​Bringing beadwork to the National Gallery of Canada

This spring, colourful beaded high-top sneakers and a swirling celestial scene will join the work of artists from across the continent at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

The travelling exhibit Radical Stitch originated at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Sask. One of the largest beadwork exhibits in Canada, it features the work of more than 100 North American beadwork artists. It highlights pieces like colourful moccasins and multicoloured sculptures — all made of beads. Now, the exhibit is set to come to the National Gallery of Canada.

“You have all these amazing, talented artists [who] are bringing these ideas and concepts and wonderful time-consuming creations all to one space,” artist Nico Williams said. “It's such an honour to have it come to a gallery like the National Gallery and seeing people paying attention to such deep work.”

For time immemorial, First Nations, Métis and Inuit across North America have used beadwork to make clothing, textiles and art. The original exhibition included several pieces by Williams, like a stained and crumpled industrial-style washcloth and Mnidnoominehsuk | Spirit Berries, a vibrantly patterned geometric sculpture. Both pieces are made of meticulously stitched glass beads.

“I'll be attracted to certain objects that really resonate with people that they can relate to or know and experience,” Williams said. “I'm always trying to figure out a way to give a really awesome experience to people when they walk into a museum and look at the beadwork and question what could be made with it.”

For this exhibition, Sherry Farrell-Racette, one of three co-curators, said she wants to show pieces that push the boundaries of what beadwork can do.

At the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the exhibit has featured the work of more than 100 artists. Since then, it’s been displayed in Hamilton and Thunder Bay, Ont. But the cost of travel and lenders wanting pieces back will mean work from 36 artists will be showcased in Ottawa with additions from local and Inuit beadwork artists.

Williams’ work is set to tour to Ottawa, but he said he’s not quite sure which pieces will appear.

Farrell-Racette said she hopes exhibiting beadwork in the National Gallery of Canada can change perceptions about functional art.

“Beadwork, in particular, has been relegated to museum spaces [and] seen as being a historic art or souvenir craft. It carries a lot of baggage,” Farrell-Racette said. “We wanted to just release it from that baggage and celebrate it.”

Radical Stitch will open in the National Gallery of Canada in May, before moving south of the border to Indiana next fall.

Farrell-Racette said she hopes the exhibit inspires local artists.

“Often there are active beading circles associated with the exhibition when it’s installed, so people can look at work that inspires them and come back to do a different beading project,” she said. “We're hoping people are inspired. We hope that they feel really validated and affirmed.”