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Art as medicine in a pandemic: Interview with Cree artist Natasia Mukash

November 7, 2020
Summary

As the pandemic advanced in the spring of 2020, the Cree Health Board approached Natasia Mukash, a visual artist based in Whapmagoostui, to create a set of images to convey health messages using a style rooted in Cree art

Content

The goal of the project was to portray Cree culture as resilent in the face of this new threat, and to show us how the Cree way of life and our knowledge of the land are sources of health and strength. In the interview below, Natasia talks about how she has dealt with her own feelings about the pandemic, her desire to contribute to the public health campaign, and her artistic approach.

Natasia, how did you feel when COVID-19 began to spread in Quebec, forcing us into lockdown?

When I first heard of the pandemic, I was worried about my family right away. I have family and friends who live in the south, mainly in and around Montreal. I asked my daughter who was working in Montreal to come home. I knew she would be safer here in Whapmagoostui. She had to leave Montreal almost immediately due to the lockdown. It was stressful. But, I felt like we were doing the right thing.

In Whapmagoostui we followed all the health protocols. We had curfew, school was cancelled and we all began to feel the pressure of the having to live even more in isolation. Public places like the grocery stores were restricted to one person per household and that’s difficult when you live with a family of eight or more in one house, which is a reality for us as Indigenous families.

At some point we decided to spend our days at the cabin out on the land to get away. But even there we didn’t feel safe. We had many outsiders coming into our community. My children were there and we began to feel unsafe. Like everyone else, nothing felt safe anymore.

Even as some of the restrictions began to lift the curfew was still in place. Imagine having to stay in your home even when the sun hasn’t set. For us up north, sometimes all we have is the sunset to ease our minds. Locals gather along the bay to watch the sunset almost everyday. Even that was taken away. Things were getting difficult and our mental health was being tested.

I believe it’s important for us as Eeyou/Eenou artists to get involved in creating art that will be significant to future generations. It is a historical artefact. Art, photography and telling stories are crucial. What is even more crucial is creating relateable content for our people through our eyes and first-hand experiences.

What was your reaction when the Cree Health Board contacted you about collaborating on a COVID-19 prevention campaign?

Initially, I wasn’t sure I was the right person to make this art. I felt living in Whapmagoostui, an isolated community, that I didn’t quite understand what it was like to live where there were COVID-19 cases. How could I relate? People around me reassured me, reminding me that we were indeed all living and dealing with the pandemic. I began to feel more at ease and ready to do the work. I felt it was time to create art that felt safe for everyone.

In the midst of a pandemic, what do you want to convey to your audience with this project?

I believe it’s important for us as Eeyou/Eenou artists to get involved in creating art that will be significant to future generations. It is a historical artefact. Art, photography and telling stories are crucial. What is even more crucial is creating relatable content for our people through our eyes and first-hand experiences.

What do you hope this COVID-19 awareness campaign will achieve in Eeyou Istchee?

The images I created depict what we have been doing on a daily basis since the beginning of the pandemic. It has become the norm for us all. My 5-year-old daughter always tells us to “wash your hands” and she is the one to reassure us that everything will be okay. We don’t realize how resilient our children and our people are until something like this hits. These images are for everyone to see and understand, with or without words.

Where did you get the inspiration to create these four beautiful images?

I had to think about this project for a while before I could create any of these images. What did they mean to me? How can I make sure they speak without words? I thought of my young daughter and how she understood what we needed to do in order to be safe from COVID-19. What did it mean for us as Eeyou/Eenou? What we see in our daily lives, the land, the medicines, the people and our loved ones are the most important. I kept that in mind when creating these images.

What do you think the audience will take away from these images?

I didn’t want to be too clinical in the type of artwork I created. This is the perspective of a mom, wife, daughter, sister, aunt; of someone who is living the pandemic. I wanted to reach the people, the children, the Elders. I wanted to show how important it is to do this in our daily lives, this is our normal now and that it’s okay. We learn to adapt and to keep our families safe. I wanted to show that is the way to do it, with these artworks.

Artwork: Man and woman wearing masks, standing next to each other

"I thought of my young daughter and how she understood what we needed to do in order to be safe from COVID-19."

"I didn’t want to be too clinical in the type of artwork I created. This is the perspective of a mom, wife, daughter, sister, aunt; of someone who is living the pandemic."

Artwork: Mother puts mask on child
Artwork: Washing hands

"The images I created depict what we have been doing on a daily basis since the beginning of the pandemic. It has become the norm for us all. My 5-year-old daughter always tells us to “wash your hands” and she is the one to reassure us that everything will be okay."

"What did it mean for us as Eeyou/Enou? What we see in our daily lives, the land, the medicines, the people and our loved ones are the most important. I kept that in mind when creating these images."

Artwork: Man and woman walking on the land

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