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A dance with paint

Chief Jasen Benwah of Benoit First Nation with Kassandra Simon. – Submitted photo

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

CODROY VALLEY — Kassandra Simon, an Indigenous artist with strong ties to the West coast of the province, has had her project, Art Mawoi’mi, selected as one of the nine Canadian projects to be part of the Riopelle Dialogues Program, one of the most ambitious cultural mediation programs in Canada. The Riopelle Dialogues Program is a Canada-wide program started by the Jean Paul Riopelle Foundation, in collaboration with the Department of Canadian Heritage and Culture Pour Tous. “One project was selected from each province except for Northwest Territories because no projects were submitted for that area. It’s the 100th Anniversary of the famous Canadian artist, Jean Paul Riopelle. It’s the 100th year since he was born,” explained Simon. “The Riopelle Foundation wanted to have a big celebration, a pan-Canadian event, to rediscover Riopelle’s important work. These nine projects, this big Riopelle Dialogue program, it’s all happening together, pan-Canadian, sea to sea. My project is local, happening here on the island, but we’re all moving together, this is one big project together.” Jean Paul Riopelle was a Canadian painter and sculptor from Quebec, an abstract expressionist best known for non-representational landscape paintings, and Simon wants to use his work as an inspiration within her own project. “I partnered with my band, Benoit First Nation, in Cape St. George, and together we submitted a proposal to have an art event on July 21, on the summer solstice, which is also known as National Indigenous People’s Day,” said Simon. “We wanted to gather the community, have everyone come together, and play with the paint, be very free. I call it a dance with paint. I will invite the children from the schools and all community members, and we will just make a big mess, almost like a mosaic – similar to Riopelle’s work – and I will come in after, when the paint is dry, and I will overlay some figurative forms.” Simon will blend Riopelle with her own heritage to create a one-of-a-kind piece for Benoit First Nation. “Some of the forms would be from Riopelle’s work. He had some images that he commonly used in his work like owls and snow geese, different things very common in his paintings, and I also want to include some Indigenous themes to represent Benoit First Nation. Some powwow dancers, maybe an eight-pointed star, and I want to let to the project unfold, to look at the finished project, and see what I see come through it.” Benoit First Nation was granted a piece of land, which is the perfect location for Simon’s project. “They are creating a new sacred space to hold powwows. In Mik’maq we call it Mawoi’mi, and so that is the name of the project, Art Mawoi’mi,” said Simon. “So to celebrate this first official Mawoi’mi for Benoit First Nation, and this new sacred space they are creating to hold future powwows, we wanted to have this mural that was created by the community to stand on the new powwow grounds.” Art Mawoi’mi is going to be a significant undertaking. “It’s going to be a large mural, it’s seven sheets of plywood, so it will be four feet by fifty-six feet, and it’s going to be a permanent installation. It will be on the north side of the powwow grounds, facing the dancers, facing the event. The Mawoi’mi is July 22 and 23, so that’s going to be the grand reveal of the project. That’s when it will be fully mounted on its permanent structure, the figurative overlay forms will be completed, and there will be a plaque describing the event and the project,” said Simon. Simon has collaborated with Benoit First Nation before. “I worked with them last summer and I painted nine murals for them as part of Mik’maq heritage. They wanted Mik’maq culture, history, and identity in murals, so I did three for the St. George’s Indian Band, which can be seen on the side of their language centre, and the others are for Benoit First Nation in Cape St. George.” All winners who have been selected for the project will receive a grant, as well as customized support to help them realize their projects. “I’ve been doing Zoom meetings with the Riopelle Foundation to discuss the project, help realize the project, and they allotted us some mentorship. They’re connecting us with other artists who have done more cultural mediation projects so we can learn from each other,” said Simon. “I feel really proud that they liked my idea and I’m able to do this large-scale project because this is my first cultural mediation project, but it is also something that I’ve always been really passionate about, the importance of bringing art to the youth as well as re-identifying with my Mik’maq culture. I feel really proud that I can do this at this stage of my life, take on such a big project.” After applying for the program, Simon received some beneficial guidance from the Riopelle Foundation. “There was a call for projects posted last year. I applied in October. I took on this project as an individual artist but I got permission and support from my band, Benoit First Nation, for the idea for the project. So when I applied, I said I wanted the community to come together to create a mural because they didn’t just necessarily want an art project, they wanted cultural mediation, community gathering, more than just a finished piece, so that’s where my idea stemmed from,” said Simon. “They came back and said they really love the project and want you to be involved in this program, but there were a few things they asked me to do. They wanted more community involvement, so I’m going to be visiting the schools around the Port au Port Peninsula to bring awareness of Riopelle’s work, this project, and the significance across Canada, where all these projects are coming together at the same time. Also I’ll be having a community meeting at the Benoit First Nation Centre, so it’s not just a one-day project. People have a little bit of time to think about it.” This project is about bringing the community together with mutual understanding and respect. “This project is definitely not only for people who identify as Mik’maq. This is open for everyone in the community. All across the island, we all are mixed heritage and I think it’s really important that we all respect each other’s cultures, and I think the act of coming together and creating something, it doesn’t matter what heritage you are, we are all here right now, creating this together. It’s more so understanding our cultural identity, as Newfoundlanders, as Canadians, right here and now, forgetting the history, forgetting the separate identities, and just being here, now, as Canadians. Riopelle was really passionate about learning the Indigenous culture. He lived for some time with a first nation in Quebec and he was really inspired by their culture and their sense of identity.”

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