Algonquin College mural portrays an Indigenous creation story
July 12, 2018
There’s a dark-eyed moose. A soaring eagle. Sweetgrass and strawberries. And, not to be ignored, the giant turtle on whose back rides a cluster of birch-bark lodging and a great pine tree – the tree of life.
Welcome to Algonquin College’s latest showcase of Indigenous artwork. Nearly seven months in making, the three storey-high painting depicting Indigenous cosmological symbols is now on display outside the Indigenous Commons in the first floor of the DARE District.
“This (mural) acknowledges the creation story of many Indigenous peoples,” says Ron Deganadus McLester, the College’s Executive Director of Truth, Reconciliation & Indigenization. “It’s definitely a piece that links our shared cosmology.”
That was the intention, according to the painting’s husband-and-wife creators, Shalak Attack and Bruno Smoky.
The couple were approached by Ron several months ago to do the mural, after they’d been recommended by Brook McIlroy, the Toronto architectural firm that designed the Indigenous Commons and Gathering Circle.
Based on their reputation and experience, it was clearly a smart choice. The couple has garnered an international reputation over the last decade for their large-scale wall murals, both outdoor and indoor. While currently based in Toronto, they’ve worked throughout North and South America as well as in Europe and parts of the Middle East and Africa.
“My greatest pleasure is to paint in communities, bringing art and culture to otherwise forgotten and precarious neighbourhoods,” said Bruno, who emigrated from Brazil to Canada five years ago.
If there’s a constant theme in their paintings, it is that of paying homage to Mother Earth – a theme that certainly accords with traditional Indigenous culture. As Shalak, a Canadian whose family is originally from Chile, puts it: “We are always trying to honour nature in our world, but there are also a lot of Indigenous elements in what we do.”
That thematic blend is evident in this latest mural. The painting, which stretches in height three full storeys from the first floor to the third-floor ceiling of the DARE District, portrays in its various symbolic elements – birds and animals, rivers and fish, forests and strawberries, etc. – a creation story to which some Indigenous peoples subscribe.
Once upon a time, say some Indigenous oral histories, Sky Woman fell to earth when it was all ocean. In an attempt to save her from drowning, several animals tried to bring up dirt from the sea bottom that would create land. A muskrat finally succeeded, placing a patch of dirt on a turtle’s back. That dirt grew to become the North American continent with all its vast forests and abundant wildlife.
“Many (Indigenous people) shared this idea that where we lived is called turtle island,” says McLester, noting that the mural reflects the “distillation and interpretation” of a lengthy consultation with both Indigenous elders and Algonquin College students.
Beginning in January, Shalak and Bruno met with both groups in a series of meetings that produced many of the elements eventually incorporated into the mural. “There was a lot of back-and-forth discussion,” says Shalak. “They told us what they really wanted to see. Everybody loved the turtle.”
The couple began the painting last week, with Bruno applying an acrylic base and then using spray paint and rollers to complete it before applying a coat of varnish.
The result, says Shalak, is a work “that celebrates the human imagination.”