Ruth Cuthand, acclaimed Saskatoon-based artist and recipient of the 2020 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, has been hard at work in her studio since the Coronavirus pandemic first began to escalate, adding COVID-19 to the long list of bacteria and viruses she has visualized in bead-work.
The original series of beaded diseases, Trading, and the two collections that followed, Reserving and Surviving, present visually powerful and socially relevant meditations on the complex relationships between Indigenous communities and settler populations. Cuthand uses beads, historically a commodity and currency as well as a symbol of asymmetry and exploitation, to depict the bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that were also 'traded' between Europeans and Indigenous communities. The work touches on numerous themes, historical and contemporary, that resonate to this day, poetically exploring the tensions between differing world views and perspectives: exploration and destruction; commerce and exploitation; official histories and lived experiences; the visible and the invisible.
Like most pathogens, the toll of this virus will not be felt equally by all; certain individuals and communities have been and will continue to be disproportionately impacted. Even still, as the pandemic cripples health care systems and devastates the global economy, the rarely acknowledged interrelationship between commerce and public health is laid bare as never before. A world order and economic system that seemed inescapable mere months ago is proven fragile and temporary as it buckles under the weight of a microscopic pathogen invisible to the naked eye. One simple truth: that the suffering of the few impacts us all, becomes impossible to ignore. In this context, Cuthand's works become more urgent, undeniably universal, and more relevant than ever before.
Ruth Cuthand is an acclaimed artist, born on Treaty 6 Land, of Plains Cree and Scottish ancestry. Her works have been exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally, and collected by individuals and institutions in Canada and abroad, including the National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, Global Affairs Canada, University of Saskatchewan, Princeton University Art Collection, Spencer Museum of Art - University of Kansas, Mendel Art Gallery, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Saskatchewan Arts Board, and Edmonton Public Library.
Sarah Milroy, chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, recently profiled Cuthand's COVID-19 works in an article on canadianart.ca. Canadian Art in the Time of Coronavirus offers an insightful consideration of Cuthand's works in relation to the pandemic:
"Ruth Cuthand, a Plains Cree artist born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, found a way to bear witness to these losses. Painstakingly, she beaded the viruses that had claimed so many lives, using as her material that tiny but captivating trade good at the heart of historic Indigenous/settler exchange. In recent weeks, Cuthand has revisited this series in light of the current pandemic and its potential to again decimate remote Indigenous communities. Her work invites us to consider the eerie design of the viral menace, and our human defencelessness before it, memorializing catastrophe and giving a face to a faceless foe." - Sarah Milroy