on critical moments in Indigenous-settler relations over the last 300 years. Through intricately beaded discs, Cuthand transforms the unsightly into art that is uniquely compelling, and analyses colonialism through the spread of disease in the host body and in communities.
When early settlers started expanding and exploring down through the rivers, I don’t think they were thinking about the health impacts of what they were doing. They just wanted to make a fortune and leave. But it caused all kinds of problems.
Through her previous works, Cuthand traces and encapsulates diseases linked to colonization and globalization. The bead as a medium for this artistic expression refers to colonialism and its impacts on Indigenous communities. Inexpensive glass beads were traded for furs, and they replaced the method of using porcupine quills to adorn clothing and accessories.1
The Trading series explored the relationship between new diseases and goods that initial settlers and traders brought to the Americas. In this series, Cuthand created 12 images of viruses, 11 of which were beadwork pieces of viruses brought by the Europeans to Indigenous populations (such as influenza, bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria, chickenpox, yellow fever and whooping cough). The one new illness brought back to Europe was syphilis, and Cuthand chose quillwork for the syphilis piece to symbolize the artistic method that was phased out by the ease of beadwork.
Cuthand has also created works that explore the intentional and unintentional implications of Indigenous relationships with institutions of power, and the negligence that has led to adverse health outcomes for Indigenous communities. Coupled with her research around smallpox, she created an installation comprising Canadian Armed Forces blankets with images of the smallpox virus beaded into them. In this installation, she refers specifically to General
Jeffrey Amherst, who, in a deliberate attempt to spread smallpox, gave blankets and handkerchiefs used by sick smallpox patients to Indigenous communities.2
[Amherst] gave out blankets and handkerchiefs that he got from the infirmary that had the smallpox outbreaks to two Shawnee Indians. And that was a deliberate attempt to spread smallpox, which it did, unfortunately. From there, smallpox just spread all across North America. It was highly contagious, and people didn’t know what it was, so they would try to take care of each other, and then they would get sick. They would then go over to the next band of people to see if they could help until it just went crazy. It was a deliberate form of genocide.
The abhorrent and the admirable are present in this instance of disease propagation, stemming from a blanket and handkerchief’s cursed gift. Just like many diseases and viruses, they propagate from our social behaviour. Humanity’s strength and weakness is the desire to care.
Cuthand’s Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink series further investigates the potential negligence of the Canadian government to address living conditions on Canada’s reserves. In 2011, dangerous black mould was found on Attawapiskat First Nation homes.3 There are also many instances of contaminated water on reserves all across Canada—such as Grassy Narrows First Nation and the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.4 As an artistic exploration and commentary on this issue, Cuthand developed a beaded blue tarp with greatly magnified images of black mould and beaded magnified bacteria and parasites found in the 94 First Nations that currently have boil water advisories. The beaded blue tarp draped a table, upon which glasses and baby bottles with bright 3D beaded shapes were suspended within clear resin to signify viruses present in the water. This work was featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood exhibition in 2016.
Cuthand’s Reserving series investigates the impacts of viruses and diseases on reservation communities after 1876, when the Indian Act was signed and consequently led to government control and assimilation of many aspects of Indigenous life in Canada. The Reserving series looked at viruses and diseases like polio, pneumonia and tuberculosis. The Surviving series looks at infectious diseases from 1980 onward: from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to West Nile virus and now SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Cuthand’s rationale for choosing these diseases is directly related to the diseases’ disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities.
Design fiction refers to a design practise aiming to explore and criticize possible futures by creating speculative, often provocative, scenarios and artifacts. The artifact in Surviving: COVID-19 is a face mask, with a beaded image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on either side of the mask. Cuthand’s pieces critique the necessity for face masks, especially for vulnerable populations like the elderly, racialized and Indigenous populations. Upon learning about the international shortage of masks due to medical demand and doomsday hoarders, Cuthand began to consider the mask differently.
When I tell people that I bead, they ask me if I do moccasins and glovesbecausethat’swhatpeoplethinkaboutNativesandbeads. I wanted to make the bead more of a political statement than a craft. Through the beading, I’m talking about Indigenous communities and the potential for disease to harm us.
Cuthand also offers a critique of the function of the mask as a political statement about communal care. The mask acknowledges the potential of viruses to harm humans, not just physically — but emotionally, psychologically and socially. We have all had to adjust to social distancing guidelines which limit our potential for intimacy and closeness with friends, family and strangers. Cuthand’s beaded COVID-19 mask further entrenches the bead as more than a medium for craft but as a statement of intentional collective survival.
The beauty in the mask is also a testament to the beauty in all the uncertainty created by the global pandemic. Through Surviving: COVID-19, Cuthand creates cultural artifacts that signify an ongoing and psychologically disturbing relationship between germs and cultural artifacts. The cultural artifacts you can see, but viruses you cannot. Through the Reserving series, Trading series and Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink, Cuthand has used the bead to make what is invisible visible — allowing audiences to consider the impact of forces unseen on the lives of Indigenous communities.
Cuthand’s beaded pieces are constrained by a circle, to simulate the experience of looking through a microscope. Cuthand prioritizes herself as the viewer:
When I make work, I don’t think of the viewer. I just think of the viewer as being myself. If you’re a POC (person of colour), and you start thinking about the audience, the people who go to actually see our work are mostly white people. And I don’t want to consider them because if I consider them, then I have to educate them. And I don’t want to do that.
She is encouraged by the uptake and purchases of the pieces. “People are actually buying them, and I think they buy because it’s really pretty. I work with two expert beaders to complete the masks, and I pay them really well.”
Capitalism as a global system has caused all kinds of challenges for Indigenous communities, but SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that poses a significant threat to global capitalism as we know it. “Capitalism hasn’t died, but I’m hoping it will die soon,” Cuthand says.
More people are talking about guaranteed annual income/basic income projects, racial health disparities, and municipalities that have more compassionately addressed homelessness. Many artists and activists are envisioning a world beyond capitalism as we know it. They are pushing for brave and visionary new policies that pull at the very foundations of capitalist institutions and social contracts, such as police abolition, drug use decriminalization, prison reform and treaty rights.
The effects of COVID have been really interesting. Now more and more people are talking about guaranteed annual income. Which is something that we really need. And now they are talking about housing because of all the homeless people— how can they isolate?
Cuthand is inspired by how COVID-19 has motivated people to work together and encouraged solidarity between collectives fighting for equity and justice, like the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous sovereignty movements. She has participated in the Idle No More protest movement, led by Indigenous women working with non-Indigenous allies to protect Indigenous sovereignty and ecological integrity.5
People have had to come together and help each other as communities realized the government wasn’t going to help them, and that led to Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, and all the people of colour and white people showing up for the protests.
Cuthand is expanding her work past viruses, into mental health in Indigenous communities in Canada. She is keenly interested in addressing the prevalence of teen suicide and mental health problems happening on Canadian reserves. She plans to do this by making beaded images of brain scans of individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her upcoming work will be shown at Reflecting Dis-ease: eh Ateh pahinihk ahkosiwin— Rethinking Pandemics through an Indigenous Lens at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan, from July 20 to November 8, 2020, as well as at the Galleries at the University of Saskatchewan in January 2021.
1 Lois Sherr Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: from Prehistory to the Present (New York: Abrams, 2003).
2 Elizabeth A Fenn, “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst,” Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (2000): 1552, https://doi.org/10.2307/2567577.
3 Kristy Kirkup, “Mould Causing Housing Crisis for First Nations across Canada,
Says NDP,” Star, January 30, 2019, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2019/01/30 /mould-causing-housing-crisis-for-first-nations-across-canada-says-ndp.html.
4 Human Rights Watch, “Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis,” May 27, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/06/07/make-it-safe /canadas-obligation-end-first-nations-water-crisis.
5 Idle No More, “An Indigenous-Led Social Movement,” idlenomore.ca, 2020, https://idlenomore.ca/about-the-movement/.