Curatorial Essay

For those willing to travel by a different route - indigenous art and placemaking installations

Cyclical Motion: Indigenous Art & Placemaking

Essay by Jenny Western, curator

The land upon which the University of Manitoba resides lies next to a waterway we call the Red River. This water brought life – plants, animals, people – through the area well before it was ever a bastion of formal academics and higher learning. Birchbark canoes, York boats, and steam powered paddle wheels all traversed this river, connecting people north and south. Later on, ox carts moved parallel to its shoreline, establishing the Pembina Trail that would eventually grow into the Pembina Highway that for many is the central artery to the U of M’s Fort Garry campus today. Cars and busses have been the main modes of transportation to campus over the last few decades with an increasing number of brave souls conquering Pembina by bicycle. The recent addition of bike lanes to Pembina highway has certainly made things easier for the bike commute but it wasn’t too many years ago that cyclists often opted to find alternate routes – back allies or monkey trails through the golf course – in order to avoid exhaust fumes, potholes, and the dreaded Jubilee underpass. However, once on campus the bicycle is a beautiful way to get around. It is quicker than walking, can be locked up almost anywhere, and gliding along upon the saddle of a bicycle offers a different lens through which to view the shifting landscape.

The UMCycle Bike Kiosk opened in 2017, a further encouragement to the promotion and maintenance of cycling culture on campus. It is located across from Migizii Agamik (Bald Eagle Lodge), which houses the University of Manitoba’s Indigenous Student Centre. The physical relationship between these two structures may seem incidental and yet the linkages between cycling cultures and Indigenous cultures is not something to be dismissed.

In the essay “Red (Pedal) Power: Natives, Bikes, and Anti-Colonial Art,” Métis artist and academic Dylan Miner writes: “While Indigenous people are not generally recognized as a significant cycling constituency, many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people have spent countless hours riding the modern-day descendent of the velocipede.” To Miner, the act of riding a bicycle can be a form of civil disobedience, one that turns colonization on its head by resisting über-industrialization and hyper-modernization. Not only can the bicycle offer a different lens through which to see the campus landscape, but that lens can also include a way of seeing the U of M from an Indigenous perspective. As such, the Indigenous Art and Placemaking Project has been a two-phase initiative wherein Indigenous artists use the bicycle as a starting point from which to present and uncover Indigenous ways of understanding and navigating the Fort Garry campus.

The first initiative of the project is “Untitled (Bike Rider),” a collaboration between artists Dee Barsy and Kenneth Lavallee. Painted on the side of the UMCycle Bike Kiosk, this large-scale mural’s bright colours and geometric shapes are visible from a long distance away. It is only upon closer inspection that the bike rider at the centre of the piece reveals its subtler details. Small dots of paint on the cyclist’s shirt and helmet reference the beading patterns of Métis culture. The bicycle’s handlebars depict a woven braided pattern that recalls both the Métis ceinture fléchée as well as a length of braided sweetgrass. The bicycle’s wheels are painted to resemble the colours of the First Nations medicine wheel. “Untitled (Bike Rider)” speaks of an active and ongoing Indigenous presence at the U of M; a presence that is rooted in knowledge of the past, a full participation in the present, and a steady eye on the future.  

The second phase brings together artists Ian August, Jaimie Isaac, and Niki Little to extend the creation of artwork out into the campus space. They responded with a series of signs placed throughout campus that cover a variety of topics: water rights, the Cardinal directions, Reconciliation, intergenerational teachings, the student experience, and Indigenous histories. These pieces are composed of laser-cut aluminum and coloured acrylic, affixed to hefty rocks sourced from the Fort Garry campus lands. Creating a flow through areas of campus only accessed by bike or on foot, the signs draw attention to stories and knowledges that are at times overlooked or ignored. This is a sort of way-finding on campus that allows for a different navigation of the landscape for those willing to travel by a different route.

Surrounded by the oxbow of the Red River and Pembina Highway closing its perimeter, the space claimed by the University of Manitoba is so much more than a university campus. The campus stands on Treaty One territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and the homeland of the Métis nation. The histories, the people, the knowledge, the memories, the aspirations that have passed through this space, that continue to pass through this space, and that will continue to pass through this space create a cyclical movement of sorts, one that the Indigenous Art & Placemaking Project aims to recognize and honour through the work of these artists and all those whose efforts have helped to make this project a reality.