The “political yet often humorous” work of one of Saskatchewan’s leading visual artists is the focus of a new exhibition at Remai Modern.
Ruth Cuthand, who was born in Prince Albert in 1954 and is currently based in Saskatoon, uses a variety of art forms — including drawing, painting and beading — as she explores the frictions between cultures, the failures of representation and the political uses of anger.
The new show, which opened on March 13 and is entitled Artist in Focus: Ruth Cuthand, highlights work from the Mendel Art Gallery Collection at Remai Modern, as well as two recent works courtesy of the artist. According to Remai Modern, both of Cuthand’s pieces reference the strategic and negligent ways disease has been used against Indigenous communities. She has received acclaim for her beaded works that depict some of the deadly viruses and bacteria that, through the impact of colonialism, have harmed Indigenous people.
“In my early work, I adopted a consistently anti-aesthetic stance, refusing to be stereotyped by forcefully rejecting the authority of both Western high art and traditional Aboriginal art and design,” Cuthand said in her artist’s statement. “In true anarchic style, however, I borrow freely from both when it suits my purposes. This approach has allowed me to challenge mainstream perspectives on colonialism and the relationships between ‘settlers’ and Natives.”
Cuthand, who is of Plains Cree and Scottish ancestry, grew up in Alberta near the Blood Reserve and met renowned artist Gerald Tailfeathers as a child. Cuthand went on to study art at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (BFA) in 1983 and a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) in 1992.
Cuthand has been a mentor to many young artists over the years. She taught art and art history at First Nations University of Canada for more than two decades, demonstrating traditional beading alongside contemporary art media. She has been an advisor and board member at TRIBE Inc., Canada’s first Indigenous artist-run organization, and has collaborated with curators at AKA artist-run and the Red Shift Gallery. Currently, Cuthand is teaching beading workshops on the USask campus through the artist-in-residence program of the University of Saskatchewan Art Galleries.
In 2013, Cuthand was honoured with a Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award. In 2016, she was recognized as one of the College of Arts and Science’s Alumni of Influence.
In a recent interview, Cuthand described the current exhibition at Remai Modern as a “collection show,” noting “it’s very different than if you’re showing new work.”
“It’s like a mini-retrospective, I guess. It’s got some work from the ’80s, when I finished my BFA, and it’s got some work from the ’90s,” said Cuthand.
“I find that in my art practice I’m not one of those artists that works with one medium and becomes a master of it,” she added.
“I like to work with different mediums depending on the project that I’m doing, and I tend to take one subject and kind of work on it and look at it from different angles. Then I’ll kind of select the media that I think is appropriate for it. So I find that gives me lots of room to move, and I really like learning new things.”
Cuthand said she started beading in the mid-2000s. Visitors to Remai Modern will see some of Cuthand’s beaded work on display, such as the 2009 pieces entitled Cholera and Yellow Fever. They come from her Trading series (2009 to present), the first series she did about disease and trading between Indigenous people and British settlers. There’s a dichotomy in the work; the viruses look beautiful and colourful in their beaded form, contradicting the dark and harmful history attached to them.
“I really like that push and pull,” said Cuthand.
Other pieces in the exhibition include early dress paintings Cuthand created in the 1980s, as well as works from her series Misuse is Abuse (1990). The exhibition was curated by Sandra Fraser, Remai Modern’s curator (collections), who chose permanent collection pieces representing pivotal moments in Cuthand’s more than 30-year career.
“Ruth has made a significant contribution to the art world and the wider community through her political, yet often humorous, work,” Fraser said in a Remai Modern news release. “Not only has her work made an impact, but her efforts as a mentor, teacher and leader have been invaluable for young artists and curators in this province and beyond.”
Ruth Cuthand: Artist in Focus will remain on view until July 14 at Remai Modern. For more information, go online to remaimodern.org.