Cultural Spotlight – The Hands of Knowledge: female perspective

“The fact that these are women doing this work is great because look at the work, it’s phenomenal,” says artist Joanne Finlay. “It’s the knowledge that they carry, it’s the patience that they have.”

An exhibition curated by Finlay, titled The Hands of Knowledge, showcases, until Sept. 26, the work of six Indigenous women at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver. Hailing from the Ts’msyen Nation, Finlay has spent over 25 years working in the arts world.

Knowledge and representation

Hands of Knowledge highlights the themes of past, present and future. Finlay consciously chose only Indigenous women for the exhibition.

“These women are the hands of knowledge today and they’re passing it on to the future generations,” she says. “That’s how I came up with the name.”

Hands of Knowledge: Artist Gathering. | Photo by Joanne Finlay

Making space for the works of Indigenous women was a motivation for the curator to organize the exhibition. Once when reading an arts publication, Finlay saw a graph showing Indigenous women made up a tiny percentage of the artists featured in galleries and museums across Canada. A 2015 Canadian Art article points out that women of colour made up only three per cent of artists displayed across the country while men made up 64 per cent of all the artists on display.

“If you’re a woman of color or an Indigenous woman, your real work really doesn’t get seen, that’s just wrong,” says Finlay. “So I thought, you know what, I should do something about that.”

According to Canadian Arts, Vancouver galleries dedicated to Indigenous artwork, the artists are often predominantly men with little representation for women. Finlay, however, says that women of the coastal Nations have always had the knowledge to paint and carve.

“Who do you think fed those artists when they were carving and making that canoe?” asks Finlay. “The women are always there.”

With the help of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Finlay ensured that the artists of the Hands of Knowledge exhibition were well-paid in recognition for their commitment. The curator has only praise for artists’ dedication to their art while balancing it with their personal lives.

“They all have children, they have husbands, they have jobs, some of them and they balance it all,” says Finlay. “They do it all.”

History and inheritance

Hands of Knowledge displays robes, paintings and carvings created by the six artists. The knowledge conveyed through their work speaks to the themes of sight, time, the spiritual and the supernatural. The stories of the artists involved are intimately linked to family and personal histories inherited from their parents and grandparents. Passing much of that knowledge down was once criminally prohibited in Canada.

“The potlatch ban was lifted in 1951,” says Finlay. “It has not been that long since we’ve actually been able to make our masks and sing our songs.”

A potlatch is a feast and ceremonial gift-distributing ceremony among the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. It is a vital event for the governments and communities for the Nations of the Northwest Coast. Starting in 1885, the potlatch was banned by the Government of Canada until 1951 when the ban was eliminated from the Indian Act.

“When we were not allowed to do anything, we had to sneak into the forest and secretly learn and carry on our culture,” says Finlay.

The inheritance of knowledge and craftsmanship was also endangered by epidemics that exacted a huge toll on the coastal Nations. Their cultural heritage was greatly endangered by the deaths of artists, weavers and elders who carried that knowledge.

“We still do our art today and we’re still practicing our culture today, in spite of everything that’s happened to our people in our history,” says Finlay. “We are still standing here.”

Selecting the six artists for the Hands of Knowledge exhibition was not random. Every artist comes from Finlay’s own Ts’msyen people or Nations they had relationships with in history and the present.

“All of the Nations represented in this show are Nations we traded with,” says Finlay. “That’s also a significant thing to me because we still have connections to those Nations today.”

Having herself enjoyed a long career in the arts world, Finlay is glad to be able to help the careers of the chosen artists of the exhibition.

“I love the fact that I could promote these artists,” says Finlay. “You never know where this work might take them.”

For more information on the Hands of Knowledge, visit