The Celestial Tree inspires visions of collective action

Concordia alumnus, Skawennati, uses her piece, The Celestial Tree, to inspire visions of collective action. Photo by Mackenzie Lad.

Walk along the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne as Montreal’s history unfolds in Path of Resilience

Telling a story of transcendence, Path of Resilience presents three works spread out along the new Promenade Fleuve-Montagne created by Indigenous artists Maria Hupfield, Nadia Myre, and Concordia’s own BFA design graduate, Skawennati.

Commissioned by DHC/ART’s managing director and curator, Cheryl Sim, and established for Montreal’s 375th anniversary, the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne allows pedestrians to discover the city’s historical landmarks and public artworks.

Hupfield’s piece, Ka Pow !, can be found directly outside of the Square Victoria metro station, catching the attention of passersby. Inspired by comic book art, Hupfield arranged white cedar benches into action bubbles around a tree.

Maria Hupfield starts off the Path of Resilience with Ka Pow !, an interactive sculpture aiming to unite passersby and inspire dialogue. Photo by Chloё Lalonde.

A few blocks further along the promenade, Myre’s piece illuminates the trees behind the St-Patrick Basilica with a string of fairy lights. The space is inviting. Wooden chairs are grouped together to form a strong sense of community, while the heart-wrenching story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young black slave who was tried and convicted for arson based on a widespread rumour in the 18th century, is narrated from a sound system in the trees. The piece, titled Histoire Revenue, reminds us of Montreal’s past injustices, forcing us to be aware of all the anguish held within this land.

Skawennati’s piece is much further along the path, sitting in front of the Royal Victoria Hospital at the corner of Pine Avenue West and McTavish Street. The Celestial Tree is at the highest altitude of the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne. “I wanted to take the image of She Falls for Ages—which is the central image of Skyworld, a very important image in Iroquois cosmology and Iroquois traditional stories—and put it in the city, using materials and processes that are [as] recognisable as the city,” the artist said.

The body of the tree is a large stop sign post, and it’s branches are thick pieces of metal coated in reflective paneling.

The installation refers to the Concordia alumna’s upcoming machinima (a new media production), She Falls for Ages. As a way of opposing modern animation aesthetics, Skawennati chose to work with Second Life. Similar to Sims, the platform allows for immense creative freedom under some technical limitation. This approach is entirely specific to the artist’s body of work. When she began using the platform in 2007, Second Life, a “massively multiplayer online world” otherwise known as a virtual environment, really represented the future of modern social interaction. To be released in October 2017, She Falls for Ages will be a feminist, futuristic, utopian retelling of the First Nations’s creation story.

Today, many Indigenous stories are not known by their own people. Skawennati said she believes everyone should be familiar with them, as these stories are the foundation of the city of Montreal. The story of Skyworld, otherwise known as the First Nations’s creation story, adds a dimension to the Iroquois people and heritage that is not widely known, she explained. The Iroquois are often seen as warriors, fighters and troublemakers, and in Skawennati’s words, “knowing the creation story allows you to understand that it’s all about peace and love for creation”.  

The six bright colours of the flowers depicted on The Celestial Tree match the skin tones of the citizens of Skawennati’s Skyworld. By using these colours, she said she wants to call all people, no matter their race, to seek awareness and fight for a brighter, inclusive future. Skawennati strives to inspire collective action, providing various visions of what could be, while on her own path of learning more about her Mohawk heritage.

In the most common version of their story, the people of Skyworld live quietly and happily, knowing nothing of death and inequality. Instead, their day-to-day lives revolve around the maintenance of the Celestial Tree. The tree sits inside a hole to the universe, and provides light to all the land, according to the myth.

In the original story, one of the sky women realises she is pregnant. Her husband, the guardian of the Celestial Tree, becomes so angry that he rips the tree from its roots, revealing the massive hole in the universe. Curious, Sky Woman, peers into the hole and her husband pushes her in.

In She Falls for Ages, the Celestial Tree grows weak, and the people of Skyworld know that their time is coming to an end. The Celestial Tree guardian’s wife, here named Otsitsakáion, volunteers to jump into the abyss with child and serve as the seed of the new world.

In all versions of the story, Sky Woman “falls for ages,” eventually landing on the backs of geese, who place her on the back of a turtle. At this time, the Earth was simply water, devoid of land, and Sky Woman makes it her duty to create it. With the help of small animals, she was eventually able to grow shrubbery. As time passed, Turtle Island grew from a small mound of dirt on a turtle’s back, into what we now know as North America.

On display until Nov. 30, Path of Resilience tells a story of transcendence. The installations start by gathering people of all kinds together, encouraging them to acknowledge the history of the place in which they live—a necessary process in moving towards a unified future.

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